IT’S EARLY YET for retrospectives, but allow me to nominate 2010 as Year of the Restaurant Do-Over.
Lampreia became Bisato; Julia’s became Emmer and Rye. Mistral, Flying Fish, and Marjorie reemerged in shiny new quarters. And Sitka and Spruce showed us that sometimes a move isn’t just a change of address. Sometimes it’s a coming of age.
The original Sitka and Spruce, which young chef Matthew Dillon opened four years ago after cutting his teeth at the Herbfarm and the Stumbling Goat, was a dark, architecturally blank 22-seat storefront in Eastlake’s Circle K strip mall. Dillon didn’t accept reservations so patrons milled about in the doorway, waiting—sometimes hours—for a table or a spot at the communal board, to eat whatever Dillon cared to cook (there was no printed menu) in the company of whomever he cared to seat beside them.
The fact that this method of dining enjoyed the support of a miniscule subset of the eating populace was mitigated by the fact that Dillon is a culinary maestro. Soon after Sitka opened, he picked up a Food and Wine Best New Chefs award, then launched, to great fanfare, the Georgetown food salon the Corson Building. Both restaurants broadcast Dillon’s ability to transform what is freshest from local growers and foragers into dinners that shimmer with vision, rootedness, and wit.
One of the finest forkfuls I have tasted was an herby Dillon invention of chickpeas, oranges, mild Castelvetrano olives, and chunks of crisped octopus. The dish, at Sitka 1.0, showcased not only his brazen, why-the-hell-not style—but the fact that such a style can work.
And so I sat in the new Sitka scanning for another such triumph, off a (printed!) menu as sunlight gushed through vintage panes and radiated off whitewashed brick and stamped-tin walls. To say Sitka’s bright new perch in the lofty Melrose Market is a step up from its old location is a laughable understatement: The move Dillon made when his lease ran out last year took Sitka and Spruce from what felt like the darkest cranny of this town to its most luminous height.
Melrose Market is Seattle’s Les Halles: a raw-raftered warehouse for foodies with a butcher shop here, a cheese shop there, some wine perhaps—and how about a sandwich? The L-shaped Sitka embraces the southwest corner like open arms, its counter seats and dark-wood two-tops and butcher-block communal table surveying the whole European sweep of the Market through more of those atmospheric paned windows.
Dillon considered leasing the whole schmear for his Sitka, but he’d been overwhelmed before—when the weird little strip-mall “food studio” he’d envisioned as a neighborhood restaurant caught the hungry eye of a nation. “The old Sitka was a big learning process for me, very adolescent and immature,” Dillon now says. “I felt a desire to force myself into maturing as a chef.” Diners don’t want to wait in line, he learned, so in addition to nearly doubling the seats he’d need a system for reserving them. A big walk-in refrigerator, so he could buy whole animals. And an open kitchen, reflecting his acquired interest in transparency. “I wanted people to see, this is how good our tomatoes are! This is why we ask $24 for this dish!”