In March, Leona’s Sushi House partner Frank Leon was driving when he learned that his Studio City spot was one of three Los Angeles restaurants added to the Michelin Guide California this year. Overwhelmed at the news, Leon immediately called his chef Shigenori “Shige” Fujimoto. “Shige is used to that attention since he was with the [Michelin-recognized] Asanebo,” says Leon. “But this time was different. He was excited because it was his own menu, and Michelin focused on Leona’s fusion. We were both glad it worked.”
On that auspicious day, Leona’s had only been open for four months before becoming one of the six restaurants statewide added to Michelin’s regional guide. This honor is still relatively fresh to Los Angeles, as Michelin suspended Los Angeles coverage from 2010 until 2019, only resuming coverage as part of a statewide California guide that is partially funded by the state’s tourism board.
In November 2022, Leon, Fujimoto, and partner Evan Ross opened this unusual space into what feels like three restaurants in one. Diners can choose between the charming ’80s-esque sushi bar, high-ceiling dining room with big windows facing Ventura Boulevard, or center patio lounge. There are dishes that lean Japanese Peruvian; sushi and sashimi from a sushi bar; ceviches; and innovations like udon carbonara with egg, Parmesan, and smoked pork belly. Each dining area is guarded by towering samurai statues.
It’s been a triumph, as both diners and Michelin inspectors have embraced each aspect Leona’s menu: sushi bar, robata, and full kitchen. It helps that Fujimoto’s professional history includes a position at Matsuhisa and eventually at Asanebo when it first earned a Michelin star. He also ran the respected Shiki Beverly Hills from 2014 until 2020. Leon is an LA restaurant veteran, with the following credits: La Loggia Ristorante, Next Door Tapas, and Ceremony Bar. His Village Gastro Pub remains open.
Eater spoke with Leon and Fujimoto to hear how the restaurant is faring so far in Studio City, a neighborhood that’s typically buzzing with film and TV industry diners, many of whom are currently on strike.
On the first seven months of operation
Frank: When people found out about Shige, that helped with our interest. The challenge we had was introducing a fusion menu with three kitchens. We started with separate menus in different rooms and later presented one menu. We told the servers consistently to remember that the three kitchens flow differently, with a sushi bar; a kitchen that sends steak, fish, and everything hot; and a robata menu that sends out its own. It’s difficult to convey this to the customer. We don’t specify courses so everything comes out when it’s ready. It takes a lot of training, and the talent is not like in the old days, since so many people have left the food service industry.
We received a lot of press, and when the Michelin Guide came out, we saw a lot of new faces and younger customers, more than we expected. We needed to focus and attract a younger crowd. That’s what we were looking for, to introduce a younger generation to our food.
On the impact of the Writer’s Guild strike that began in May 2023
Frank: This area has studios, and a lot of writers, producers, and directors live in North Hollywood. I haven’t seen them over the past month. I remember during the first strike in 2008 with La Loggia — Leon’s previous restaurant in the same space — that lasted like 100 days. Let’s see if times change and if this one is going to be different. Our business dropped by 10 percent. The actor Cedric the Entertainer has a show that was picked up for a new season. He used to be in here once a week. Not anymore. It’s hard.
On the benefits of ownership
Frank: In 1994, my landlord wanted to sell the property. I didn’t have a lot of money. The price was $650,000, and I only had five percent for a down payment. These two buildings were in really bad shape. I found investors and in 15 years, I paid it off. It is definitely a plus to own the property, especially considering the market situation and difficult times with such a bad economy and the writers and actors striking as we speak. Owning the building gives me more security. I can say we will be here for a long time.
On LA’s sushi talent
Frank: To do sushi at this level is very expensive, especially to retain good talent like Shige, Yuki Horiba, and Kenji Nakamura [of Encino’s shuttered Sushi Nakamura] to bring stability and credibility. After 10 years, they bring so much experience and craft their own style.
On working together
Frank: In every project and concept, people have ideas. We’ve been friends for 25 years. We didn’t work together before, but we clashed at the beginning because we were new at this thing. We had differences in direction.
Shige: Our system is getting better. Working with Frankie is not too difficult. Fighting is good for things and good for growth. It’s necessary for the project. For some, they disagree and it’s finished and no more. But not here.
On the future of Leona’s and Leon
Frank: After the pandemic, I wanted to rent out the restaurant and take it easy. I’ve got two new kids in my life [Leon and his wife recently adopted two children]. We planned on moving to Europe. But my kids are so happy here. So then, I opened up a restaurant and work 12 hours a day. [He laughs.] But, I love it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.