Fire damages downtown Victoria sushi restaurant visited by royals

A popular Victoria sushi restaurant that once hosted the entourage of the Japanese emperor has been heavily damaged by fire and has customers and neighbouring Fort Street businesses hoping it can quickly recover. Wednesday morning’s fire caused $300,000 in damage and was the second fire to shutter a Fort Street business in the past five months.

Just before 5 a.m., 21 Victoria firefighters responded to the stubborn blaze at Sen Zushi Japanese restaurant and sushi bar at 940 Fort St.

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Battalion chief Paul Kowalyk said crews battled heavy smoke and fire. Firefighters broke through the restaurant’s front door but couldn’t immediately get into the kitchen.

Firefighters had to smash through another door to enter the kitchen, which suffered extensive damage. The rest of the restaurant was damaged by water and smoke.

Fire investigators spent the day combing through the charred kitchen, trying to find the cause of the fire. Preliminary investigation points to a rice cooker left on overnight.

The restaurant has been open since 1971.

A note on the restaurant’s Facebook page Wednesday said: “As you may have heard, there was a fire in the kitchen overnight … hopefully not too bad, but the restaurant will be closed for the rest of the week at least … sorry to those who had reservations. We will update as soon as they let us in and we know more!”

Restaurant customers commented on the post, saying Sen Zushi is their favourite restaurant and that they hope it will soon reopen.

A 2008 review by Pam Grant in the Times Colonist said the restaurant has the “best sushi menu in town [and] … traditional dishes that would hold their own from Tokyo to Osaka.”

In 2009, when Japanese Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko visited Victoria, a dozen members of their entourage dined on a $100-a-plate, eight-course dinner at the restaurant. The guests included former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda, Grand Steward of the Imperial Household Shingo Haketa, Consul General Seiichi Ohtsuka and other officials and local guests.

Sen Zushi, operating under the direction of chef Kozo Kawada, literally translates in Japanese to “fresh sushi.”

On Nov. 18, fire extensively damaged three businesses in the 700 block of Fort Street — Oscar and Libby’s, Pho Vy Vietnamese restaurant and Taste of India restaurant.

Teri Hustins, who owns Oscar and Libby’s, and owners of Pho Vy have reopened in nearby locations but their original building remains shuttered, which Hustins said created an eyesore and a “dead zone” for the street.

Hustins said she felt “heartsick” when she heard about the fire at Sen Zushi. “Now with the fire that’s just happened, that’s two [incidents] on our street. It’s devastating for businesses,” she said.

Hustins is one of the business owners behind the Fabulous Fort campaign, which tries to attract shoppers and tourists to Fort Street. Business owners are organizing a “scrub up” on the morning of May 27, that will see Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner, Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James and community members clean the street and identify problem spots.

Fort Street businesses will likely reach out to the owners of Sen Zushi and help out any way they can, said Hustins. She said the support of fellow business owners is what helped her recover from her fire. “The outreach and the support from the other business owners was overwhelming,” she said. “So I think we’ll try and get some contact happening with those businesses up there.”

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