Tom Douglas literally broke his back opening a previous restaurant, Cafe Sport. And it still didn’t compare to the challenges he faced in the fall of 1989, when he struck out on his own with Dahlia Lounge. “We suffered mightily,” Douglas admits now of the early days at 1904 Virginia Avenue. But the restaurant, which later settled into its corner spot at Fourth and Virginia, offered comfort food distinguished by what critics of the time called “ethnic” flair, before that term got so cringey.
Thirty years in—despite economic recessions, downtown upheaval, and the struggle to secure premium product on a budget—the Dahlia abides. In a boom-and-bust business, in a boom-and-bust town, how does a restaurant pull off a three-decade run?
“You have to be obsessive about food,” says Rick Yoder, owner, with wife Ann, of Wild Ginger. Like Dahlia Lounge, the Pan-Asian restaurant marks its 30th this year.
While Seattle had plenty of Thai and Vietnamese eateries in ’89, Wild Ginger cast a wider net, also plucking dishes from China, Cambodia, Burma, even Indonesia. The original on Western Avenue had a rain cloud–colored dining room but the satay bar in back—20 seats around a gas-fired grill—quickly became the energy nexus of Seattle dining, the place to see and be seen gnawing a stick of curried chicken or bacon-wrapped oysters. Staff fired more than 500 skewers a night, while outside on the cigarette-strewn sidewalk aspiring diners endured hour-plus waits.
Meanwhile, at Dahlia, Douglas was busily developing his signature cuisine: seasonal, regional ingredients, spices and flourishes magpied from all over the globe, plenty of crisp textures. So influential is Douglas’s approach—today, he and wife Jackie Cross own more than 20 Seattle-area businesses—we tend to gloss over it. But when Dahlia debuted, it announced to tourists and locals alike that Seattle had an ambitious food style all its own.
By 2000, when Wild Ginger upsized to its sprawling two-story situation at 1401 Third Avenue, it had already evolved from hot newcomer to mainstay. Seattleites counted its black pepper scallops and seven flavor beef as indisputable classics—dishes to dig into after watching sugar plum fairies twirl it out during The Nutcracker, or whatever other annual tradition called for chicken pot stickers and fragrant duck. Today, with outposts in Bellevue and South Lake Union, Wild Ginger has also cornered a corporate clientele that is the stuff of restaurant-longevity dreams.
A few blocks over, another crisp-skinned waterfowl had entered the family-ritual arena. Regulars return year after year for Dahlia’s five-spiced rotisserie duck, says current chef Brock Johnson. Still, food alone can’t explain such uncommon staying power.
It bears noting: Well before the national healthcare debate, both restaurateurs gave employees benefits. Also, their people tend to stay. Johnson has helmed Dahlia for more than a decade. Original chef Jim Han Lock cooked at Wild Ginger for 11 years before opening his own spot. His successor, Nathan Uy, stayed for 23.
“If your staff’s happy,” says Yoder, shrugging at the simplicity of his own words, “the customer’s happy.”