Mikio Shinagawa, who ran trendy SoHo hangout, dies at 66

Mikio Shinagawa, who, as a painter studying Buddhism in the 1980s, opened the Japanese restaurant Omen, which became a downtown New York canteen for famous figures from the art and fashion world, has died on November 17 in a Kyoto hospital. He was 66 years old.

Her sister Mariko Shimizu said the cause was liver cancer.

When it comes to trendy New York hangouts, Omen was an unlikely candidate, and Mr. Shinagawa a serene, silver-haired man raised in Kyoto who wore Comme des Garçons costumes., was his ethereal anti-restorer. When the city’s creative stars gathered in his restaurant to converse over sake, he crept into hospitality venues with the lightness of a friendly ghost.

Located on Thompson Street in SoHo, Omen’s dark wood space is lined with red brick walls and rice paper lanterns that glow as the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis plays softly. The menu consists of Japanese country style dishes and dishes like chiso rice and udon noodles. Calligraphy framed above the tables contains brushstrokes that evoke the Japanese character mu, which means nothingness.

It is in this earthly lair that Mr. Shinagawa’s Shrine for artists and intellectuals flourished. Omen regulars included Yoko Ono, Susan Sontag, David Byrne, Ingrid Sischy, Rem Koolhaas, Bill T. Jones and Merce Cunningham.

As Julian Schnabel was raising a family, his children played at the table while he ate. Richard Gere can take comfort in knowing that paparazzi cameras won’t flash in his face. If Patti Smith comes in for a late night bite, she might sing a song for the kitchen staff.

“When I first started coming to Omen, I was drawn to the inner community,” Ms. Smith said in a telephone interview. “You always saw famous people, but nobody bothered them, and that atmosphere came from Mikio. He breathed inner peace into the air and served the artist. The lightness that emanated from him created a sense of belonging, making you feel part of an abstract spiritual family.

“The last time I saw Lou Reed alive was over there,” she added. “He came with Laurie Anderson, and that’s when I said goodbye to Lou, to Omen.”

Mr. Shinagawa didn’t draw attention to his clientele, but there wasn’t much he could do to hide it during New York Fashion Week, when the industry went down on Omen to discuss the shows around a spicy tuna tartare. The restaurant’s fashion enthusiasts have included designers Karl Lagerfeld and Derek Lam, photographers Mario Sorrenti and duo Inez and Vinoodh, and Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani.

Mr. Shinagawa has often pointed out that he never understood why his restaurant became a stage. Maybe its regulars liked to bask in its harmonious atmosphere, or maybe they just liked its miso-marinated black cod very much. Whatever the reason, there hasn’t been much thought about it.

“Why Omen? », He reflected in a 2013 interview with T: The New York Times Style Magazine. “I would like to know why Omen is so charming.”

He elaborate in a 2014 interview with the blog of the fashion brand Opening Ceremony.

“We are just the glass for them to come together,” he said. “I like people with great minds.”

In the years leading up to Mr. Shinagawa’s opening of his restaurant in 1981, SoHo was desolate and abandoned, and its low rents drew artists to its cavernous lofts. From that bohemian, Omen emerged and, over time, it has become a remnant of an older neighborhood, with staples like Raoul’s and Fanelli Cafe.

Mr. Shinagawa came to the city in the 1970s with the ambition of becoming a painter. He had spent his teenage years traveling through Europe and India, studying Buddhism and shaving his head. In his cramped studio in the slaughterhouse district, he paints abstract works in solitude. Eventually, his parents visited him.

In Japan they ran the original Presage restaurant, which they had founded in the 1960s with a health-conscious philosophy, and which has become the first of three establishments in Kyoto. In New York, they were alarmed at the American regime, so they came up with an idea for their son.

“After two weeks, they felt that this community, this society, was so unhealthy,” Shinagawa said. “They thought American culture needed better food. So after returning to Japan, they asked me if I would like to run a restaurant here.

“It was a question of dynamite. I did not know. I practiced Buddhism. But I finally decided that everything we do in this life, even running a restaurant, can be a practice to make life richer, brighter.

Mr. Shinagawa hired Japanese artisans to build Omen’s rustic interior and named the restaurant after what has become his iconic udon dish. Little by little, Omen has become a meeting place.

The first regulars included Mr. Gere and Meryl Streep. In 1982, the restaurant received a review in the New York Times from Mimi Sheraton, who praised “aesthetically pleasing awards in artfully arranged and subtly flavored vegetable, fish, noodle and chicken dishes.” Takeout from Omen quickly started showing up during Steven Meisel and Barry Lategan’s fashion photoshoots.

Yet even though Mr. Shinagawa’s restaurant has become a downtown institution, and even though New York City has changed dramatically, one thing has remained the same: Getting a reservation at Omen has never been very difficult.

Mikio Shinagawa was born in Kyoto on February 19, 1955, to a family whose noble lineage dates back to the Asuka period. His father, Tetsuzan, was a revered calligrapher. Her mother, Tomi (Okada) Shinagawa, opened the family restaurant after tasting her mother-in-law’s country cuisine in the mountainous Gunma Prefecture. As a child, Mikio watched his mother prepare omens with fragrant broth for customers.

In 1998 he published a book of his father’s calligraphy, “Talk to a stone”, Which featured an introduction by the Dalai Lama. The calligraphy hanging on the walls of Omen was drawn by his father.

In addition to his sister Mariko, Mr. Shinagawa is survived by two brothers, Hiroshi and Masaki, and another sister, Kyoko Nakamura.

At the end of his forties, Mr. Shinagawa became the founding owner of Japanese restaurant Matsuri, which busy an underground space in the Maritime Hotel in Manhattan; a few years later, he designed the Shibui Spa, located in Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel, which was built with parts he had recovered of an old Japanese farm.

In 2013, he learned that he had cancer.

In recent months, Mr. Shinagawa had been busy preparing for Omen’s 40th birthday celebration, which took place last week. At an intimate memorial at the restaurant on Friday, longtime regulars recited tributes to her and Ms Smith sang an a cappella version of her song. “Wing. “His sister Mariko, who helps run Omen, has come from Japan to oversee the transition of her business, which her nephew, Kota, will now manage.

Although Mr. Shinagawa tends to ignore questions about the precise reasons why Omen has become such a beloved downtown institution, his sister has made up her own mind.

“Mikio was running Omen, but he was also an artist at heart,” she said. “Because he had creativity in him, he understood artists. Whether it was Jasper Johns or Richard Gere, they could tell he understood what it meant to create. “

“It was a natural connection,” she added. “The kind of connection that is almost impossible to express in words.”

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