WHEN THE LEASE came due on her award-winning 15-year-old restaurant Flying Fish, restaurateur Chris Keff knew it was time to bail on Belltown—land of too many partyers and too few parking spaces. As for relocation, the seasoned businesswoman had three requirements: a residential area, close to hotels, with a large business market. Downtown felt chain-restaurant happy; Capitol Hill too trendy. Then she toured South Lake Union—and signed on the dotted line.
“It was Vulcan’s involvement,” Keff says. “They have such a stake in the neighborhood, I knew they’d do everything in their power to make sure it develops in a positive way.”
There it is, folks: the way the pros site their restaurants. Ask William Belickis, owner and chef at Mistral Kitchen, who like Keff chose South Lake Union when abandoning Belltown. Or Joe Fugere, who three years ago chose the South Lake Union Pan Pacific Hotel complex as the third outpost of his extraordinary Tutta Bella Pizzeria. Or the seasoned young trio (Ruadhri McCormick of Kell’s and Post, Hannes Schindler of Post, Matthew Greenup of Mission) behind Re:public, the latest It restaurant-bar to pack ’em in for happy hour. You can rhapsodize all night about the romance of the hole-in-the-brick-lined-wall or the hipster cred of the nightlife-rich neighborhood, but savvy restaurateurs know that what keeps butts in seats beyond the honeymoon are high-density blocks of surging businesses.
And we are talking businesses. At press time Vulcan Real Estate had assigned some 3.4 million South Lake Union square feet to behemoths such as the nonprofit PATH, Tommy Bahama, Group Health, the biotech and medical research hub of UW Medicine, and the corporate headquarters of Amazon—a complex which, when completed in 2013, will fill the floor space of 31 football fields with up to 10,000 bodies. Hungry bodies. And that’s not even all of Vulcan’s holdings in the neighborhood.
Tom Douglas, the one-man restaurant Goliath who is courted regularly by developers but who signed with Vulcan for a space on Terry Avenue, is working hard to read the new neighborhood’s needs. The historic landmark building, larger than his vision for a single restaurant, will likely be split into three different ones when it opens in April; takeout will be an obvious component, as there’s still not much beyond the office commissaries to feed these folks. And he’s doing his demographic homework. “We found out, for instance, that 2,000 Indians work at Amazon,” Douglas reports. “So we’re making sure we’ve got plenty of vegetable options.”
From a table in the briskly sophisticated new Flying Fish one evening around 7pm, one can see the wisdom of letting the market define the product. Together, Keff’s cheerfully bright high-windowed space with the crisp tables and banquettes and her solid, novelty-free menu of global seafood done admirably issue a unified declaration: We are all business.
At the close of the workday—which Keff says happens across a spectrum from happy-hour-early to workaholic-late—professionals stream into Flying Fish, keeping it lively all night. “As expected, lunch has been great,” says Keff. “The big surprise is how full we’ve been at dinner.” Some of that business is from prospective restaurateurs, being wooed by Vulcan against Keff’s visibly successful backdrop. But mostly it’s the office workers, who, in Keff’s words, “completely drive our success.” In a space just seven seats larger than her Belltown location, just four months into its new life—Keff has already almost doubled her business.
NEXT: NOSE TO TAIL