I remember a time not so long ago when the chatter about restaurants in urban areas centered on the diner’s sense of safety. Belltown spots like The Coterie Room and Brasa were often mentioned when restaurant patrons talked about places they felt unsafe visiting after dark.
Both are now closed. (The Coterie Room remains a private party venue.)
In the last couple of years the locus of this conversation has shifted south to Pioneer Square, home of what feels like the biggest land rush in restaurant space the city has seen in the last year. (It's actually the second biggest land rush in restaurant space this city has seen in the last year.)
I was getting ready to visit the new Mexican cantina Casco Antiguo the other night when I texted a friend who’d been there to see what tasted best. She loved up the tacos de suadero, then added: “The obvious drug dealing and prostitution [activity] that we witnessed from our table made us feel more discomfort with our privilege than we like to feel.” Note that she wasn’t complaining about her sense of safety or confessing some sort of aesthetic distaste—this was a guilt thing, straight up. It was Seattle’s widening have versus have-not divide, neatly framed through the restaurant window and making her uncomfortably aware of their disparity.
Both she and many of the souls on the street, after all, were engaging in the same activity, at the same time, on the same block—drinking alcohol—but only one of them was drinking hers expertly mixed, and out of a glass, and under a roof.
I don’t mean to harsh on Casco Antiguo here; my visit found its appealingly rustic brick-and-timber quarters crowded with diners and drinkers and perfectly adequate foodwise, mostly in its flavor-forward tacos (including one stuffed with meaty mahi) and a notably subtle mole. The booze was peerless. But it is one of the new breed of urban restaurants—see Good Bar, Bar Sajor, The London Plane, and others—bringing Seattle’s culinary elite into closer-than-ever proximity with the downest of the down-and-out. The problem can be particularly keen this time of year, when some restaurants offer sidewalk seating. "I was eating at Grand Central Bakery with a friend one day and was repeatedly interrupted by a mentally ill man nearby who kept yelling at everyone at the outdoor tables," a colleague told me. "And yet we didn’t feel right complaining."
The restaurateurs I’ve spoken with about this exude humanity and a sense of proportion. “The homeless bring daily surprises,” chuckled Good Bar owner Josh Kelly, adding that he was well aware of the issues going in. Ditto Bar Sajor’s and the London Plane’s Matt Dillon, who told me last fall, “The neighborhood is what it is; I knew damn well what I was doing when I put a restaurant there. It’s a really complicated situation, and I want to be a positive influence. Not everything is pretty, but I just want people to get back to their car or their bus stop okay.”
Here it is perhaps worth noting that neither restaurateur, when asked about the particulars of doing business in Pioneer Square, mentioned the street populations first. Dillon vented a little about a lunch patron who was mad that she couldn’t be served at one of the outdoor tables. (“I told her we’d serve her inside and she could bring it out to eat it at one of the tables,” he explained.) As for Kelly, he expressed surprise that so many folks in Pioneer Square tend to travel in herds. “Lots of parties of eight or above, going for happy hour after work or heading to a game,” he said, noting that he had no idea this phenomenon existed. “We’re adjusting,” he smiled.
But in the end it’s diners whose opinions of the neighborhood matter most, and whose emotional reaction to a restaurant will dictate whether they return to it. My friend, whose main takeaway from her dinner at Casco Antiguo is a memory of stadiumgoers outside the window getting hectored, even followed, by aggressive panhandlers, isn’t terribly keen to go back. And it wasn't fear talking. “I’m a city girl,” she texted.
She just couldn’t stop thinking about the intractability of poverty when presented through the window with a life-size diorama of its social consequences. Some say it’s important that city dwellers get up close and personal with such reminders of others’ neediness, particularly at a moment in this city where the gap between rich and poor is widening.
But there’s little question that restaurants, bastions of privilege by their very definition, make inherently troubling places to confront such a reminder.