Sushi Roku Turns 20: How 3 L.A. Jewish Guys "Sexed Up" Raw Fish

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Lee Maen (left) and Philip Cummins closed their Third Street location in 2015 but still operate five others.

Founders Lee Maen and Philip Cummins reveal how they redefined the genre with a menu that drew stars like Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow: "It was packed from day one."

Two decades ago, the places that served raw fish were staid or sake-bomb bonanzas. Then came genre-bending Sushi Roku on Third Street near the Beverly Center. On their 20th anniversary, founders Lee Maen and Philip Cummins discuss how they sexed up sushi.

MAEN We had a club called The Gem on Melrose, and we didn’t want to be in that business forever. It wasn’t healthy.

CUMMINS Back then, there were three kinds of sushi places in L.A.: mom-and-pop strip mall, party places where you’d get hammered and Matsuhisa, which was amazing but pricey.

MAEN Our idea was to mix the food from Matsuhisa, its fusion and its quality, with a place that was cool and featured a full liquor license.

CUMMINS Also, we wanted to bring the cost of a meal down enough so it could be a once-a-week space for our crowd.

MAEN It was the two of us and our partner Craig Katz — three Jewish white guys.

CUMMINS The investors included Tori Spelling, who was hot back then, and Disney execs Larry Murphy, Richard Nanula and Kevin Mayer.

MAEN This set designer, Dodd Mitchell, did the interior. It was modern Zen but felt like it’d been there for 20 years, with Japanese millwork. You felt transported.

CUMMINS We weren’t competing against sushi restaurants. It was restaurants appealing to our crowd that were strong on atmosphere: The Little Door, Chinois, Chaya, Maple Drive, Dan Tana’s, Michael’s.

MAEN It was packed from day one, a machine. You’d have Jennifer Aniston with Brad Pitt. Gwyneth Paltrow, George Clooney. Kevin Huvane was very loyal. Drew Barrymore lived there.

CUMMINS The toughest thing was just getting the fish — particularly the best toro. The markets had allegiances. We were looked at as outsiders.

MAEN People started copying. Koi was the first one to really come after us. I won’t say Nobu followed us, but I will say his later places definitely stepped up their design game.

CUMMINS Our albacore with crispy onions is now on every menu. The same with seared yellowtail with diced chilies and drizzled olive oil.

MAEN We really knew we’d made it when, instead of begging for fish at the market, we started arriving and seeing boxes with our label on them, sitting right next to Nobu’s.

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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