Critic's Notebook

Goodbye, Susan Kaufman

Serafina and Cicchetti owner left us too soon.

By Kathryn Robinson July 25, 2016

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Susan Kaufman, at Serafina.

Image: Serafina

When Serafina opened its doors on Eastlake Avenue in 1991, it was the most exuberantly sexy Italian restaurant in a city then full of Italian restaurants. In those days I lived up the street, and would frequently drop down the hill to hang on a bar stool and twirl some pasta. The presence at the helm was indeed a presence: a charismatic, radiant woman with a killer sense of style and a passion—for food, for wine, for life—that matched that of her restaurant.

That was Susan Kaufman.

As owner she was often in the house, and watching her from afar I could tell that she was the kind of boss for whom employees will happily walk through fire. This would become clear as she steered Serafina through its stunning (still going) 25 year run—in restaurant years, nearly unheard of. She made Serafina as famous as a place for rustic Italian preparations as for glorious atmosphere: sexy, low-lit, often abetted by live jazz, and immeasurably enhanced in summer as the doors opened onto the perfect leafy courtyard. Long sumptuous meals under the twinkling lights always felt like Italy to me, only longer, thanks to Seattle’s latitudinal good fortune. As summers came and went, Kaufman deftly bobbed and weaved to the changing dictates of restaurant culture—adding brunch, bringing in headline chefs and cooking demos, even acquiring the neighboring space to open a sidekick bar. And that during the depths of the recession.

“On paper I looked like such a loser—but I really wanted it!” Kaufman told me, laughing, at the time. That sidekick bar, of course, is Cicchetti, in which Kaufman explored her fascination with a different kind of Italian food, Venetian tapas.

In time our daughters became schoolmates and we became personally acquainted—something I fiercely protect against, being an anonymous critic, but in this case legitimately couldn’t help. It was also around this time that Susan Kaufman got sick. With her characteristic vigor, in the center of her devoted community, she faced down her illness for years, until last Friday when she couldn’t anymore.

I admired her vitality, her talent, her irreverent wit, her frankness; to be honest she was one of those souls for whom I would have loved to ditch my professional ethics in exchange for what would've been a tremendous friendship. Instead it had to be enough to see how beloved she was by virtually everyone else. My favorite illustration of that happened last year when I ran a list of Seattle Met’s recommended Italian restaurants. Serafina, which I’d reviewed before I’d met her, had earned a solid spot on that list—but for some reason was mistakenly left off when I hit post.

I didn’t hear from Susan; after we accidentally met, we agreed that to guard against conflict of interest we would not interact professionally. Who I did hear from was seemingly half of Seattle, demanding to know why their beloved Serafina was not recommended, demanding to know why we left it off, demanding, quite frankly, my head on a pike.

We rectified the error.

And I walked away knowing that Serafina was more than just a restaurant, from a woman who was clearly so much more than a restaurateur.

Word from GM David Weeks has it that the restaurant will remain open, and strive to maintain the warm sense of welcome its founder established. "We close between lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and if you've ever come in for a bite between those hours and Susan was there, she'd find you something to eat and drink! That's the kind of owner she was...and that won't go away."

So expect perhaps a fresh coat of paint and other aesthetic updates, but no diminishment of Serafina's spirit. "I imagine that Susan will continue to have a strong presence spiritually around the compound," Weeks muses. "And I really don't want to piss her off as she has clearly been through enough already."

Somewhere Susan Kaufman is smiling. Ciao, friend.




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