REMEMBER JANUARY? IT’S painful to recall during the splendor of a Seattle August…but of all the places and times to open a restaurant, January 2009 in Seattle had to be the worst. The temperatures were freezing, the streets still obstructed with dirty snow, and the usual postholiday spending doldrums exacerbated by that month’s regional free fall into the recession that had already decimated the rest of the country.
That’s when Cantinetta opened: a rustic ristorante on a residential corner of Wallingford, whose wrought-iron chandeliers and lace sheers, nicked wood floors and plank tables, mullioned windows and gilded mirrors and buttery stucco walls were the picture of Tuscan insouciance itself.
Weirdest, it had diners. Tons of ’em, with new ones pouring in at the speed of word of mouth. By the time summer came and the tables hit the sidewalks the place was buzzing most nights and certified slammed on weekends. One such Saturday night we were told our wait for a table would be an hour. We squeezed into the bar and found ourselves bellied up alongside John Sarich, the TV chef and culinary director of Chateau Ste. Michelle who decades ago founded Adriatica, Seattle’s legendary and perhaps greatest Mediterranean restaurant.
What was this Cantinetta doing right? The answer could fill a primer on how to crowd a restaurant during a recession.
1. KNOW EVERYONE IN TOWN. The owners, Trevor Greenwood and Randy Quarry, worked together at Queen City Grill and Via Tribunali, among other places that draw lots of regulars, amassing a fat Rolodex of diners (and servers) along the way. (A third owner, attorney Wade Moller, is a silent partner.) Quarry worked the bar when we were there, calling out hellos to about half the crowd. All that connection crams a restaurant—then makes it irresistible as a party.
2. BE A NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT. Recessions keep folks close to home, and Cantinetta is close to many homes—the well-appointed Craftsmans of lower Wallingford. What it’s not close to is other restaurants, located visibly (at the corner of Wallingford Avenue and 37th Street) but not anchored to a commercial district. Pretty savvy. Packs the house with neighbors chatting across tables, which gives it the warm soul of a cozy and candlelit third place.
3. BE REASONABLE. Cantinetta’s owners set out to keep prices of all antipasti, contorni, pasta, and entrées below $20—just the kind of shorthand that lures impecunious diners. This can lead to some satisfying pasta meals, like a romp through a workmanlike Bolognese over housemade pappardelle. It can also yield happy bargains, like the $18.50 chunk of tender Copper River salmon we sampled in its season, served simply on a plate with a few stalks of blushing asparagus.