Holly Smith's Cafe Juanita reopens this evening after a remodel shuttered her Kirkland fine dining destination for nearly six months. It was a productive six months, filled with tasting menus at Cafe Juanita's fantastic popup over at the original Lark space, but Smith and her staff are ready to be home.
Smith undertook the massive remodel after buying the low-slung building, originally a house, from original owner Peter Dow last year (she bought the actual restaurant from Dow back in 2000). Hence the James Beard–winning chef has plenty of emotional ties to the space, but long wished for certain niceties expected at restaurants of this caliber: nicer bathrooms, a lounge, a place to stow diners' chilled white wines during the meal.
And Smith really hated her ceiling. "If you notice the pissy-colored acoustic tiles, are you going to be happy when I bring you a perfect negroni and plate of prosciutto?"
Architect Joe Herrin of Heliotrope devised a plan to open up the kitchen, dampen noise, upgrade the various finishes, and add some more prosaic improvements like little service counters, all while making sure Cafe Juanita "still feels like a house." Walls are hung with dark wool stitched in white, and panels of stretched wool hang from the ceiling, blending in while absorbing sound. Little touches like metal wraps on stair rails and cabinet corners add a subtle industrial note and reinforce the space for another decade or so of daily use.
By design, the new Cafe Juanita doesn't look wildly different from the old. The biggest change is a chefs table near the kitchen and a new private dining room built atop a former breezeway just beyond. The addition brings with it new restrooms, and more "breakability"–the technical term for being able to divvy up a restaurant in various ways to accommodate big groups or private parties. On a busy weeknight when the 40-seat dining room isn't booked, it can seat regular diners as well. Another major bonus to the new room: the adjacent patio, with about eight seats.
The former private dining room in the basement is now a lounge, a place where you can wait for your table over a drink or simply order a glass of wine and a snack. Outside on a lower patio, a massive brick offset smoker and grill received a thorough cleaning and holds the promise of some cool outdoor events. Eater Seattle has a few photos from last week.
Smith, her lieutenant the talented Lauren Thompson, and crew have been readying a new menu that incorporates a few lessons from their tasting menu sojourn on 12th Ave. One lesson Smith learned from the popup's wine service: "Open up more bottles we love" and serve them by the glass. People are open to a $35 glass of chardonnay, says Smith, if it's reeeeeally good. And now her staff can has space to ensure it's always properly chilled.