James Park grew up in Charleston, S.C. in the ’90s and early 2000s. He used to take the bus after school and make his way to the Ansonborough neighborhood where his parents — Hae Gon “David” and Misa Park — kept their restaurant Shiki running smoothly through lunch and dinner services. At the public library on Calhoun Street, James sometimes browsed in the book stacks or played on the computers, played in the park behind the strip mall on East Bay Street with his sisters, or played inside the restaurant, experimenting with making sushi until he had to wash dishes or it was time for his parents to shut the lights off and close for the night.
These days, he’s the one shutting off the lights. Committing to the restaurant life “kind of snuck up on him,” he says, and now Shiki, Charleston’s oldest sushi restaurant, has a new restaurateur, a new look, and new buzz about town, making it one of the hottest tables in Charleston in a city filled with buzzy restaurants.
“We are still the same people, the people that have been making your food for years,” James says, “but my goal was to get them [my parents] more time. They’ve worked so hard, so it’s now their time to relax.”
There hasn’t been much relaxing going on at Shiki as of late. When the dining room shut down during the pandemic lockdown in March 2020, and the business began operating (like so many) on a takeout and delivery basis, James saw an opportunity for a personal and professional transition. The restaurant had been open since 2001 — “there used to be a Blockbuster Video store over there,” he remembers, pointing at the corner of the complex — and while Shiki had served generations of diners faithfully, its space was beginning to show some age.
Now things are elegant, minimalistic and chic. Gone is the carpet and many of the knick-knacks. In is a new banquette that allows for more efficient seating and service, a bathroom reno with subway tile and a bidet, and a wine list featuring small, thoughtful producers. And chairs? Those are new too, but you probably won’t get one without a reservation.
“A busy sushi restaurant is a good thing,” James says. “We’ve been able to bring on more help, run through more product, and because we’re able to use things more quickly, we’re able to take some risks and source even better product because we know we will use it. These days, smarter eaters expect more, and so it’s my responsibility to get the best I can, to keep improving.”
Chef David’s presence still anchors the restaurant behind the sushi bar, his head down, crafting plate after plate of sushi and nigiri calmly and with an ever-efficient hand. He brought years of experience in a traditional New York sushi restaurant with him when he moved to Charleston to build his family restaurant business all those years ago, and through his tenure here has built a strong following of regulars.
“We’ve been going to Shiki since they opened,” says Stephanie Barna, former editor of Charleston City Paper and longtime Holy City resident. “It’s legitimately my family’s favorite place to eat out. It’s always been a very family-oriented place and very much a longtime local favorite. We used to see the kids doing their homework at the back table while their parents worked. As they grew up, the kids started waiting tables and learning to make sushi. When we ate there, we knew we were supporting this wonderful family that worked very hard and served great food.”
And the great food remains. In addition to the ever-popular — and Barna family favorite — Shiki SC (Super Crunch) Roll with Korean pear, layered shrimp, and eel sauce, there are standbys including shumai and o-toro and plenty of tempura. New items including madai (a sea bream often served at celebrations) and shima-aji (a prized Japanese striped jack) have been added to the menu, and there’s even a Lemon Salmon Roll with lemon and jalapeno, inspired by a regular who had tried something similar in another city. In short, the menu continues to evolve and feels familiar but refreshed, a well-calibrated achievement for a restaurant with a loyal following. The response to it all has James feeling optimistic.
“I feel since the renovations that there’s more motivation to work harder,” he says. “It’s been great to see the response, and sometimes I’m so head-down that I forget that people are eating all the things that we’re working so hard on in so many aspects, from sourcing to service,” he adds, referencing the grind and commitment of daily life in a family-owned restaurant.
But he hasn’t lost sight of why he’s chosen this work: “My favorite thing about working in a restaurant is when I see happiness in other people from something you made.” And with Shiki’s rebirth, he’s poised to keep seeing that for years to come.
Stephanie Burt is an audio producer, and food and travel writer. She is the host and producer of The Southern Fork podcast and has contributed to Saveur, The Washington Post, The Bitter Southerner, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy too.