Skillet founder Josh Henderson opens the Hollywood Tavern, right in the middle of somewhere.
Busy would be a good word to describe Josh Henderson, if crazy overcommitted weren’t the precise technical term.
In the seven years since he tricked out an Airstream trailer to vault bacon-jam burgers into the stratosphere, Henderson has launched two bricks-and-mortar Skillet Diners and a Skillet Counter, one Greek seafood restaurant on the shore of Lake Union (Westward) with an adjoining market (Little Gull Grocery), a Woodinville roadhouse and bar called Hollywood Tavern, and a Capitol Hill urban mercantile called Cone and Steiner. (Still another prospective project, Parchment, in SoDo, was recently scrapped.)
Hollywood Tavern in Woodinville opened in November as his farthest flung: a “wine-country farmcuisine” redo of the rowdy ’40s roadhouse Mabel’s Tavern, and the third of four significant Henderson properties to open within the last five months of 2013. For the kitchen he hired Angie Roberts, a chef whose rustic, unfussy cooking style he had admired at Seattle’s Hotel 1000, and whose 11 years of hotel experience gave her the chops he figured she’d need for the catering demands of the new property.
After all, Hollywood Tavern shares its parcel with the new home of the boutique distillery Woodinville Whiskey. Which places it in the same exalted destination category as Woodinville’s other beverage behemoths, planted just a cork’s-pop away from one another: the Redhook Brewery compound, Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, and the Willows Inn–Barking Frog–Herbfarm luxury trifecta.
In other words, expectations are high.
Some of which will be met. Henderson’s company, Huxley Wallace, is the rare restaurant outfit that invests aesthetics with meaning—so the handsome striped-wood tables of Hollywood Tavern are meant to evoke the agricultural landscapes of the neighborhood. Half of the place, the tavern half, evokes the vintage twilit roadhouse Mabel’s once was: timber walls, faded painted-concrete floors, old-fashioned turned-spindle chairs, rows of amber whiskies, blues growling out of the system. This room is the essence of down-to-earth intimacy, and just the place you want to settle in of a wintry night over a heaping plate of beef cheeks, bourguignon rich with their beer-jam glaze, along with a shot of something smooth. The cocktails here are inventive and lush. The distillery, opening any minute now across the courtyard, adds atmosphere.
In here you want the friendly waiters to bring you down-home grub, like boiled peanuts, or fried pickles, or soft-serve ice cream, or the kind of upmarket Americana fare Henderson pretty much patented at Skillet. That includes genuinely killer salads (best is the mix of kale, raisins, pine nuts, and hummus) and a nice comfort-food double-patty burger with pickles and American cheese and special sauce which tastes exactly, bizarrely, like the yellow-mustard flavor of a Dick’s burger. Terrific fries, and not a fresh vegetable fixin’ in sight. That’s comfort food with a wink, not “wine country farm cuisine.” And, not for nothing, Hollywood’s best seller.
This kind of populist pub grub fills the niche unmet by Hollywood’s haute neighbors, namely the Barking Frog and the Herbfarm, and therefore makes sense for the neighborhood. That said—Hollywood, even the Woodinville kind of Hollywood, turns out to be more than one neighborhood. Part rural backwater, part exurban utopia, part teeming tourist mecca, Hollywood Tavern’s demographic ranges across the cultural spectrum from suburban food-channel sophisticates to Parisian oenophiles to geezer Woodinvillebillies mourning their beloved Mabel’s.
It was tough for a restaurateur to plan for—so Henderson hedged bets. Decoratively one sees this in the other half of Hollywood Tavern, the Laura Ingalls Wilder half, whose wainscoting and unforgiving light from hanging lampshades give off a cutesy, new-construction feel. (It’s a little like McMenamins, that Portland-based chain of revamped historical properties whose brewpubs and inns sometimes feel like theater sets.) Gastronomically one sees it in menu items that seem designed for a different restaurant—items like kimchi cheese fries, or (not-so) crispy pig’s ears, which appeared on one early menu.
It’s okay to be the kind of place that makes your own American cheese—which Hollywood Tavern does, out of sharp cheddar, gruyere, pale ale, and a natural emulsifier. But if you’re doing this for a demographic that lacks the right ironic appreciation for it, or one that’s sad that you’re not using Kraft Singles—it’s a meaningless gesture.
Hollywood Tavern is conflicted at the most basic level of identity. It’s a problem Henderson is already addressing, with menu tweaks and plans to mellow out the lampshade room. Now we just hope the visionary isn’t already spread too thin. Unlike his empire-building brethren Tom Douglas (whose 15 properties all buzz within a single downtown square mile) or Ethan Stowell (who likes diffusing overhead by sharing infrastructure with next-door neighbors), Henderson now runs six businesses in six different zip codes, along with a pair of mobile restaurants. Sure, they’re interesting and unique properties, each with a soul of its own. But that’s what someone probably once said about McMenamins.