When Miles James applied for a space in Pike Place Market, it seemed like meatball sandwich kismet. The chef-butcher occupied that rare middle ground—a local fan base from his days running Dot’s Bistro and Deli in Fremont, but no affiliation with another business, a must for the market’s stringent rules.
James figured he’d make his signature meaty sandwiches, but this counter in the Corner Market Building was historically a butcher shop, most notably the 37-year home of Crystal Meats. “It wasn’t easy to get them to let me sell sandwiches at all,” the chef remembers.
Dot’s all-too-brief tenure illustrates the challenge of preserving the market’s history against the realities of modern commerce. This happens via a sort of check and balance system: The Pike Place Market Historical Commission cares exclusively that the market stays true to its origins—a place for vendors who personally make or grow what they sell. The Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority balances that goal with another biggie: Businesses must be successful enough to make rent. Vendors must get approval from both groups.
The system, implemented in the ’70s, precludes businesses geared solely toward tourists; it also renders essential Seattle names like Tom Douglas and Ethan Stowell ineligible, unless they divest themselves of all their preexisting businesses. When the PDA identifies a promising candidate like James, its staff helps anticipate and address the historic commission’s potential objections. In the public meeting where commissioners discussed James’s application, plans to install seven counter stools prompted concern from one member, lest the atmosphere teeter into fast food court territory. John Turnbull, whose role with the PDA is akin to general manager, puts the groups’ dynamic in literary terms: “Sometimes it feels like Kafka, sometimes it feels like Jonathan Swift.”
From opening day in 2016, Dot’s Butcher and Deli made nearly all its income from sandwiches. The high-end cuts of meat mostly sat untouched until James took the financial hit to serve them stuffed in a sturdy toasted bun. But since butcher shops were crucial to Pike Place Market’s founding identity, its exacting stewards didn’t want to cede this space entirely to a restaurant.
Dot’s closed after just 10 months, felled by the very rules implemented to nurture guys like James. It was the third butcher to shutter in that space since 2010. No question, the market’s historic guidelines are the reason it’s not overrun with charmless chains—and the reason these buildings still exist at all. But they’re increasingly difficult to uphold in an era when few locals grocery shop downtown—anyone who wants meat heads to longstanding, highly visible Don and Joe’s. “Nobody on a cruise ship knows anything about me,” says James. “They’re not going to buy a rib eye and bring it back on their boat.”
Today, the location is home to Wild Fish Poke, which serves bowls of raw tuna and salmon salad atop rice. This may seem absurdly counterintuitive, but in historic terms, it’s just a slightly broader interpretation of those guidelines. “Frankly,” says Turnbull, “it was the closest thing to…selling raw meat.”