The news last year rippled through Seattle’s foodie underground like wind across a wheat field: Matthew Dillon was making a new restaurant.
It would be called the Corson Building; it would open in time for summer solstice. The setup would be the latest “It” thing—family-style, multicourse, prix-fixe dinners to be held two or three nights a week for two-dozen-and-some guests—and prepared by the wunderkind chef who had seized the notice of the nation with his little Eastlake restaurant, Sitka and Spruce. I called for my reservation in June and found to my frustration that every foodie within 50 miles had gotten there first: Corson’s calendar was booked for months.
When a return message alluringly hinted at a cancellation, I pounced. “We’ll take it, party of two!” I responded—only to age considerably waiting for a reply message inquiring whether I’d like it, and for how many. At last, two days before dinner we sealed the deal with real-time contact. Corson clearly likes to discuss its idiosyncrasies with prospective guests: You will pay $80 to $90 per head for seven courses ($110 to $120 with matching wines), you will sup with strangers, and have you any food allergies? But by this time my annoyance wires had been fully tripped. Must a person really hold her life and her calendar in thrall to a… restaurant?
It’s the precise question I’d been gnawing on for the couple of years since Sitka and Spruce had opened. The tiny Eastlake Avenue storefront was an unlikely headquarters for a revolution, but it ignited one nonetheless, thanks to Dillon’s radical philosophy: Fine restaurants should not cater to high-paying diners defined by classist distinctions between servers and served. Rather, they should be hubs of vibrant community defined by shared passion for food.
So he furnished Sitka and Spruce with a long communal table and a stand-up eating bar. He cultivated farmers and foragers and fishermen and crafted exuberant new dishes from what they gave him every day. His cramped and crowded space helped keep prices relatively affordable; his utterly arcane reservations policy (one per night, for a party of five to 12, between 7:30 and 8pm) kept his growing list of devotees clustered on the noisy sidewalk, telling themselves they didn’t mind waiting an hour sucking exhaust to eat a meal standing up.
Sitka became the ultimate unrestaurant, the most vivid example of a movement that was beginning to gather around here thick as an autumn overcast. Across the Northwest restaurateurs were ditching the time-honored conventions of hospitality like last week’s lettuce: from reservations (Elemental @ Gasworks), to private tables (Naomi and Michael Hebberoy’s Gotham Building Tavern in Portland), to menu choice (Art of the Table in Wallingford), to regular hours (Michael Hebberoy’s randomly scheduled One Pot suppers in Seattle)—even to anything so bourgeois as a business license (the erstwhile underground “word-of-mouth” restaurant Gypsy), or an address (the nomadic Airstream trailer Skillet Street Food). “Kill the restaurant!” became at least one insurrectionist’s slogan.
And that’s about the time Matthew Dillon found the Corson Building.
It stood in industrial Georgetown, wedged hard between a railroad track and I-5’s Corson Street exit and scratching distance from the pale underbellies of the planes roaring out from Boeing Field. Built by an Italian stonemason in 1910, the noble edifice struck Dillon as a diamond in the very rough—just the place to contain his restless new vision: a community center for foodies. He had apprenticed at the Herbfarm, worked at Stumbling Goat Bistro and Supreme, then owned Sitka—but never had he had a place where he could host family-style suppers, visiting-chef demos, pig roasts, picnics. The Corson Building offered a garden that the underserved kids from Seattle Youth Garden Works might plant and harvest; a second floor that could make charming guest quarters. He contacted kindred spirit Wylie Bush, owner of Capitol Hill’s Joe Bar, and before they’d sufficiently consulted their left brains they acquired the urban plot they took to calling their “little practice farm.” Together they rolled up their sleeves and began polishing their diamond’s considerable rough edges.