The Restaurants that Changed the Way We Eat
RESTAURANTS OPEN, RESTAURANTS CLOSE—but once in a great while a restaurant comes along that’s so influential it changes its city forever. We’ve cast our gimlet eye back across the last century to give you the restaurants, some long gone and some still kicking, that have served much more than food—they’ve served Seattle’s destiny. (Sometimes for better, sometimes… well, you be the judge.) How were they groundbreaking? Which places followed in their wake? If the restaurant biz is about anything, it’s about change—from the special of the day to the person wearing the tall white hat. But these restaurants? They changed us.
FIRST TO LAUNCH A CELEBRITY RESTAURATEUR
He was a folksinger with a native-son pedigree (his grandparents bought Alki Point from “Doc” Maynard) and an entrepreneurial zeal. He opened a dockside fish bar at Pier 54, on the same pier as the current Ivar’s Fish Bar, that over the next 70 years would burgeon into an empire of restaurants and seafood bars and stadium concessions, his clam chowder distributed across the planet. All because Ivar Haglund was a born promoter, Seattle’s own P. T. Barnum, whose maxims (“Keep Clam”) and media savvy (oh, those ’80s dancing clam commercials) and madcap pranks (he once ran for port commissioner—and won) kept Ivar’s Restaurants fixed in the limelight for decades. The food? Never the main event. How could it be?
DESCENDANTS Tim Firnstahl’s and Mick McHugh’s restaurants (Jake O’Shaughnessey’s, see page 84; F. X. McRory’s Steak, Chop, and Oyster House; and others), Duke’s Restaurants, Tom Douglas Restaurants (Dahlia Lounge, Etta’s Seafood, and others)
FIRST TO PEG SEATTLE AS A CHAIN MARKET
Five years after inventing the mai tai, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron took his one-off rum-drenched Polynesian paradise in Oakland and re-created it in Seattle, originally under the name the Outrigger. It would become the second Trader Vic’s in the chain, the South Seas centerpiece of downtown’s Westin Hotel, and, yes, it was the move that launched the Trader’s eventual imperialist sweep of Planet Earth—Hamburg to Taipei, Vegas to Abu Dhabi. (Two years ago nostalgic investors even tried to colonize downtown Bellevue; an ill-fated attempt that ended last summer.) But of considerably more regional significance was the fact that Trader Vic’s established this pre–World’s Fair backwater as a legitimate market for its patented Big Night Out blend of tiki-torch romance, white tablecloth luxury, and mortgage-payment tabs.
DESCENDANTS Oceanaire Seafood Room, Morton’s Steakhouse
FIRST TO SHOWCASE THE NORTHWEST
The Seattle that Greek immigrant Peter Canlis encountered upon his arrival was, as he would later tell the Post-Intelligencer, “the worst restaurant town in America.” Fine dining in those days was a generic, stultifyingly Continental pursuit, done in clubby rooms with too much tobacco smoke and virtually no natural light. So when Canlis unveiled his viewy masterpiece, slung out over the east edge of Queen Anne Hill, it shone like the dawn of a new day. Celebrated architect Roland Terry (known primarily for his residential designs) included a fireplace—then unheard of in a restaurant—and gave it a skin of warm Northwest timber, Mount Baker stone, and huge picture windows. Down to the Northwest artists on the walls, it felt far more the gracious Seattle home than the commercial enterprise; even the servers were Kimono-clad Asian women (okay, so it was 1950) in place of the usual fleet of pompous male table captains. It all added up to the first really beautiful restaurant in Seattle—and the first to define beauty in a distinctly Northwest way.
