Seventeen years ago this spring I made my usual postreview phone call to the kitchen at Boat Street Cafe. “I’ve reviewed your restaurant,” I told the chef, “and I just have a few questions.”
The chef panicked. It was Renee Erickson—the never-formally-trained 25-year-old who had quietly just assumed the helm of Boat Street from her mentor, Boat Street founder (and Boat Street Kitchen owner) Susan Kaplan. Turns out I had made my review visit the first weekend Erickson was in charge. “I will never forget it: My mom was working the dining room, my dad was in the kitchen,” Erickson laughed by phone yesterday. “It was an SNL skit, we were so bad.”
Um, or not. I’m not sure I’ve ever written such a laudatory review, before or since—so laudatory, in fact, my Seattle Weekly editor used the headline to poke fun of my overuse of superlatives. That’s back when Boat Street Cafe was on Boat Street, off Portage Bay; a slightly ramshackle, enormously charming boathouse that so thoroughly evoked the pleasures of French country dining—both in setting and dreamy food—it instantly shot to the top of my favorites list.
And for the next 17 years, I watched Erickson unleash her obvious talent across Seattle—from her relocation of Boat Street to its current address off Western; to the acclaimed launches of her oyster bar, The Walrus and the Carpenter, and her dinner house, The Whale Wins; to the genesis of her mobile operation, her pickling business, and the upcoming French oyster bar and Parisian cafe Erickson’s got in the works for late summer on Capitol Hill.
She’s known for some time that with everything on her plate, her firstborn would have to go.
There was Boat Street’s tucked-away location, sort of subnowhere, which she says attracted diners by day (Kaplan's Boat Street Kitchen will remain, thank God), but became a “ghost town” at night. “Seattle diners really do love their neighborhoods, places they can walk to,” she reflects.
Even more, Boat Street represents a more traditional restaurant paradigm than is currently ascendant. “I think people love new stuff; they’re voracious for new ideas, new everything,” she said. “I was just in France with the staff, and those smaller, less traditional restaurants, the very popular places that are hard to get into and classically irritating, like Walrus,” she laughs, “those places are exciting. And, for a restaurateur, they’re less expensive to run.” Classic dinner houses, as she explains it, are slower, more painstaking, and require more from the chef.
Lacking the pulsing soundtrack, the line at the door, and the bar-centric identity that keep young noshers coming, these classic dinner houses can seem sleepy by comparison—no matter how impressive the food. Considered in this light, the recently announced departure of Jason Stratton from Vespolina (and his other properties) and Meeru Dhalwala’s impending closure of her creamy Shanik may make the same kind of sad sense as the close of Boat Street Cafe’s 17-year run.
But Erickson's not so quick to dismiss the old paradigm, describing her as-yet-nameless Parisian cafe using words like “traditional,” “coursed entrees,” and “intimate.” “I think the pendulum is going to swing back to that classic dinner house, and that the Boat Street type restaurant is going to be what people want in five years.”