Lauren Graham’s Taste of Tokyo


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Lauren Graham, right, and her half sister Shade Grant digging into dinner at Japonica in Greenwich Village.

Credit
Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Cradling a brown paper bag filled with sake bottles in her arms, a dismayed Lauren Graham stopped short in front Yakitori Tora, a Japanese restaurant in SoHo. The windows were dark, the tables were empty and the chairs nowhere to be seen.

A meal at the restaurant was supposed to be the final stop of the night’s trifecta: first, a trip to Sakaya, a sake store on East Ninth Street; then, grocery shopping at Sunrise Mart in the East Village; and finally, meat skewers at Yakitori Tora.

Ms. Graham, 49, most famous for her TV role as Lorelai Gilmore in “Gilmore Girls,” had planned the entire evening. Her love of “anything” Japanese, while it may come as a surprise to fans, is anything but arbitrary. Ms. Graham’s grandparents were sent to Japan as missionaries after World War II, and her mother, who died in 2005, spoke fluent Japanese and worked as a buyer for a department store in Japan. And Ms. Graham, who was born in Honolulu, lived in Japan briefly as a baby.

Unfortunately, her plans to share the culture she loves were thwarted on this October evening. Even the coolest mom on television, who returns Nov. 25 with four 90-minute episodes on Netflix, can do little when confronted with a locked door.

Other than make you laugh.

“Let me tell you of my love of Mexico,” Ms. Graham deadpanned.

Instead, she pulled out her phone to call her half sister, Shade Grant, and come up with a fresh plan. They settled on Japonica on University Place, a street Ms. Graham frequented as a 17-year-old freshman studying acting at N.Y.U.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” she said. She stuck it out for a year, but decided to transfer to Barnard College to study English, after which she received a Master of Fine Arts at Southern Methodist University in 1992. But her big break didn’t come for several more years, when she was cast in “Gilmore Girls” in 2000.

Ms. Graham recalled the moment in the 1970s when she knew she wanted to act. “My dad and I went to see ‘Annie’ at the Kennedy Center, and I got an ‘Annie’ T-shirt,” Ms. Graham said. “Somebody asked me in a store one day if I was in the cast of ‘Annie,’ and I said yes, because I so wanted to be in the cast of ‘Annie.’ So my first role was ‘person who was in the cast of ‘Annie.’ I think I played it pretty well.”

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Ms. Graham calling Ms. Grant to make alternate plans.

Credit
Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

At Japonica, Ms. Graham plopped into a booth next to Ms. Grant, 34. Assessing their outfits for the evening — both wore black blazers over T-shirts — Ms. Graham said, “I’d say we kind of dress like our mom.”

“She was a painter, a singer, she was a model, she went to art school, she was interested in writing,” Ms. Graham said of her mother.

A similar artistic ambition led Ms. Graham to a variety of creative projects, including a five-year role in the television show “Parenthood” (where she met her partner, the actor Peter Krause), a novel that was published in 2014 and a collection of autobiographical essays, “Talking As Fast as I Can,” which are to be released Nov. 29.

After scanning the menu, Ms. Graham quickly chose a brand of sake. “It’s not the most expensive one,” she said. “And it has gold flakes.”

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Ms. Graham buying sake.

Credit
Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The moment called to mind the witty Lorelai, a character Ms. Graham had not played in a decade.

“When we did the first table read, there was so much energy in the room, and I was so nervous,” she said.

In the time since she first embodied the fast-talking single mom, the CW replaced the WB, Netflix became an alternative to cable channels and iPhones turned into a common accessory. That last fact is not lost on Ms. Graham, who has a technology-averse alter ego named Old Lady Jackson, who disapproves of televisions in yellow taxis and phones in schools.

“In today’s camera-phone world, you’re eating, and you’re like, ‘Mmm, I can’t wait to … ,’” Ms. Graham said, pretending to drift off in a food-induced reverie. “And somewhere over there, someone is taking a picture of you to put on their whatever page,” she said.

Luckily, that did not stop her. The sisters ate plenty, swapping items and bantering. (“Let me just taste some,” Ms. Grant said of a salmon sashimi, to which Ms. Graham responded, “You can’t just try a bite of sushi. It doesn’t make any sense,” and dropped the entire piece on her plate.)

At the end of the meal, Ms. Graham and Ms. Grant waved goodbye to their dinner companions and fell back into easy conversation. The half-finished bottle of sake glittered between them as Ms. Graham dived into what might be her favorite role: cool older sister.

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