Last summer I began to notice a curious phenomenon: Suddenly everyone wanted to eat at Meet the Moon. Friends suggesting dinner spots invariably mentioned the Leschi place; not just a few friends, but lots. The neighborly joint with the raw-timbered warmth had only opened in January, but soared so swiftly to popularity among those in my orbit—and among those from many orbits, judging from the throngs forever crowding the doorway of the reservation-free spot—it appeared to be breeding regulars almost virally. I must’ve gone five times that summer.
So sitting down at Thackeray, the latest outing from the Meet the Moon folks, brought powerful deja vu. Same all-day, all-evening program, with individual menus for lunch, dinner, drinks, happy hour, brunch, weekend afternoon, and dessert. (Nitpickers—and my friends—will note that Meet the Moon also has kids’ and breakfast menus.) Same folksy-fizzy service norm. (“My name is ___ and I’ll be taking great care of you tonight!” chirped one Thackeray server.) Same keen attention to wine and spirits. And, most significantly, same comfort food focus: crispy chicken wings, charred broccoli, chopped salad, braised short rib, caramel apple crisp.
All at once a decade’s worth of meals at the restaurants from this owner, Heavy Restaurant Group, skittered across my internal hard drive: in 2006 a bubbling skillet of lobster mac and cheese at downtown’s Purple Cafe and Wine Bar…in 2008 a cheesy chile relleno at Capitol Hill’s Barrio…in 2013 a plate of chicken and waffles drizzled with Bourbon maple syrup at Bellevue’s Lot No. 3…last summer a munchable grain bowl of farro and arugula and vegetables at Meet the Moon. And now at Thackeray: a heaping platter of crackling honey-glazed fried chicken with fingerling potato salad and a cheddar cheese biscuit.
Call it crowd-pleaser food—recognizable, screamingly popular, and distinguished by a dearth of the nasty bits, raw stuff, and inventive edge that connoisseurs go around praising. So it seems, here at the opening of Heavy’s eighth restaurant—with numbers nine and 10 on the drawing board—the time has come to anoint Heavy Restaurant Group the Seattle area’s Crown Prince of Crowd-Pleasers: an honor that may not be quite as insulting as it sounds.
After all, Seattle has a proud tradition of populist restaurants—a tradition whose modern incarnation began in 1975, when restaurateurs Tim Firnstahl and Mick McHugh (F. X. McRory’s) opened Jake O’Shaughnessey’s near Seattle Center. Among the many things Firnstahl and McHugh understood, most significant was their awareness that a restaurant becomes a haunt not just by filling diners’ bellies but by filling their expectations. Jake’s food was accessible and always the same, its service scripted down to the last dotted i, and by the time the chain had grown to six teeming dinner houses—the modern formula restaurant was born.
It’s hard to miss the elements at Thackeray which spring from that primordial DNA—oversharing waiter to familiarity of the food. Early on at Purple, Heavy owner Larry Kurofsky used guest surveys to influence menus—a practice that persists, he says, in the form of “constant communication with guests.” As a result, Meet the Moon’s menu is like a globe-trotter’s greatest comfort food hits, lobster roll to queso fundido to albacore poke. Over at Barrio, nobody’s going to mistake the relleno for authentic, but then authenticity isn’t what the place is going for. Popularity is.
And so the windows-and-cement clad Thackeray is the latest inheritor of the Heavy mantle, with its sprawler of a floor plan (the better for seating everybody) and a Mediterranean theme it wears so lightly as to almost not be wearing it at all. Some dishes are solid, others flawed in the making, still others—like a terrific za’atar rub and feta crumble over mealy fries—a collaboration of both. Still, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be satisfied by something on its menu. For me, it’s that damn fried chicken—billed as Ethiopian spiced but landing on the taste buds by way of somewhere much closer to, I don’t know, Tennessee.
My point is not to dis that chicken; on the contrary, I love that chicken. Crave it, even. My point is that, especially against our culture’s widening populist-elitist divide, Thackeray and its Heavy siblings reveal a modern truth: A restaurant can be beloved and successful and very good at what it’s going for without what is generally praised as culinary artistry. Meet the Moon and Thackeray are the new formula restaurants; comfortable, easygoing, relatively affordable drop-in spots that deliver on our expectations and don’t present a challenge. Of course everyone wants to eat in them—they serve what we’d be cooking for ourselves, if we were, you know, better cooks.