For about a decade in downtown Phoenix, Nobuo at Teeter House gave restaurant-goers a dual dining experience curated by an award-winning chef.
Diners could reserve a table for an elegant, multi-course omakase menu, featuring spoonfuls of sashimi and wine pairings. They could also swing by on a whim for casual cocktails and bar snacks.
But the doors to the cozy red-brick bungalow have remained shut to diners since the end of March 2020. Now more than a year into the pandemic, chef and owner Nobuo Fukuda has finally confirmed: His critically acclaimed Phoenix restaurant is permanently closed.
A restaurant like Nobuo at Teeter House just couldn’t survive a pandemic in downtown Phoenix, especially when concerts and conventions — a major source of foot traffic — haven’t made a full return yet, Fukuda said.
“After we learned from COVID, corporate restaurants, to-go concepts, they’re doing a good job and doing success,” Fukuda said. “But my style of cooking is difficult to do to-go, so it was a challenge anyway.”
Who is award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda?
Fukuda has worked as a chef for around 30 years in Arizona. He started at Benihana and later partnered with chef James McDevitt for the now-closed Restaurant Hapa.
In 2003 he and Peter Kasperski opened See Saw, a Japanese tapas bar in Scottsdale where former Arizona Republic dining critic Howard Seftel wrote fondly of the “soft-shell crab tempura with curried green papaya; Japanese mushrooms steamed in parchment with geoduck; and the revelatory combination of sweet watermelon, tangy goat cheese and savory snow crab.”
“The foie gras set atop nori-wrapped vinegared rice was simply magnificent,” Seftel wrote.
In 2007, Fukuda nabbed a James Beard Award — the Oscars of the culinary world — in the Best Chef: Southwest category for his work at the Old Town Scottsdale restaurant.
He and Kasperski planned to move See Saw into a nearby location, but the Great Recession had other plans. See Saw closed in 2009.
The following year, Fukuda opened his next restaurant, Nobuo at Teeter House, in a turn-of-the-20th-century bungalow in Heritage Square in downtown Phoenix.
“I started something in Phoenix because of more foot traffic. I’m from Tokyo, so I liked the downtown feeling,” Fukuda said.
The restaurant earned a rare five-star review from the Republic. The intimate space with its wood-paneled floors combined two concepts: Diners had the option of experiencing a beautifully arranged, multicourse omakase (chef’s choice) dinner. Or they could opt for the more informal izakaya, in the style of Japan’s after-work bar culture with drinks and light bites.
At Teeter House, the chef married ingredients from Arizona and beyond: sake from Holbrook, guinea fowl from Two Wash Ranch, vegetables from McClendon’s. Before the pandemic, he went to Japan every year to meet with his fishmonger.
Fukuda also starred in a documentary profile, “Kakehashi: A Portrait of Chef Nobuo Fukuda,” that intercuts scenes from Teeter House and the chef’s trip to Japan. The documentary premiered in 2017.
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What’s next for chef Nobuo Fukuda?
When restaurants had to close their dine-in services after March 20, 2020, following Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order, Fukuda initially kept Teeter House open for takeout. But it didn’t drum up enough business to pay staff, so the restaurant closed completely on March 30, 2020.
Ducey later allowed restaurants to reopen their dining rooms in May 2020, but Teeter House remained dark. Fukuda said it didn’t make sense to reopen in time for summer, the slowest season, when events hadn’t returned to downtown Phoenix, COVID-19 cases were on the rise, and not enough people felt comfortable eating in restaurants yet.
By the fall, he reconciled with the idea that Teeter House wouldn’t reopen in its current location.
“A chunk of my life is gone,” Fukuda said. “It’s very sad. But then again, it’s happening everywhere, it’s not just happening to me, so I can’t be selfish about it. Just have to get through this, I guess.”
Personal life events have also kept him occupied recently: His mother died at the end of 2020 and he flew to Japan for the funeral. When he returned, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was bedridden for three weeks.
Fukuda said he feels fortunate to have recovered and has since gotten vaccinated. He’s tentatively looking for a new location to open a restaurant with a more casual concept. But he’s not in a hurry: He lost his staff after Teeter House shut down and restaurant help is hard to come by right now, he said.
He thinks that if he were to open a casual restaurant, he’d also like to throw pop-up events and wine dinners for those who still want the high-end dining experience.
“It’s mind changing,” Fukuda said. “I need to reset to what people want more of. I guess, past COVID, what’s the new dining style?”
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