A Los Angeles restaurateur known to patrons as “Yuko” has become well-regarded not only for her Japanese food but also for her incredibly green thumb.

Yuko Watanabe Portrait
Thomas J. Story

To enter one of Yuko Watanabe’s Los Angeles restaurants is to enter a vibrant jungle of houseplants and color that’s bound to make you smile. Boston ferns and devil’s ivy hang from the ceiling, and fiddle-leaf figs stand sentry while customers dine amid a dizzying array of prayer plants. Meanwhile, the walls are adorned with hand-painted Technicolor murals in swirls of turquoise, tangerine, flamingo pink, and lemon yellow.

It’s all the handiwork of Watanabe—a bundle of indefatigable energy. She’s a Japanese chef and a plant savant of sorts who grew up in Hiroshima, on the west side of Japan’s Honshu island. “It was the most beautiful place—like a dream,” Watanabe says. “Kids can go to the beach or to the mountains in 15 minutes, and it was totally safe to be in abundant nature.”

Yuko Kitchen Dtla Plants Interior
The interior of Yuko Kitchen: DTLA

Thomas J. Story

She credits being surrounded by plants when she was young for her fascination with them now. When she opened Yuko Kitchen: Miracle Mile—there’s also Yuko Kitchen: DTLA—she didn’t have the money to spend on restaurant decor. The answer? Plants. Meanwhile, the walls were “ugly,” she says, so she painted them herself in a manner that’s more than pleasing to the eye. 

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And yet, when told she’s talented, she demurs. “I’m not like my artist friends—they are talented,” she says. “I am just a free person. If I feel like I want to make something or decorate something, I just do it. But it always involves fun, color, and texture. And plants. And food.” 

Tables at Yuko Kitchen: DTLA

Thomas J. Story

Although Yuko sold plants out of her restaurant pre-pandemic, it was the coronavirus that turned her houseplant business up a notch. “People started calling me and saying, ‘Hey, do you still have plants to sell? Because no plant stores are open.’ The customers were very happy—a lot of people were telling me they started decorating their house more, and buying plants was the fun part of quarantine life.” 

The plant tunnel at Lost Books

Thomas J. Story

Now let’s talk about a plant tunnel she made from scratch. For those who don’t know the Last Bookstore in downtown L.A., it’s Instagram-famous for its book tunnel (as in, a tunnel made of books that visitors can walk through). So, when the owners decided to open a second location in Montrose, called Lost Books, they knew they had to do something special. “I knew that I wanted the feeling of Yuko Kitchen [at the store],” says co-owner Jenna Spencer. “I reached out and said, ‘Hey, Yuko, would you want to do everything you did at Yuko Kitchen here?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’” 

A neon sign at Lost Books

Thomas J. Story

Now, when you enter Lost Books you feel a little like Alice stepping into a green Wonderland—the tunnel is a canal of Swedish ivy, sea grape vine, moss, and spider plants. One particularly special feature: the fairy lights Yuko sprinkled throughout, which remind her of the fireflies she saw as a child. “I always wanted to create something that’s like light in the darkness,” Watanabe says. 

Considering that now tourists have a route in which they go first to the Last Bookstore, then to Yuko Kitchen: DTLA, and finally to Lost Books to see the sights (and Instagram them), it’s safe to say that she has. 

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