Mikado’s Closing Is A Historic Loss For Downtown

Mikado owner Connie Lee with her her arms crossed smiling.
“We have some customers who have been coming for 10 or 20 years, and they’ve helped sustain us,” says Mikado owner Connie Lee.

Mikado, the family-owned Japanese restaurant that was built from the ground up on the corner of Georgia and Illinois streets in 1997, will close for good in December. While it would be reasonable to think it is joining the long, disheartening list of spots that couldn’t survive the hit that COVID-19 took on the restaurant industry, the daughter of Mikado matriarch Yu-Mei Lee describes it as something more straightforward. The family’s 24-year lease runs out at the end of the year, and the landlord told them he wanted to go in a different direction. “I’ve felt every emotion,” says Connie Lee. “Anger, sadness, denial—all the stages of grief.” 

Connie, who has managed the restaurant for more than a decade (in addition to having previous roles as a server, dishwasher, sushi chef, and cook), was a 19-year-old comparative literature student at Indiana University when her mother opened Mikado in the same year that Titanic was released and Princess Diana was killed. Yu-Mei Lee worked closely with the late Tamara Zahn, founder of Downtown Indy, who was a key player in the revitalization of downtown at a time when there were only a handful of sit-down restaurants, with little to no minority representation. 

That corner of downtown was just a dirt lot when the city approached Lee about coming to Indianapolis. Lee, whose husband died in 1992, had three restaurants with her parents, sisters, and brother at the time—Szechwan Restaurant in Greenwood, The Wok in Bloomington, and the first iteration of Mikado, also in Bloomington. Eventually, all three were sold to focus on the downtown venture. The family also opened Shanghai Lil in 2003 on the north side of Indianapolis near The Fashion Mall, but it closed in 2014 after a devastating fire.

Lee is from Taiwan, and she hired Japanese chefs for Mikado. The sushi rice recipe is more than 200 years old and hasn’t changed since the restaurant opened. She was in the restaurant every day, learning to make sushi and talking with her customers. “She has broken English,” Connie says, “but she understands everything, and people understand her. She’s much better at the front of house than I am. She can charm any table.”

When Mikado opened, there was nothing like it in town. It felt fancy, especially for Indiana in 1997. There were large leather booths for fancy people, private rooms for fancy people, hibachi tables for fancy people. If the Kardashians were Hoosiers in the late ’90s, they would have shown up at Mikado with a camera crew to capture them in a private nook, dining at low, tatami tables behind sliding wood doors.

A woman sets a table
Setting the table in one of the Mikado’s private dining rooms.

There was the time Alec Baldwin was accidentally turned away because the server who answered the phone didn’t know who he was. He eventually found his way to someone who did recognize the name, and they asked Connie what to do since the restaurant was fully booked. “We had one table open, and it was the worst seat in the house, a hibachi table that we didn’t use for that purpose anymore,” Connie says. “He took the table and was very kind, honestly.” 

Then there was the long friendship between Lee and Reggie Miller. “He was a regular at the restaurant when he played for the Pacers, and he loved her fried rice. She would make it for him and take it to the fieldhouse. They let her in because they knew her,” Connie says. “My grandpa was still alive then, and he and my mom were big basketball fans. Reggie had two seats for them inside his suite at the fieldhouse for every single game.”

Employees at Mikado stick around for a very long time—the sous chef has been there for more than 20 years, and one of the servers started when the restaurant opened and never left. Even employees who moved on to other careers—lawyers, teachers—come back to help during conventions and other busy events downtown. 

Though Connie has worked in her family’s restaurants since she was 6 (“Child labor is not a thing when it’s a restaurant family,” she laughs), it wasn’t until she was at IU that she decided to formally pursue a culinary career. She left Bloomington a few credits shy of graduation (a regret that still haunts her) and went on to get a degree in culinary arts at the Cordon Bleu in San Francisco. Though she loved California and considered staying there, family ties brought her back to the Midwest. She lived briefly in Chicago, where she worked at several restaurants, including the celebrated Charlie Trotter’s. But she drove back to Indy every weekend to work at Mikado.

The family always intended to re-up the lease when the original 1997 contract ran out. The 24-year lease when they built the restaurant was a sign of good faith to the family that the city wanted them to be there for the long haul. When it became clear in the last few months that the landlord was firm on the decision to move on, the Lee family wrestled with the emotions of closing the business after more than two decades. “It’s a weird feeling,” says Connie. “Of course we want to stay there. It’s an amazing location. We survived the recession of 2008. We survived the demolition of the RCA Dome. We survived the shutdown of Georgia Street for over a year when the city was preparing for the 2012 Super Bowl and there were dumpsters parked six inches from our windows. We survived the pandemic. We aren’t closing because business is bad. We’re closing because we don’t have a choice.” 

And it’s not just the impact on her own family that Connie thinks about. “I think a women-owned, minority-owned business like ours will be missed downtown,” she says. “I didn’t realize how important it was to have something like that until the last five or so years. It’s important to have representation in the city.”

While Connie works on winding things down in the restaurant (everything that is attached must stay, and everything else can go or be sold by the family), she is thinking a lot about the legacy of Mikado. When asked what she’s most proud of, the answer comes easily and fast: “The way we treat our people. And I think it shows in the length of time the employees have worked here.” Her mom has always provided health insurance for the staff, and Connie added 401(k) matching funds, a rarity in the restaurant world. (Both had to be put on pause during the pandemic.) She also plans to provide a severance for employees when Mikado closes. “I’m really proud of that because most restaurants don’t give severance,” she says. “I want to provide at least one month, and if business is really good here at the end, it could be more.” 

As for herself, Connie is thinking of what she wants to do next and hopes to open a small Hawaiian barbecue restaurant, where a typical plate includes marinated meat like short ribs or chicken, rice, macaroni salad, and cabbage. Her future customers can expect plenty of Spam, including the Spam Musubi that Lee shared with us in May of 2020. “I was born in Hawaii,” she says, “and I’ve always talked to my friends about wanting to open a place that focuses on that kind of food.” Her uncle has a busy Hawaiian barbecue restaurant in Chicago called Aloha Eats, and she has seen it work for him since 2004. “It’s delicious,” she says. “If you want good Hawaiian food, go there. And it’s a perfect pandemic model because it’s mostly carryout.” 

For now, though, it’s all about Mikado and taking care of the people who made it a downtown institution. “I know people hate saying it’s like family, but when someone’s been working with you for over 20 years, it really does feel like family to me,” she says. “They come over to my mom’s house for food. They help her mow her lawn. I don’t know what other word to use. We are a family.”