No, it’s not that I didn’t like the eccentric proprietor Phred Westfall, who was after all witty, often charming, and an undeniable maestro of wine pairings.
And it’s not that I didn’t see—though I didn’t share it—the appeal of the plywood, bare-bulb décor that presaged a minimalist trend across Seattle restaurants.
It’s not, even, that I didn’t sometimes like the food—the province of Westfall’s partner, Laurie Reideman. Occasionally it was fine, as in a nice black pepper gnocchi dish I sampled at Elemental ’s sister room next door, (same kitchen), served alongside perfectly cooked duck slices and a rhubarb puree. What was beautifully cooked was nonetheless not harmonious; a problem with most of the food I sampled at Elemental and Elemental Next Door. In contrast to many of Elemental’s fans—and there were many—I never found the food exceptional.
Still, unlike much else in town it had a strong late-night scene. It was a novelty in a town without much of that. I listed it as “Recommended” in the magazine and kept my eye on it.
And, over time, I recognized that my problem with the restaurant at the top of the Wallingford Steps was sort of profound. Namely, that this member of the hospitality industry maintained a deep aversion to hospitality.
When it opened it was a lark, of course: A restaurant with no sign, no reservations, no welcome at the door, and no menu was great fun for a food-loving populace then besotted with the secret, underground restaurants that had bewitched Seattle. On our first visit we walked in, found a seat, had drinks thrust into our hands (what were they? who knew!), then proceeded in the hands of a chef and a waiter who had a plan for us—but never much cared to let us in on it.
Forget things like food allergies or time limits—How bourgeois! We were in their hands! Problem was—they never felt like trustworthy hands. At Elemental, I often felt the need for something like a safe word. “What is this?” I would ask, gesturing to my plate, and Westfall would grin and walk away.
How many courses will there be? How much will it cost? These are questions one rarely got answers to at Elemental. What was guaranteed to bring a response was this: May I please dine a la carte? Judging by his stormy reaction when I asked this the first time, I felt cowed into falling in line with the program. That’s something…but it’s not hospitality.
In time, the owners opened Elemental Next Door (to accommodate us a la carte Philistines) and hung a sign at the door of Elemental that at least hinted at the idiosyncrasies within: “There are 1500 normal restaurants in Seattle. This is not one of them.”
Alright, fine. No sign out front; that sign within—as my husband argued, these were clear signals of unconventionality. “It’s not like some tourist just wanders into a room with no sign off a dead-end street,” he said. “People who come here are aiming for it. They know what they’re in for.”
Which unfortunately never kept it from being offensive—sometimes breathtakingly so. On my last visit, about a year ago, I walked in and once again had a drink thrust into my hands. I took a sip, found it to contain alcohol, smilingly apologized and asked if there were something else. I had recently quit drinking. “Yeah there’s something else,” Westfall said icily. “You could not drink it.”
Clearly by this time Westfall had lost it, so weary of what must have been incessant blowback he tossed even the smallest pretense toward hospitality out the window. As Elemental’s website says: “Concessions have not been made for hand-holding. It was not intended to be for everyone.”
Alright then—be a private club. Elemental already functioned as one, since those who didn’t get with the program felt marginalized. It was dining by clique.
And that’s something. But it’s not hospitality.
Restaurants are currently undergoing a service revolution. Trends like communal tables, set dining times, prix-fixe menus, and no reservations are all developments geared more toward the convenience of the restaurant then the convenience of the diner. In many ways Elemental was the apotheosis of this trend, dispensing with the most basic conventions of hospitality altogether in favor of a novelty that served its patrons on its own terms alone.
I wish Westfall and Reideman well—but I won’t miss it.