Lunch Literate

A Tour of Seattle's Bookstore Cafes

We know what restaurants do for bookstores. But what can bookstores do for restaurants? We visit Raconteur, Little Oddfellows, and Ada's Technical Books in pursuit of an answer.

By Kathryn Robinson September 27, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Seattle Met

Ada bookstore cafe sstsrh

Ada's Technical Books

Rare is the new bookstore these days—a physical bookstore, in the physical world—that doesn’t have a cafe. Makes sense, as the sublimely aesthetic pursuit of books—the weight in the hand, the cream of the page, the artistry of cover and type—lights the same pleasure centers that eating and drinking can. Browsing books, pausing for a sip and a bite; it’s a patented Seattle pleasure.

Okay, also this: Amazon’s ownership of convenience forces brick-and-mortar bookstores to make physical space a lure in itself. (Amazon Books at U Village, note, has no cafe.) Hence the bookstore cafe, which stands as bold affront to contemporary book marketing—which represents, almost literally, book savoring.  

What restaurants gain from being in bookstores, however, is another question; one invited by a trio of relative newcomers. Raconteur, the all-day eatery inside the new Seward Park Third Place Books, is a bright, vaulted enclosure of air and pine—a sprawling Big Sky State of newly constructed walls and widely spaced tables. Separated from the books by a large wall, the place feels a little more like a kit home at a ski resort than a bookstore cafe, foreclosing the opportunity for books as decor that lends such rich character to, say, the soulish Vios that’s long occupied Ravenna’s Third Place Books. (Though, as at that store, a pub downstairs lends edge.) 

The menu too could use interest—a surprise, on one hand, as Raconteur comes from the owners of the connoisseur-approved Flying Squirrel Pizza. By evening it’s a stolid list of burgers, hot sandwiches, salads, and noodles; at brunchtime a recitation of greatest hits, Bennies to Belgian waffles. While nothing I sampled in two meals wowed (and brunch servings were skimpy)—sandwiches proved dependable, from the brunch BLATT (with Zoe’s bacon, turkey, and lush avocado aioli), to a fried chicken number with pickles in sweet, soft brioche, both with crunchy fries.

On the other hand, the safer the menu, the broader its appeal—and that cranks the community value. I’ve seen entire adult soccer teams around dragged-together tables, gaggles of young families (which explains the sticky booths), nervous Tinder dates—all representing, as one so rarely sees in Seattle restaurants, an integrated mix of the neighborhood’s races and ethnicities. If Raconteur could be more aesthetically inspired by its bookstore home, I’m not sure it could be more inspired by the “Third Place” in its name.

Little Oddfellows, in the back of Capitol Hill’s venerable raw-timbered Elliott Bay Books, is smaller, cozier, more conducive to lost laptop afternoons—with, it should be mentioned, books amply in sight. (Even on the wallpaper.) When restaurant visionary Linda Derschang acquired the place she lightened it to Danish specs, composing a short menu of baguette and panini sandwiches and such, along with pastries from her Oddfellows Cafe next door.

My visit on a day of near-slapstick disaster—no-show staffer, untrained replacement—rendered the cafe line so glacially slow I nearly offered to run triage; maybe refill the water cooler? Oddly this didn’t wind up a deal breaker—in part because the food, when it finally came, was so full flavored and intentional. Particularly the pastries, which Oddfellows’ baker shrewdly elevates with epiphanies like a plug of booze in the blondies, or—gawwwd—brown butter in the Rice Krispies treats. 

Adas technical books ucnvwn

Ada’s cheesy polenta and smoked collard greens with a sunny-side-up egg.

Mostly, I suspect, the expectations a customer brings to the corner of a bookstore, where noshing is a chill distraction, are more relaxed than the ones she brings to a restaurant, where it’s the whole point. This is even truer across the Hill at Ada’s Technical Books, a house bookstore and vegetarian cafe along 15th whose unpromising exterior opens like a geode: a sparkling brilliance of crisp white cabinetry and square tables with enchanting collections under glass and hanging computer screens framed like art. For three years I’d been underestimating this spot the way generations undervalued its namesake, the early nineteenth-century mother of computer programming, Ada Lovelace. What could a technical bookstore possibly bring to a menu? 

Care, for starters, in a long list of egg dishes and grain-veg salads and cheesy entrees and exquisite sweets baked in house, like a brown sugar “pop tart” in shattering pastry. And detail, when the ratio of gruyere to leeks in the daily scramble is gauged as if by some finely calibrated instrument. 

Sitting amid Ada’s orderly display of books, indeed, it’s almost like the precision they convey has found its way into both surroundings and food. Which, regardless of whether you’re a technically inclined vegetarian, achieves that rarity you may not even realize you value: a breathtakingly integrated sense of place.

Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe 425 15th Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-322-1058 $
Little Oddfellows 1521 10th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-323-1511  $ 
Raconteur 5041 Wilson Ave S, Seward Park, 206-492-7959  $$ 

Show Comments