Love Letter: Some things change, but Minato stays wonderfully the same

Any Cowboy Hat in a storm

Minato Smyrna

Photograph by Martha Williams

It would be easy to dismiss Minato—which shares a building with a Golf Warehouse and a Papa John’s—as just another strip-mall sushi restaurant. It would be easier to miss it altogether. The building is just off Spring Road, an artery that speeds cars to and from the Battery, not far from where I-75 meets the Perimeter. The restaurant is in the rear and distinguished by its facade, which resembles a house and bears the Japanese character for minato, meaning “harbor” or “port.” Given the surroundings, that feels apt.

When I moved to Smyrna in 2014, many aspects of my new city pleased me, but few had to do with the food options. With a couple of notable exceptions—Muss & Turner’s, Rev Coffee Roasters—Smyrna was chain central. I was more likely to go into Atlanta to eat out. When I found my way to Minato, I felt like I was being let in on the area’s best-kept secret (with excellent Yelp reviews), and it became a place where my husband and I spent our Friday nights.

Even after 31 years in business, Minato hasn’t changed much, starting with an aesthetic that now—three decades on—feels a bit Rainforest Cafe–lite. Waterfalls trickle down a rock wall that takes up the entirety of the waiting area, with plants and animal figures tucked into the crevices. Behind the sushi bar is where the decor really lives up to Minato’s nautically inspired name: Cutouts of blue waves run along the wooden wall, with crabs, lobsters, and fish tacked on around them. A dolphin sculpture graces a pond in the center of the dining room. With no windows, it’s a space that feels free of time and place, as if the Battery isn’t just down the road and a rapidly growing metro area all around. Some restaurants pay a lot of money to look this dated; Minato grew into it.

Of course, the sushi is excellent. Fish is delivered daily, and, while the pieces are cut a bit thick for my liking, all is forgiven when I taste how fresh it is. The real joy, though, is the Cowboy Hat. It’s the ultimate off-menu item: #iykyk. It consists of a shrimp cracker topped with a mound of creamy crab salad made crunchy with tempura flakes then crowned with a fried scallop and drizzled with eel sauce. A visual gimmick? Yes. A thrilling combination of textures? Also yes.

I missed going to Minato for two years: After some time in Smyrna, we moved to a town about 25 minutes away and had a baby, and then, the pandemic hit. We haven’t found anything like it near our new house, so, not long ago, we made the trek back to Spring Road, which continues to boom—buildings keep cropping up around the Battery; on the 2020 census, Smyrna was the fastest-growing city in Cobb County. We waited for our table in a busy waiting area where Pat, the manager, greeted everyone who came in. She briskly balances hosting and serving but always remembers the regulars. Then, we sat down at the sushi bar and ordered our Cowboy Hats, grateful for a restaurant that has, so far, survived a swiftly changing suburb and a pandemic. For an hour, I felt moored.

This article appears in our December 2021 issue.