Circling the orange fence between him and the charred remains of his once proud restaurant, Joseph Lee couldn’t bear to look.
“Oof,” he said with sigh. “I don’t want to see inside. It’s like my body.”
For about 14 years, Lee and his family have run the Shogun Restaurant the only way they know how: with a distinctly Japanese architecture and style – even though they’re Korean – and a penchant for family entertainment.
“People from Montana, Nevada, they come to our restaurant,” the 66-year-old said. “Why? They want to enjoy, get together. Fellowship.”
And for years, that was its calling card.
Sitting at more than 11,000 square feet, the sushi and hibachi restaurant at the eastern edge of downtown Spokane had the size and staff to host some of the city’s largest dinner parties. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, it didn’t matter – Shogun was a destination for celebration.
The restaurant knew it, too. “Birthday hotline,” it advertised on the large sign outside, with an easy to remember number ending in 7s next to it.
Right up until it burned down Sunday morning, Lee said it was business as usual.
At about 10:30 p.m., he got the call from his manager that closing was complete and staff were headed home. He went to bed and slept soundly, until his phone started ringing at about 3:20 a.m.
He ignored the call. By that point, his restaurant was engulfed in flames.
About five hours later at 8 a.m. he got another phone call. And then the news – his building had burned down in the middle of the night. While on the way to the restaurant, he said he could see the smoke from miles away.
When Lee arrived, the restaurant was still very much burning. For over six hours, multiple engines with the Spokane Fire Department dumped water, including from up high on ladders, until the last ember was finally put out.
Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said it could take up to two to three weeks before a cause of the fire is determined, based on the unsafe nature of the building and the amount of rubble left to sort through.
“The situation inside still represents danger to firefighters and investigators,” he said. “We’re slowly making progress on the investigation based on safety to the employees.”
Lee said he hasn’t a clue what caused the fire. He doesn’t think it was deliberate.
When the smoke cleared, the extent of the damage was obvious. The roof had caved, walls had crumbled, and the inside was a blackened char of jutting angles and warped metal.
Only two features seemed mostly intact. A mural hanging on the side facing Third Avenue that shows a chef serving dinner hibachi-style to a smiling family. The other, a restaurant review Lee framed and hung near the front door.
A large pool of water had formed in the parking lot of the building next door, which Lee purchased in 2010 and turned into the Shogun Plaza Self Storage. The water seeped inside, ruining some people’s belongings and destroying much of the office and living space on the first floor.
“Excuse the mess,” he tells people as they walk in. Lee can be seen sitting in his office behind the front counter. Above his desk is a large sign that reads “Welcome to Shogun.”
The whole place smells like smoke. And in the small personal kitchen next to his office, the floor is covered in black soot. An inspector told him he’s probably going to have to replace the floor.
Lee purchased the restaurant in 2004 from the Hwang family for $700,000, according to records from the Spokane County assessor. Originally from Federal Way, he said he moved east to Spokane for the sole purpose of becoming a small business owner.
“I am so sad,” he said. “But the No. 1 damage is emotional.”
When the restaurant opened in 1992, the Hwangs pulled out all the stops. According to a food review published in The Spokesman-Review on March 12, 1993, “when you open the door, the first thing you see is a waterfall, an indoor pond, and a Japanese bridge.”
The Japanese decorations were extensive, the woodwork immaculate and the seating vast. The prices were steep then, at about $15 a plate, but the restaurant was busy and full. And the food was good, too.
The reviewer also happened to remark on its knack for bringing in birthday boys and girls. “The staff comes out with a gong to announce each birthday,” the review reads. “This Gong Show took place about eight times while we were there.”
Across the street from the then-Costco on Third Avenue, that part of downtown saw a few more people than it does today. It’s a point not lost on Lee, who admits business is slower than its booming heyday.
In 2018, reviews on Yelp mention the fact that the restaurant is often empty. But the food was still good, the staff still friendly, and the decorations still eye-catching.
Once the investigation is over and the rubble removed, Lee said, he’s not giving up. He’s going to build on top of it. Same spot, same style, same birthday gong and song, maybe a few upgrades here and there, but when it’s all said and done, the same old Shogun.
“We have to rebuild,” he said, looking through the fence. “Of course we have to rebuild.”
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