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Biz Beat

Modesto’s Torii restaurant sold; new owners have big plans for iconic karaoke spot


If you’ve lived in Modesto for any length of time over the last 30 years, odds are you ended up at Torii Japanese Restaurant at some point, if not to eat then maybe after a couple of drinks.

The Japanese restaurant in east Modesto’s Century Center has gained a reputation over the years as one of the city’s busiest and most boisterous karaoke bars. That combined with the built-in dinner-and-a-show created by its teppanyaki menu made it one of the valley’s more unique dining experiences.

But now the Modesto institution, which for decades was owned by Mei Hill and her family, has been sold. The new local owners plan to keep the Torii party spirit alive, but in a newly renovated and refreshed space. And they’ve got the restaurant experience to back it up.

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Co-owner Danny Zeng, who is working with a group of local partners, also owns Fumi Sushi on Standiford Avenue and Kimoto Sake & Sushi on McHenry Avenue.

“I was looking for more space to be able to open something different,” Zeng said. “I have two restaurants already, so we didn’t want to make it the same as those. A lot of people already know (Torii), and we thought, let’s do this. We’re going to clean it up, refresh it. We’re excited to be doing this.”

Torii in Modesto has been sold and its new owners plan to renovate and refresh the space. An exterior of the business is pictured Thursday May 16, 2019. Joan Barnett Lee

The restaurant closed Monday to begin cleanup and renovations. Already much of the old furniture has been removed. The redesign will update the dining areas — including the large built-in teppanyaki grills, which sit in the middle of its tables — as well as the karaoke lounge. A new sushi bar will also be built as part of the upgrades.

First opened in January 1983 at the back of the Century Center shopping center, Torii was founded by restauranteur George Tani, who also ran a Japanese restaurant in Stockton. The theatrical style of Japanese teppanyaki cooking was made popular by national chains like Benihana. But a few years after opening, Tani sold the place to Mei Hill, whose family ran it until selling to Zeng and partners earlier this year.

They will need to bring the 36-year-old restaurant up to code, including making it more ADA compliant. It will be shut two to three months while work is completed, with an optimistic reopening date of mid-July. In the meantime, they are hiring additional staff.

The current staff of about a dozen employees has been offered positions when the restaurant reopens, Zeng said. They are also currently hiring for a number of other positions including servers, chefs, bartenders and more. Resumes can be dropped off at Kimoto Sake & Sushi, on the corner of McHenry and Briggsmore avenues. Zeng said he plans to hire 30 to 40 people.

The teppanyaki grill at Torii Japanese Restaurant in Century Center shopping center in Modesto, Calif. (L-R): Chef Travis Lawerence cooking for large group in Bee file photo from Nov. 1, 2004. Bart Ah You Modesto Bee

Brandon Dodge, general manager of Kimoto Sake & Sushi and one of Zeng’s business partners on Torii, said they aren’t trying to make the restaurant another Fumi or Kimoto. Each restaurant has its own identity and customer base, he said. Fumi, which opened about seven years ago in north Modesto, is a more traditional Japanese restaurant. Kimoto, which opened almost four years ago in central Modesto, has attracted a sports crowd.

Torii, Dodge said, will keep its name (though the logo will be updated) and its beloved karaoke atmosphere. Century Center has long been a nexus for late-night karaoke fans, with regulars lining up to sing at either Torii or its center neighbor Ridgway’s.

“Torii is like a right of passage,” Dodge said. “Everyone has had a birthday or a graduation or bachelorette party there. That’s something we want to keep going — the fun atmosphere.”

Follow updates on the Torii renovations on the restaurant’s new Instagram page

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