Tom Douglas began noticing it in late 2015: not a downturn in his restaurant trade, precisely; more like a lull in its usual growth. In his 30-plus years as a restaurateur, Douglas had seen his share of changes—he opened Dahlia Lounge in the twilight of the three-martini lunch era—but this was different. This was dinner.
The prolific restaurateur, whose 18-plus properties mostly cluster where downtown edges into Belltown and South Lake Union, had a theory. “What we felt in our market was people refusing to come downtown to shop because they can buy online,” he said. “At Christmastime, it was people not taking a stroll through Macy’s then going to the Cinerama and then having dinner out.” Douglas wondered why city government not only wasn’t helping downtown businesses survive the online revolution—but why it was doing so little to manage the pains of a city in mad growth mode: “Making very little effort to mitigate construction, closing intersections, not thinking about things outside the transit window.” Like restaurateurs in other dense-growth areas of Seattle, primarily Capitol Hill, Douglas saw traffic getting thicker, parking less visible and more expensive, and diners less interested in navigating it. “The mayor and the city council decided to force people out of their cars—and I don’t think mass transit is conducive to fine dining.”
One result, reported anecdotally by fine dining restaurants across downtown, has been a decrease in diners coming into town for dinner and an increasing reliance on hotel visitors and downtown dwellers. Hotel visitors have long been an essential customer base for downtown restaurants—dating from the ‘80s and ‘90s when downtown all but shut down after dark—but downtown residents, living in new high-rises from Pioneer Square to South Lake Union, are a new, tech-borne constituency. Who have to eat, right?
Yes—but differently. Jake Kosseff, a co-founder of downtown’s Miller’s Guild and now of the luxury restaurant Circadia on Olive, noticed their presence vividly on the night last week that a tanker crash closed I-5 for hours. “We had some reservations cancel that night, a few from [Eastside area code] 425, but it wasn’t a giant portion of our restaurant business,” Kosseff said. “That tells me people are walking here more than I expected them to.”
The dining habits of these downtown dwellers are different. “We talk to [our customers] and find that a lot of the people sitting at the bar are tech workers, lots from Amazon,” Kosseff says. “They’re maybe not taking the time to sit down for dinner in the dining room, but they still like to eat and they always want a drink. And they’re eating at unusual times, many toward the early end, eating lunch at 4pm.” Kosseff says for that reason he and his partners gave Circadia a “giant amount” of lounge and bar seating so there’d always be enough for this new kind of downtown diner—a lesson he learned at Miller’s Guild. “If we were to rebuild Miller’s Guild, we’d build a bigger bar and lounge.”
Then there's competition: Not only from the new restaurants many of these new buildings bring, but increasingly from the boom in food delivery services. Tom Douglas can sit in the lobby of the Via 6 apartment high-rise—in which he runs four food businesses, including TanakaSan—and watch “50 deliveries of food pull up a night,” he marvels. "UberEats, Postmates, Pizza Hut." He figures in the last year his restaurants have gone from three or four to-go orders a night to an average of 15. “I think having food delivered to your home is essentially the new going out,” Douglas says. “I think it’s thought of in the same way. I mean, when you’re paying $2,000 a month for your apartment, you want to spend time there.”
Douglas flatly refuses to characterize the new tech workers as geeky workaholics who work till 10m and eat takeout in their apartments—but he will say that his restaurants do better with hotel visitors than with downtown dwellers. “I do more business out of Hotel Andra’s 100 rooms in a night than out of Via 6’s 700 apartments,” he says. “By about triple.” To his mind, hotels, theaters, and retail drive the success of downtown dining much more than tech businesses. He mentions Shanik, the sister restaurant of the uber-popular Vij’s in Vancouver, BC, which was hotly awaited when it announced its opening in South Lake Union—then shuttered after two years. Its lack of a significant happy hour scene in its bar was widely understood as the reason it didn’t serve its constituency, but Douglas suggests it simply had the wrong constituency. “Shanik died because there was nothing going on nearby but offices,” Douglas says.
If Douglas won’t stereotype the new downtown diner—other restaurateurs aren’t as reluctant. “When you have a tech person who stares at a computer all day—there’s no tactile reward, no end result you can see and feel,” reflects Matt Dillon, the James Beard award–winning owner of six bars/restaurants, including Sitka and Spruce. “You’re not talking, you’re not touching. But when you go to a restaurant, it’s sensual, it’s nurturing.” All about talking and touching, Dillon says.
Seattle's downtown population, in short, may be growing less and less suited to Seattle's highest-end dining. “This city’s growing incredibly fast, bringing young people up who haven’t discovered themselves yet,” Dillon continues. “So they don’t know they want a bottle of wine, and not just a craft cocktail.” He quotes a friend, who he thinks sums it up best: “Seattle has turned into a gigantic airport terminal, where everyone’s just waiting for their plane to leave in five years.”