From the devastation of fire and a pandemic, Wabi makes a triumphant return to Venice

By Jessica Koslow

From ashes to roses: Wabi’s plates bloom once again with colorful sushi, making it one of the most resilient restaurants in our book
Photos Courtesy of Wabi on Rose

Success stories are hard to come by these days. But Wabi on Rose is one of them.

“We’re thriving on Rose,” proclaims co-owner Tricia Smalls triumphantly via cell phone.

It’s music to the ears. Especially after an unexpected fire in December 2018 forced the popular sushi restaurant Wabi on Abbot Kinney (or Wabi 1) to close.

“We were doing the best we could to open in that location,” shares Smalls, “but due to the size of the loss, we were forced to look into other locations. Venice is our home and we wanted to stay, but there wasn’t a lot available.”

Then the owners of Makani, located on Rose, approached Smalls to do a partnership. Wabi’s owners were familiar with that space — one of Wabi’s owners was one of the original designers of Makani — and they decided it was a good fit.

Just two weeks before the pandemic lockdown, Wabi signed the contract. And despite the unfortunate turn of events, Wabi decided to move forward and try to make the best takeout program possible in Venice.

On April 4, Wabi on Rose (or Wabi 2) launched their takeout program.

“When word spread, we had an enthusiastic response from the neighborhood,” says Smalls. “We started our dine-in program on June 6. We’ve been going strong ever since.

“When we opened on April 4, we wanted to hit the classics, so we stuck with those. Since we’ve opened, chef [Rain Pantana] has brought some other exciting additions, and they’ve become classics.”

Wabi also created a cocktail to-go menu, which in Smalls’ words “took it to 11.”

The city now allows Wabi to bottle the same cocktails that are on the menu, like the Lychee on Rose and “Spicy Marg.”

“We picked up where we left off, and it’s even better,” says Smalls.

In addition to Chef Pantana in the kitchen, Wabi was able to hire acclaimed sushi chefs that lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

“Wabi is such an integral part of Venice,” says Brent Moon, general manager. “We’ve been here for over 20 years. Kids that came in are now grownups bringing their kids in. Between fires, plagues and civil unrest, Wabi has survived Les Mis. We keep on going. Rose is so perfect for Wabi. Rose has the Venice neighborhood vibe. The locals and regulars, and people who need to get out, come here, and it’s this beautiful corner with this beautiful garden. We’re not trying to overthink it; just give people their home.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a vibrant crowd packed the tables of Wabi, feasting on classic dishes like Crispy Rice — a small round tower of spicy tuna and avocado mousee with eel sauce and Serrano chili — and a newer creation, called Rick James — a rectangular delight of crispy halibut, spicy tuna, avocado, yellowtail, lemon aioli, Serrano and Sriracha.

COVID regulations are in effect: a 90-minute dining policy, dividers to separate diners from street traffic and stickers on the ground to remind people to stay six feet apart.

Moon shares that Wabi has added “sneaky tables” for locals and walk-ups.

“We didn’t want to be reservation only,” says Moon, “so now locals only have to wait 15 to 20 minutes.

“When everything’s stripped away, it comes down to the people: staff and guests. Literally, it’s the reason why everything can work. It is Venice supporting us,” adds Moon. “Being able to give something familiar in these crazy times is one of the greatest gifts for us.”

Wabi on Rose is located at 512 Rose Ave, #F, Venice. Call (310) 494-2678 or visit wabionrose.com.

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