DESCENDANTS Palisade, Waterfront
FIRST TO ESTABLISH POWER DINING
These days, the high-end trend in restaurants is all about the provenance of the food, not the theater of the dining experience. Oh, how times have changed. By the time Victor Rosellini opened the elegant Four-10 in 1956, he had refined his front-of-the-house savoir-faire (honed at his first Seattle restaurant, Rosellini’s 610) to high art. Because Rosellini had the smarts to greet every return guest by name, the sincerity to make them all feel like royalty, the discretion to attract both Democrats (his cousin Albert Rosellini was then governor of Washington State) and Republicans, and the savvy to strategically choreograph seating—political rivals across the room from one another, pretty women on view in the middle—his dim-lit Italian restaurant quickly became the place power brokers came to plot the destiny of the city. Those who know say the World’s Fair might have remained on the drawing board were it not for the Four-10. And Rosellini’s shrewd hostmanship proved innovative in other respects: He brought the first lounge act to town, was the first restaurateur of note to see potential in the sketchy latitudes now known as Belltown (where he relocated the Four-10 when its original Fourth and University building was demolished to make way for the Rainier Tower)—and, of nearly legendary significance, mentored scion Robert Rosellini in the biz.
DESCENDANTS Tulio, El Gaucho, Bis on Main
FIRST TO OPEN A SUSHI BAR
It opened in 1904 at Sixth and Main: a grand three-story white building at the center of Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown, where the Japanese community gathered and celebrated and ate well for decades—even after its relocation to shoddier digs during the Japanese internment. But the curtain wasn’t to go up on Maneki’s destiny until 1970, the year the owners hired an upstart chef from Tokyo to introduce Seattle to sushi. That chef was Shiro Kashiba: he of the flashing knives, charming grin, and wicked talent who would launch Seattle’s first sushi bar at Maneki, then go on to open his own sushi bar at Nikko (which he fancied up for its move to the Westin)—and then, after a brief dalliance with retirement, come roaring back with the best sushi bar yet, Shiro’s in Belltown. Visit today and chances are very good you’ll be sitting next to someone who’s been following this genius around for nigh on 40 years.
DESCENDANTS Shiro’s Sushi Restaurant, Saito’s Japanese Café and Bar, Musashi’s Sushi
FIRST TO PERFECT THE FORMULA RESTAURANT
It was the flagship for what Tim Firnstahl and Mick McHugh would build into a fleet: six restaurants including F. X. McRory’s Steak, Chop, and Oyster House and Leschi Lakecafe. Having failed at an earlier venture, the partners were determined to make Jake’s a success, so they spent three full years—with counsel from his highness Victor Rosellini—banging out the formula: sporty location (in the Hansen Baking Co. across from Seattle Center), manly brass-and-marble decor, focus on the booze, crowd-pleasing menu, plenty of scene (a singing bartender, for Pete’s sake), publicity gimmicks galore—and, infamously, service scripted out of a 2,000-page training manual, which, among other things, instructed employees to place napkins no more than one inch from the edge of the table and never say, “There you go,” when setting down a plate. We’ve known our waiters’ names ever since.
DESCENDANTS Chow Foods (5-Spot, Coastal Kitchen, etc.), Bada Restaurants (BluWater Bistro, Belltown Bistro, etc.)
FIRST TO MAKE HEALTHY HIP
Culturally, the ur-hippie-healthy-hangout defined its era. Culinarily, it pointed Seattle down the road it has followed to the present day, with caterer Robin Woodward an ahead-of-her-time prophet of the fresh, the healthy, and the seasonal. Starting on Capitol Hill’s 15th, then moving to a sunny space at 19th and Aloha, Woodward and her cooks fashioned regional bounty into casual all-day café eats—fresh berry scones, flaky vegetable quiches, breads and cereals made on site—that regulars (and everyone was a regular) would savor for hours at Seattle’s first long communal tables. Later, in the early ’80s, at her urbane downtown restaurant, 1904, Woodward displayed an even keener prescience by being the first in town to offer such exotics as charcuterie, wines by the glass, fresh pasta, and—Holy ahead of the curve, Batman!—a nonsmoking dining room.
