Monday, April 12, 2010

Mystery Solved

Did you ever pass a place in your neighborhood - a home or business - and wonder, “What exactly goes on in there?” Maybe it’s the crazy lady down the street whose yard is full of weeds and yipping Pomeranians; perhaps it’s the shady bar that’s a late night magnet for chopped Harleys. Whatever it is, I’ll bet it reawakens your curiosity every time you go by, and you’re tempted, even just a little bit, to get a look inside.

Chances are even stronger that you don‘t act on that impulse.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I took a peek behind the curtain of a childhood Mystery Spot, and what I saw changed my vision of The Forbidden forever.

For me, growing up in the 70s as a “Valley Girl“ (or “Val,“ that denizen of the San Fernando Valley immortalized by Frank Zappa), that place was a Japanese restaurant called The Mikado. This was before there were sushi shops in every strip mall - heck, this was before there were strip malls. Just the sound of it: Mikado . . . so exotic . . . was it a quiet retreat for discreet businessmen, or a rowdy speakeasy like the ones I’d seen in the movies? All I knew for sure was that it had a red rickshaw out front and smoked windows. This was a far cry from the incandescent family restaurants my parents took us to, with their cheerful lucite light fixtures and their Early Bird specials. No, the brazen display of the rickshaw and the opaque windows tantalized me with visions of opium dens and blushing geishas silently sliding bamboo panels closed to ensure the privacy of pleasure-seeking clientele.

We passed by the Mikado every week in my mom’s Oldsmobile on our way to my sister’s art lessons. It was located across the street from the now-defunct Quigley’s Five-and-Dime (kids, ask your grandparents) and the North Hollywood Medical Center. (Also defunct, along with many of its patients; the word was, if someone you knew was being treated at the NHMC, send flowers because they were probably already dead.) But my eyes always gravitated to the Mikado, which sat like a spider, waiting . . .

Years passed, I moved away from the Valley, and visits home never took me past the Den of Mystery, so I pretty much forgot about it. That is, until one day when some dear friends from high school suggested, without hesitation, that we meet there for dinner.

Gulp: The Mikado? Did I dare?

Wanting to slake my curiosity before my friends appeared, I approached the storied spot with trepidation. As I pulled into the driveway, my eyes widened in disbelief . . .

The Mikado was now attached to a Best Western hotel.

Thinking there must be a mistake, I entered the perfectly bland hotel lobby. OK, a framed kimono was not exactly the proof of iniquity I was searching for, but still . . . I walked into an inner courtyard, around which all of the rooms faced. Except for where a pool had been turned into a koi pond and an arching Japanese bridge, it was about as exotic as an ash tray: cleaning ladies pushed carts full of fresh sheets and a tired family found their way into their room.

But what about the restaurant itself? Surely there must be signs of clandestine gatherings from the past?

No such luck. Three sushi chefs hailed my entrance and a polite hostess showed me to our table, where my friends had gathered. They did not seem the least bit spooked by the location and were even a bit bewildered by my cautious questions. Den of vice? White slave trade? The only thing mysterious was an adjoining locked room that said “For Exclusive Use of Hotel Guests,” and that was where they served the complimentary breakfast.

Finally, I confessed my childish suspicions of the fabled place. Lo and behold, each of my friends had a story about the Mikado, though none as lurid as I expected: one had been stood up by a blind date there; it had been the scene of an after-dance dinner, where another friend had gotten sick in the bathroom; yet another had snuck in with a fake ID and tasted Midori for the first time.

We shared stories and laughs until it was late, then we had to be home to waiting spouses, sleeping kids and jobs the next day, things we didn’t have when we passed the Mikado all those years ago. Although the truth about my erstwhile Mystery Spot had not matched my wild expectations, at least my curiosity had been satisfied. My friends and I had had a good laugh about “what exactly goes on in there,” and best of all, I no longer feared The Forbidden. You can quiver before those ominous locked doors, but maybe all there is behind them is a complimentary breakfast.

And for that I say: Arigato, Mikado.