WHEN M.F.K. FISHER wrote her classic How to Cook a Wolf, the year was 1942 and wartime shortages were ravaging ordinary kitchens. The book was an elegant instruction manual for eating well, even gloriously, on the cheap—the wolf in question being the one at the door—and it was full of wry inspiration about how to prepare the least expensive cuts of beef, how to economize by making soup stocks from the water you steamed the vegetables in, that kind of thing. Between the recipes for scrambled eggs and “honest bread,” Fisher’s animating principles leapt off the page: Eat intentionally. Eat thriftily. Eat the freshest food, simply.
Fast-forward to 2008—and if the wolf isn’t exactly at the door, he may lately have been spotted about the neighborhood. There’s a new economy in the air, and a good number of the finest restaurants to have opened in the last year—see Café Presse, see Joule —have smelled it. Even Union, where celeb chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Rick Bayless choose to sup when passing through, recently shaved its entrée price tags to below $20. Union ’s owner, Ethan Stowell, opened his Belltown pasta house Tavolàta last year with a similarly down-market emphasis. And now Stowell gives us his lowest-ticket restaurant yet: a tiny pasta house on the top of Queen Anne called, you guessed it, How to Cook a Wolf.
“The restaurant is not based on the book,” Stowell insists, explaining that his mother—the former Pacific Northwest Ballet codirector Francia Russell—is an admirer of Fisher’s. Stowell’s father Kent, the other half of the former PNB team and reportedly a fine amateur cook, sometimes staffs the door of his son’s third restaurant.
Which at Wolf, believe me, is no retirement cakewalk. The 28-seat eatery does not take reservations, to allow diners time for their evening to unfold at a relaxed pace. As we arrived for our first visit on a Friday evening, our gentle greeter—not the danseur but someone every bit as hospitably graceful—explained all this as she seated us. We’d been advised to arrive no later than 5:15pm to secure the table for six, so she guessed we might have waited upwards of two hours had we arrived any later. We could have hung out at Opal’s big bar around the corner or Portage’s little one across the street, she explained, waiting for the Wolf to howl through our cell phone.
The irony is that Wolf’s purportedly relaxing “no reservations” policy—part of a sweeping larger trend that’s hard to see as anything but restaurateurs serving their own interests at the expense of their customers—created an almost humorous antithesis of a relaxed evening before our dinner had even begun. Would anyone choose a 5:15 table on a Friday evening? Can anyone make it anywhere in Seattle by 5:15 on a Friday evening?
The place is small enough to size up in a couple of eyefuls, and immediately it becomes clear that Wolf’s diminutive size is a huge part of its appeal. A barrel-vaulted pine ceiling imparts a sense of the room enfolding its inhabitants. Decorative elements strike simple, almost rudimentary notes—cork tables and bar, a strip of luminous copper girdling the walls, a wall of stone separating the kitchen from the dining room. The effect of that chimneylike wall in this cozy enclosure aglow with low light and capped by a dome is that of sitting inside a hearth.