DESCENDANTS Still Life in Fremont, Honey Bear Bakery, Volunteer Park Cafe and Marketplace
B & O Espresso
FIRST TO EXALT COFFEE CULTURE
The year was 1976; the place, a Seattle few will remember—a Seattle without a coffeehouse on every corner. Even Starbucks, whose stores you could still count on one hand, was just a roaster. Oh, a few coffeehouses existed—Café Allegro, still pulling espresso on a U District alley, was quite possibly the first—but until a visionary scene-setter named Lois Pierris came along none would nail the elegant bohemian esprit that made her B & O Espresso such a thing of beauty. Pierris was a maestro of romantic atmo (before getting out of the restaurant biz she also gave us Serafina), and for years the B & O, with its vintage European vibe, was the place to cap a date with a coffee and a sumptuous dessert. It was also a haunt of artists—legend has it Pearl Jam came up with its band name there—and activists and urbanites, providing one of the original “third places” in a town that would one day make them its primary export.
DESCENDANTS Famous Pacific Dessert Company, Dilettante, Starbucks, Caffe Ladro
Toshi’s Teriyaki Restaurant
FIRST TO ESTABLISH SEATTLE’S SIGNATURE FAST FOOD
His name was Toshihiro Kasahara, and the business he launched after emigrating from Japan would ignite a culinary wildfire fed by soy, sugar, and a whole mess of grilled chicken. In 1976, Toshi’s original shop on Roy Street in Lower Queen Anne served a teriyaki chicken plate with a football of rice and a cabbage salad for $1.85. The uniquely accessible ethnic dinner and Tokyo-by-way-of-Hawaii fast-food bargain became an immediate hit, thanks to the styrofoam-busting quantity of its servings and the
sheer yum appeal of its salty-sweet chicken, crispy with char. Through expansion and franchising Toshi’s grew and spawned legions of imitators (some of which kept the Toshi’s name even after Kasahara got out of the business, in 2003). We’ll call that influential: Today within Seattle proper there are more than three times as many teriyaki joints as there are McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and Jack in the Boxes put together.
DESCENDANTS Taco Del Mar, Than Brothers Pho
The Other Place
FIRST TO RECOGNIZE NORTHWEST CUISINE
If Victor Rosellini’s genius was the front of the house, it was the kitchen where his son Robert would leave the most enduring mark. And enduring it was: The Other Place, which inhabited the dark old Dublin House space at Third and Union (then later moved into posher digs in the current Islander Pacific Rim Cuisine space at the tag end of Union), is almost universally regarded as the first world-class restaurant in Seattle; its proprietor, Robert Rosellini, the Alice Waters of the Northwest. He hired Dominique Place as opening chef, who would go on to critical acclaim at Dominique’s Place and Gerard and Dominique Seafood, but his lasting claim to fame was the guy he hired to wash the dishes: an idealistic young epicurean named Bruce Naftaly, who had spent his Bay Area youth raiding just the right garden for the best tomatoes; climbing just the right fence for the tastiest orange. Naftaly apprenticed himself to the chef, then became the chef, and from 1977 to ’79 created at the Other Place the beta version of what would become the farm-fresh locavore movement—in an era when “local” meant little against the cachet of “imported.” Naftaly nurtured the earliest organic sources and cooked strictly seasonally in a way that wouldn’t hit the mainstream for another 25 years. (Sorry, no lemon for your fish—how about a little sorrel?) Naftaly would leave to open Les Copains, then later his stunning Le Gourmand. But the title Naftaly still wears as the Father of Northwest Cuisine dates from his years at the Other Place.
DESCENDANTS The Herbfarm, Union, Tilth
FIRST TO REVERE SEAFOOD
Since opening in 1973 as a fine dining establishment over the shores of scenic Shilshole Bay, Ray’s was a Seattle icon. But not until 1979 did it get great, thanks to a seafood maven named Jon Rowley and a visionary chef named Wayne Ludvigsen. Years before, Rowley had been dining at the 610 when a young waiter named Robert Rosellini served him a plate of fish he could smell coming. Convinced Seattle should have better seafood, Rowley founded his own fish company. When Ludvigsen took over at Ray’s, Rowley found him a quick study and a dazzling talent, and taught him to invest in the best fish (he was one of the first in Seattle to take a chance on a pricey new product called Copper River salmon). In short order, Ray’s was snagging national headlines, putting Seattle on the epicurean map, and creating a powerful culture of fanatically fresh seafood that would influence a new generation of chefs.
