The Con Man Who Loved Sushi Ran

by Steefenie Wicks

Author Frances Dinkelspiel.
Photo by Nathan Phillips

In her book “Tangled Vines,” award winning journalist Frances Dinkelspiel tackles the story of Mark C. Anderson and the 4.5 million bottles of California wine he is accused of destroying.  The loss, valued at $250 million dollars, would become the largest destruction of wine in history.  Dinkelspiel, whose great great grandfather was a wine maker in the 1800’s, learned that the last bottles of her grandfather’s own collection had been destroyed; some wines bottled in 1875 were now gone.  The knowledge of this loss drew her to her subject, Mark Anderson, a known civic volunteer in Sausalito.  Dinkelspiel would learn that Anderson, a member of the Rotary Club, the Sausalito Art Commission and many local committees, was basically a con man.

The following is excerpted from her book:

Anderson’s fame stemmed from his patronage of Sushi Ran, a Japanese restaurant on a small street on the edge of Sausalito’s downtown. Sushi Ran had sort of sneaked up on the residents of Sausalito.

[Yoshi] Tome took over a non-descript Japanese place in 1986 with the goal of transforming it into a top-notch restaurant that would attract politicians, business people, and Sausalito’s artists so often that they would come to regard Sushi Ran as a second home. Tome hit upon the idea of launching the “Sushi Lovers’ Club,” with a “Hall of Fame” for the most loyal patrons. Those who racked up dozens of visits could have their photos prominently displayed on the restaurant’s front wall.

From the start, the sushi lovers’ club was a hit. People who might have visited just a few times a year started coming frequently. They wanted to see their photo on the wall.  “The competition was unbelievable,” said Tome.

Anderson soon became a regular, often walking the two blocks from his apartment “to the Ran” for lunch. His favorite dish was Ten-Tama Soba: buckwheat soba noodle soup with a raw egg cracked over the broth and a few pieces of shrimp tempura piled on top. He often stopped by late at night as well to drink wine or sake and share gossip with Tome at the bar.

Many people still carry images in their head of Anderson at Sushi Ran – laughing, telling jokes, hanging out with Sausalito’s politicians and civic leaders. Martin Brown met Anderson at Sushi Ran around 1992 – and found him “really witty, really enchanting.” Brown had just started a new alternative weekly newspaper called The Signal and he invited Anderson to contribute after he saw him doodle illustrations on a napkin. Anderson eventually started to write a column about the town’s politics and culture under the pen name “Joe Sausalito.”

All those visits earned Anderson a spot on the Sushi Lovers Hall of Fame wall. His photo first went up in 1987 after he had made 100 visits, the fourth most of any customer. In 1994, he won the #1 spot, visiting 211 times. He won again in 1996 after visiting 195 times. One year he made 436 visits. All together, Anderson ate at Sushi Ran more than two thousand times .

It’s funny what having your photo on the wall of a popular restaurant can do. That’s what people would remember Mark Anderson for years later, after news broke that he was charged with wine theft and arson. Anderson may have been lauded by the Sausalito mayor for his civic involvement and the column he started to write for the region’s big weekly, the Marin Scope, in 1999, but it was his Sushi Ran meals that won him the most attention.

Despite his high profile, Anderson remained a mystery to many people. How, for example, did he earn a living? Martin Brown assumed he was an “estate baby” who lived off inherited income. There were lots of those in Sausalito.

Anderson was deliberately vague about his income. But he dropped hints about how accomplished he was, hints that at the time no one had reason to disbelieve. He told people that he had invented voice mail. He said he had managed the rock and roll band Iron Butterfly.  It was only after Anderson’s arrest that people started to dissect the tales that characterized him as a dashing, successful businessman and traveler.

Frances Dinkelspiel will read from her book at Ondine restaurant on March 24, at 7 pm. Admission -- $40 general, $30 for Sausalito Historical Society members -- includes a complimentary glass of wine and appetizers.  Full cash bar also available.

All proceeds benefit the Sausalito Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) public benefit nonprofit corporation.