An ornate door from the very first El Gaucho now swings in the entrance to one of four private dining rooms in the steak house’s third location, which opens November 3. The daughter of a former El Gaucho regular found the elaborately carved portal, originally part of a set, while going through her father's storage buildings about five years back.
“She called us to see if we wanted it,” recalls Chad Mackay, whose father, Paul, resurrected El Gaucho in 1996. He did. Even though at that moment, Mackay had no idea what he might do with this relic of midcentury swell life; the door has “El Gaucho” carved in deep relief on the entry side, and “Adios, Amigos” on the other. It originally swung at Seventh and Olive, where El Gaucho began in 1953.
The steak house's new home is a building that predates that debut by a good four decades. But when El Gaucho opens in the historic Union Stables building at 2200 Western Ave this week, it will be filled with historical flourishes like this mysterious door, tying together various threads of the city’s most understated dining legacy.
The bar is tricked out in tufted red leather, just like it was at El Gaucho’s second location, the converted union hall in Belltown where the restaurant resurfaced in 1996 and remained until earlier this year. The black leather upholstery on bar’s edge, a soft place for drinkers to rest their elbows, should look familiar too. Chad Mackay, now CEO of El Gaucho’s Fire and Vine Hospitality restaurant group, points out the considered lighting, the mirrors tilted just so to reflect glimpses of the action over in the dining room. “We can still have a beautiful bar,” he says. “And someday, we’ll get to use it.”
Mackay calls this location Gaucho 3.0. Obviously the plan to convert a historic 1910 livery stable barely two blocks from Pike Place Market into an opulent special occasion restaurant with handblown glass sconces, various chandeliers, and a wall of temperature-controlled wine that greets you at check-in predates our current Covid-19 reality. And when you’re steering a ship this big—or with this much tufted leather—it doesn’t make sense to pivot to counter service. “I have to design a restaurant for a lifetime,” says Mackay. “I can’t design a restaurant for Covid.”
When Mackay first toured the building, its background—housing as many as 300 animals that pulled Seattle's delivery wagons, and perhaps even streetcars or fire engines—seemed a fit for a restaurant adorned with a logo of Argentina’s famed horsemen. Inside this designated landmark, Fire and Vine manage to install a kitchen with “a great deal of firepower” on the open grill, says Mackay, and a beef aging room. One of the four private dining rooms (code name: the meat temple) has a window into both. An indoor fire table commands your gaze at the entrance, and the design preserves support beams that still bear nibble marks from the stable's bygone four-legged occupants.
El Gaucho still does a variety of takeout menus and will observe all the prevailing safety precautions when it opens this week (those deep booths are already designed to keep parties fairly distanced from one another). But otherwise, the restaurant’s approach in our weird present is fairly consistent with its past: Ensure its status as a destination nonpareil for birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. “Celebrations are still important,” says Mackay. “Even if we can’t be with big groups.”
Diners here will see the same paintings from the old El Gaucho, the same luxe aesthetic and tableside caesars, even many of the same servers. Chef Kirin Chun has honed a few new tricks over at El Gaucho Bellevue, but most of the menu remains reliably, intentionally familiar, from chateaubriand to the beloved bananas foster. The biggest difference of note: The state still doesn’t allow live piano.
In some of the hardest months Seattle's restaurants have ever faced, discussions of lighting and private dining rooms feel as much a throwback from the past as that carved wooden door. But in other ways, it’s comforting to think of a day (well, a night) when friends can put their elbows on that upholstered bar and drink martinis with abandon while the sound of piano music, a busy kitchen, and the occasional bananas foster preparation, fills the background.