In the Seattle restaurant landscape, news doesn’t get much bigger (or incite more feels) than this: Jerry Traunfeld says he will close the doors at Poppy after dinner service on Sunday, August 4.
The chef—long one of the region's most respected, with the James Beard Award to prove it—says his husband, Stephen, is ready to retire, and the two will move to Palm Springs this winter. “I wasn’t thinking it would happen this soon, but it feels like the right time for us.” He’s leaving his restaurant in the hands of another esteemed Seattle chef, selling it to Nathan and Rebecca Lockwood, who own Altura just across the street. The couple will open a spot they say reclaims the original “more rustic, larger portions, more traditional Italian” menu that took the city by storm when Altura debuted seven years ago.
Traunfeld opened Poppy on September 16, 2008, at a moment when both he and the country were moving away from fine dining (though nobody knew yet how swift that move would be; the financial crisis was essentially set in motion that same week). He had big plans for the backyard garden, a young chef named Jason Stratton worked in the kitchen, and that stretch of north Broadway had seen better days.
Poppy’s menu was the rarest of all currencies in the restaurant world: something legitimately original. A trip to India famously inspired Traunfeld to embrace the tradition of thalis, but he recast these platters of 10 harmonious bites with his own Northwest flavors. “I didn’t really want it to be an Indian restaurant,” he recalls, “but I loved the idea of having all those little dishes working together.” It’s a tasting menu without the hours-long commitment. It’s small plate–esque variety without having to share.
The specific thali setup evolved over the years, but the food has never faltered. Though Traunfeld is still at the restaurant most days, chef de cuisine Sydney Clark is the one using bright herbs from the back garden to maximum effect. The clean Scandinavian aesthetic in the dining room also held up remarkably well. Poppy’s 11-year tenure has been wonderful, says Traunfeld, but never easy. The chef is hesitant to call his next chapter a retirement, though he doesn’t know what exactly he'll do after he moves. “I’m not opening a restaurant,” he says. “But I’m gonna stay busy, and I’m going to be involved in food, for sure.”
Meanwhile, the Lockwoods will open a restaurant called Carrello this October in the Poppy space, which faces Altura’s front windows. When the restaurant opened in 2011 (Seattle Met’s first-ever Restaurant of the Year, might I add), it served three-, four-, or five-course menus that mixed and matched artful pasta with starters and mains that still felt rustic despite consistently deep finesse. Altura later added a more traditional tasting menu, which became customers' primary choice over the next few years. “At that time, we were operating two restaurants under the same roof,” says Nathan Lockwood. “We had to pick one,” so these days Altura exclusively does tasting menus.
In some ways, he says, Carrello is “like a reawakening of that other half of Altura.”
With one notable difference. Carrello’s three-part menu will include generous bowls of pasta, family-style portions of seasonal meat and fish, but also carts that carry a host of small plates: antipasti, salumi, slightly larger vegetable dishes, and the genre of Italian snacks collectively known as stuzzichini.
The restaurant’s name stems from the Italian word for cart, says Lockwood, and while the setup is logistically reminiscent of dim sum, he notes Italy has its own history of bar cart–style service. Their contents can add up to a meal, if that’s what you’re into—though I can’t imagine passing up an opportunity to eat Lockwood’s pasta. Especially when OG Altura classics like gnocchi with lamb and sage, oxtail ragu, and pappardelle with tripe will resurface at Carrello. It's not the same as Altura's setup of yore, but should have that same modular build-your-meal quality, a counterpoint to the original across the street, where the kitchen shapes the entire meal.
In a funny way, this carries on the spirit of Poppy, which Traunfeld opened after an astonishing 17 years at the Herbfarm, wanting to shift away from the type of meal where customers had no choice in what they ate. Traunfeld says he's especially grateful the space went to fellow north Broadway denizens, and stewards of the character inherent to this pocket of Capitol Hill. There's also the matter of his nearby Sichuan restaurant, Lionhead—details on its future are forthcoming once things get formalized.
Meanwhile, I can't decide whether to be sorrowful about the close of this era or excited about what has to be one of the most momentous handoffs in Seattle chef history. All things to ponder over one last round of herbaceous cocktails and eggplant fries.