The Decade In Dining

The Rise of the Restaurant Empire

Tom Douglas, Ethan Stowell, Matt Dillon—they all have one. What the emergence of the chef-driven restaurant group says about Seattle's restaurant culture.

By Kathryn Robinson March 3, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Seattle Met

2011.05.27.seattlemet.goldenbeetle.brent 3 edit eutfop

Maria Hines at Golden Beetle, 2011

Image: Olivia Brent

In 2006, Tilth opened in Wallingford, the first enterprise of up-and-comer Maria Hines, and Sitka and Spruce opened in an Eastlake strip mall, from a mushroom forager named Matt Dillon.

Ten years, two James Beard Best Chef Northwest awards (Hines 2009, Dillon 2012), and countless national media accolades later—those chefs have gained much more than fame. Hines would go on to launch two more restaurants, Golden Beetle and Agrodolce; Dillon would add the Corson Building, Bar Ferdinand, Bar Sajor, the London Plane…and counting.

Empires were born.

Restaurant groups weren’t news, even in 2006. Ethan Stowell had already started amassing his 12, and granddaddy Tom Douglas was, with number five, well on his way to his current 19. (Editor’s note: We haven’t checked in about three minutes.) And that’s but the tip of what in Seattle has been a growing iceberg: the chef-driven restaurant group.

Thing is, it could’ve gone another way. For emerging in tandem was a trend among independents to honor first the vision of the artiste in the kitchen. Think shared tables, no reservations, contrarian novelties, “underground” restaurants. Tiny, idiosyncratic Sitka and Spruce began as one of these until Dillon switched course, upgrading to a more conventional restaurant space in Melrose Market—and acquiring more properties.

And that, not one-off individuality, is the model that wound up prevailing in Seattle. The opposite happened in Portland, where quirky independents have increasingly defined the scene. Of course Portland doesn’t have a Tom Douglas. Nor does it have Seattle’s higher overhead.

The increasing price of running a restaurant, meanwhile, particularly astride the recession, has necessitated economies of scale just as it’s dictated most of the ascendant trends over the past decade—from the ubiquity of happy hour, brunch, and burgers to the increase of food trucks to the death of formality.

No question, Seattle has a connoisseur’s soul. It’s just increasingly held up by a bottom-line mentality.

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