OPENING NIGHT OF Seatown Snack Bar at the corner of Western and Virginia, proprietor Tom Douglas greeted guests out front wearing shorts and a rumpled shirt. No white coat or toque for this celeb chef; the man might not even own a comb. “I’m a pretty casual guy,” says the Northwest’s third-most-famous culinary export. (Apples and salmon edge him out, but barely.)
And Seatown’s a pretty casual joint. Two joints, in truth: on the corner, a drop-in restaurant with counter seating, smoked seafood, rotisserie meats, sandwiches with chips, crab you’d like a bib for, and entrees like roast chicken, all golden and crackly and served with potatoes glistening with rotisserie drippings. Next to it, the really casual sidekick, takeout-only, with English muffin sandwiches by morning, then creamy turkey potpies and Southern corn grits and fragrant rotisserie chickens, and chocolate chip cookies for after.
But look a little closer. Richly marbled spirals of porchetta made with Carlton Farms pork come carefully seasoned with big chunks of garlic and fennel. The short ribs are all-natural, antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed Painted Hills beef, there’s wild salmon caviar with blini over in the sit-down joint, and those McMuffin jobs? There’s one—and it’s a fine one—with sablefish and cress.
Call it the new Upscale Downmarket, the movement that’s messing with old assumptions about what belongs in fine dining rooms and what belongs in diners. Industry observers across the country list a back-to-basics drift as the restaurant trend of the year, as diners for reasons both economic and emotional seek simple comfort foods. Hence some of our most culinarily ambitious restaurants, like Joule and Spring Hill, hold regular barbecue and fried chicken nights.
But in Seattle, the trend has been building at least since the late ’80s, when Douglas put the most gourmet burger anyone had ever seen—gasp! homemade ketchup!—on the menu of the upmarket erstwhile Café Sport.
Since then our own High Priest of Lowbrow has pioneered both sides of this phenomenon, offering both down-home yums in formal settings—powdered doughnuts in brown paper bags at The Dahlia Lounge —and artisan ingredients in informal ones, like the truffle cheese and San Marzano tomatoes that class up the pizzas of Serious Pie.
It’s this phenomenon—the appearance of fine food in settings once reserved for fast food—that Seattle’s seeing so much of right now. We see it whenever the hipster gastropub Quinn’s offers elegant plates of pork belly with lightly tarragoned radicchio and grilled apricot halves—right along with the pints. Or when Homegrown builds solid business plans and thrilling sandwiches on sustainable delectables like Zoe’s bacon, Beecher’s cheese, and Cattail Creek lamb.
NEXT: CHEF’S CHOICE