After years of development drama and a pandemic-related closure, Seattle’s oldest and most famous karaoke bar, Bush Garden, is finally returning to the Chinatown–International District. In a long profile of the new location inside an affordable housing development, the Seattle Times reports that the karaoke bar will reopen sometime in the spring of 2024.
Bush Garden originally opened in 1953 as a Japanese restaurant and was “one of the fanciest restaurants in town,” Crosscut wrote in 2016. “Its tatami rooms hosted countless martini-soaked business meetings. Families wearing their Sunday’s best, celebrating anniversaries and graduations, filled its giant banquet room. Dozens of weddings and wedding receptions have been held there.” The original owners introduced Japanese karaoke in the ‘70s — Bush Garden is sometimes called the first karaoke bar in the U.S. — and English-language songs were added in the late ‘80s.
It wasn’t just a gathering space for karaoke enthusiasts of all races from all over the city. Bush Garden also became a favored haunt for politicians, City Council staffers, and community activists, most notably “Uncle” Bob Santos, a Filipino American who spent decades of his life working to improve services in the CID and spearheading a multicultural coalition for civil rights. “Santos would sing warbling, heartfelt standards on Bush’s small stage every Tuesday,” according to Crosscut. “Those evenings were Santos’s office hours, when activists and politicos knew they could get Santos’ advice or ask for a favor.”
Since 1999, it’s been owned by Karen Akada Sakata, who worked at Bush Garden as a busser and then a karaoke host. In 2016, the building that hosted Bush Garden was sold to a property developer, and it became obvious that the property was going to be demolished or redeveloped in the near future. According to Crosscut, Sakata worked out a deal with the owner where the restaurant would suspend lunch and dinner services but keep the karaoke going. It wasn’t until 2021, when the pandemic lockdown restrictions made a karaoke bar an impossible business proposition, that Bush Garden closed for good.
But by then, Sakata had already made plans to relocate to a new development down the street owned by nonprofit InterIm CDA. The new building will be called Uncle Bob’s Place in honor of Santos, who was the organization’s executive director in the 1970s. It will have 126 units of housing as well as commercial space on the ground floor.
The old Bush Garden building, meanwhile, is slated to be torn down and replaced by a 17-story apartment building, a proposal that has been opposed by neighborhood activists who say that the building has historic value and that the market-rate housing will accelerate the displacement of neighborhood residents. But whatever happens to that property, Bush Garden will live on.