DESCENDANTS Flying Fish, Matt’s in the Market
FIRST TO GIVE US UPMARKET ETHNIC
Wait, aren’t Vietnamese restaurants supposed to be dives? Eric and Sophie Banh never got the memo. When Monsoon opened its doors in the most stylish converted coffee shop on Capitol Hill, streamlined and sleek, looking far more Rodeo Drive than Little Saigon, its intelligent and silken fare (duck leg confit with baby bok choy, grilled beef in la lot leaves) in a whole other realm from the homely noodle bowls and spring rolls we’d long associated with Vietnamese food—well, let’s just say you can pinpoint that as the precise moment Seattle became cosmopolitan.
DESCENDANTS Tamarind Tree, La Carta de Oaxaca, May Thai Restaurant
FIRST TO SOPHISTICATE EUROPEAN FOOD
The ’80s blew a fresh breeze of modern Europe through Seattle, from the lighter French fare of restaurants like Le Tastevin and Campagne, to the nuova cucina that took Italian cuisine beyond meatballs and red sauce. Nowhere was this done with sleeker style than at Capitol Hill’s Settebello, the starkly fashionable restaurant on Olive Way’s slope into downtown. There the handsome, white-haired, Italian-born Luciano Bardinelli not only trained a cityful of future restaurateurs—Salute’s Raffaele Calise, Lampreia’s Scott Carsberg—he retrained our very palates to favor a finer variant of Italian cuisine. From one’s seat at a table in Luch’s place, savoring sweetbreads with peppers and cream, surveying a room filled with (such as they were) Seattle “celebrities”—well, all of a sudden, Toto, Seattle wasn’t Kansas anymore.
DESCENDANTS Mistral, Lampreia
FIRST TO MAKE FINE CUISINE CASUAL
Remember when restaurants were formal destinations you planned weeks in advance to visit? Neither do we—because restaurants like Salute came along to turn that musty paradigm on its ear. The original Bryant address at 55th and 35th (others still exist under variations of the name, but under different ownership) wore an offhand, candles-shoved-in-chianti-bottles exuberance and was strung with twinkling lights and heady with garlic. Pasta’s cheap, so prices remained relatively low, which begat legions of regulars; a no-reservations policy (decades ahead of its current heyday) allowed neighbors spontaneity and guaranteed a constant line, which only burnished its reputation. Launched by Settebello alum Raffaele Calise, Salute boasted glorious food—like the marinara and the pizza—but it was the electric, everyone’s-here energy of the front of the house that made the place a come-as-you-are party every night of the week. Ever wonder why there’s now a casual pasta house in nearly every neighborhood? Salute established the template that would dominate Seattle’s restaurant landscape for the next decade.
DESCENDANTS Salvatore, Ciao Bella, Mondello
FIRST TO BREAK THE RULES
It was the restaurant that established the maverick chef Tom Douglas as a superstar and, in so doing, it broke more ground than a jackhammer. How? By shattering the rules, as giddily as possible. Serve world-class food in a glitter-painted athletic-club commissary? Check. Mix lowbrow with highbrow on the same menu? Check. (Before Sport, we’d never fine-dined on burgers, but here Douglas was baking his own buns and spreading the freshly ground meat with housemade red-onion jam.) Combine New American and Pacific Rim cuisines in so fresh and pioneering a way it basically invents “fusion cuisine”? Check-check. Through his stunning palate, natural irreverence, and brazen whimsical streak Douglas busted down any culinary convention that got in the way of simple deliciousness. Then, after leaving Sport in 1989 to launch his own family of restaurants he broke the biggest rule of all: He trained his own competitors, raising the culinary quality of an entire city by elevating his best chefs, and even supporting many of them as they spun off into restaurants of their own.
