Reinvented Retail

Restaurants across the City Assume a New Identity: Neighborhood Market

Some of our favorite dining rooms now supply customers with everything from paper towels to pate.

By Allecia Vermillion April 16, 2020

Il Nido is now a pasta market, not unlike the pasta studio Mike Easton used to run in Pioneer Square.

After a few days trying to serve takeout to a barren downtown in March, Mike Easton had an epiphany. Then he bought a used cold case.

As Seattle enters its second month of COVID-induced shutdown, Easton’s pasta destination Il Corvo remains dark. But over in West Seattle, his newest restaurant has morphed into a rather unlikely retailer. That hulk of secondhand refrigerated cabinetry now dominates the entrance to Il Nido’s handsome, historic dining room. Its refrigerated shelves sport a tricolor of containers—vivid pesto, red sauce, snowy grated pecorino, and clear plastic tubs of fresh pasta from 3 to 7pm most days. The liquor and wine that once fueled dinner conversation is stacked with a merchandiser’s flair on tables and cabinets.

Easton knew from the start he didn’t want to do takeout here. Prices on Il Nido’s normal-times Italian menu reflect certain levels of service, plus the atmosphere of being inside a landmark log cabin—two things you can’t pack into a takeout box. Rather than post menus online and get crushed during the dinner hour, Easton’s staff arrives in the morning to survey what’s available. Chef de cuisine Katie Gallego devises the day’s lineup of sauces—pomodoro, pesto, meat sauce, recently a mushroom and sherry number—and corresponding quantities of pasta. In that way, says Easton, “It’s so much in the spirit of Il Corvo.”

Speaking of Il Corvo, I may have buried the lead here; soon the Pioneer Square pasta temple will reopen and offer delivery via Grubhub (which Easton says offers friendlier commission terms than other delivery apps). But over in West Seattle, especially with that gnarly bridge closure enforcing its own level of social distancing, a market “seemed like a better service for the community,” says Easton.

As Seattle restaurants continue to hone their new takeout models, others have assumed a new identity: general store. Joey, the polished Canadian restaurant chain with outposts in Bellevue, Southcenter, and University Village now sells an extensive inventory of the same shredded cheese, bell peppers, and prime sirloin that populates its menu (plus toilet paper and paper towels) as ingredients directly to consumers. It’s not cheap, but delivery is way more reliable than the crapshoot of many grocery stores’ online ordering platforms. Of all the projects Eric Rivera pulls off within his multihyphenate Addo project, the meat and fish markets it runs through the Tock app might be the most ingenious (and a source of great deals).

This setup has benefits for customers and business owners. In some cases, selling off unused inventory (booze definitely included) brings in much-needed cash flow. A restaurant-turned-market gives its neighborhood a food source closer to home, one that feels more controlled than a larger-scale supermarket. Judging by the number of people who sent me the recent LA Times story about restaurants doubling as neighborhood markets, I predict our city will see more of these setups in the coming weeks.

At L’Oursin in the Central District, a few boxes of disposable gloves at the door welcome customers inside the market dubbed Le Petite Marche one at a time. The area by the bistro’s front door suddenly feels like a tiny, French-inflected DeLaurenti, with fresh herbs, housemade pate, mushrooms, and lamb chops filling the giant ice bin that normally resides behind the bar. “There was something about putting salads in those brown take-out containers, it killed me,” says chef and co-owner JJ Proville. Instead, he channels his various baking and charcuterie, pastamaking, and fish butchery talents to transform raw materials into components people can prepare at home.

The setup's inherently flexible: Charcoal and pork chops encourage grilling during this bout of nice weather; halibut and spot prawns arrive with the season. “We need to honor our suppliers,” says Proville. “They’re pretty scared too.” L’Oursin’s market has definitely helped at least some purveyors stay viable—“I’ve never ordered so much cheese in my life.”

Brendan McGill planned to open his newest spot, Panino Taglio, this spring, but moved it up a few weeks as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the city. He and partner Nahum Ochoa always planned to include a retail section, since Georgetown is notoriously light on grocers. Now, though, its contents go far beyond Italian imported goods to include produce from their supplier farms, take-and-bake pizzas, and various cheeses and pickles Ochoa made to preserve the fresh ingredients left over when McGill shut down his other dining rooms. When I picked up a pizza on a Saturday, Ochoa sold me cloves of garlic out of a giant plastic tub, warning me in advance the quality wasn’t as impressive as the shallots and heads of lettuce in the display case at the new spot. “We jokingly call that location our lifeboat,” says McGill. Not that the shop has been so busy just yet, but “Markets are crushing it right now; people are shopping for the end of days, while restaurants go down hard.”

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