DESCENDANTS Dahlia Lounge, Stumbling Goat Bistro, Coupage
FIRST TO SHRINK THE PLATES
Goodness knows, Johnathan Sundstrom didn’t invent small-plate dining. The Spanish got there centuries ahead of him with tapas, and the Chinese, with dim sum, centuries before that. (The yuppies—remember “grazing”?—caught on somewhat later.) What Sundstrom did do, however, was package small plates for contemporary epicureans, thus launching the biggest dining trend of the new millennium in a way that enabled diners not just to assemble a meal but to assemble a great meal. Suddenly diners could microtailor dinner specifically to their desires—Camano Island smelts for Madame South Beach; a plate of farro with chanterelles and one of organic baby carrots for Mr. Vegan. And if something was lost when the assembling was left to the picky diner rather than the trained chef, and if the tiny plates added up to a decidedly untiny tab—well, we’d just have to get used to it. In Lark, Sundstrom has given this city an exemplar so alluring there’s no getting away from it now.
DESCENDANTS Pair Food and Wine, Sitka and Spruce, How to Cook a Wolf
FIRST TO GO PAN-ASIAN
Before Rick and Ann Yoder opened Wild Ginger on Western Avenue, Pan-Asian meant fried rice in a tatami room. Suddenly, here was a restaurant that burst upon our palates with all the exotic complexity of a Southeast Asian bazaar, its menu jetting from Indonesian satay to seafood Thai noodles to Vietnamese squash and sweet potato stew to Malaysian bouillabaisse to Sichuan duck, its signature, fragrant with cinnamon and star anise. So many menus today contain this kind of variety as a matter of course, we forget that nobody was doing it before Wild Ginger. By the time manic popularity compelled a move to its current airier quarters across from Benaroya Hall, Wild Ginger had settled into the more serene posture of the classic it had become.
DESCENDANTS Chinoise Sushi Bar and Asian Grill, Madoka, Made in Kitchen
FIRST TO MAKE SPIRITS CULINARY
Spirits exploded into Seattle’s epicurean consciousness at the dawn of the twenty-first century, transforming cocktails from happy hour prologues into an essential complement of dinner, meant, like wine, to be regarded as and enjoyed with food. In Seattle this happened most vividly at the mod little Parisian boîte Sambar, Le Gourmand’s next-door little sister. What magic Le Gourmand wrought with its sauces Sambar learned to do with mixers, applying a saucier’s principles—layers of flavor, varieties of texture, depth of intensity—to cocktails. So proprietor Sara Naftaly would hand-puree the tamarinds and put up her own cherries and steep her own herbal bitters and muddle pounds and pounds of fresh ginger, frequently going to similar lengths as her husband Bruce Naftaly next door—including planting a pineapple guava tree in her backyard—to assure a freshness level so fanatical, you can taste it.
DESCENDANTS Licorous, Vessel
FIRST TO GO GREEN
Seattle’s had healthy restaurants for decades, from ’70s tofu temples (Sunlight Café) to gourmet vegetarian restaurants (Café Flora, Carmelita) to raw-food cafés (Chaco Canyon) with nearly everything—see vegetarian hot dogs, see cruelty-free doughnuts—in between. But the movement has achieved landmark transcendence in Tilth, the only organic-certified restaurant in Seattle, where chef Maria Hines’s profound commitment to sustainability—no VOCs in the paint, tables made of sustainable bamboo, even hemp aprons for the staff—never gets in the way of her kitchen’s capacity to blow our palates clean away.
DESCENDANTS Sutra, Pizza Fusion
Sitka and Spruce
FIRST TO UNRESTAURANT THE RESTAURANT
Call them the “unrestaurants”—dining destinations that eschew the general conventions of hospitality: greetings at the door, perhaps, or menus, private tables, regular hours, printed wine lists, even business licenses or consistent addresses. And call Matt Dillon, the young toque Food and Wine christened one of the Best New Chefs of 2007, the patron saint of the trend, which to him is all about elevating the food community over the dining experience. That’s why his Sitka and Spruce, a nondescript storefront in a strip mall on Eastlake where diners languish without reservations to eat sensational microseasonal cuisine even if they have to stand, is, within this genre, Holiest of Holies.
DESCENDANTS Art of the Table, Skillet, the Corson Building.