A chef who put farms in her spotlight.

Image: Amos Morgan

Last night Tilth announced on social media that its last night of service will be October 30. It's not exactly a mystery what felled her first, and longest restaurant given the industry's current coronavirus restrictions. "We couldn't make it on a 70 percent drop in sales," says chef Maria Hines, who says she's heartbroken but grateful for the flood of Tilth-related memories and well wishes currently flooding her texts and email. Her staff is staying with the restaurant through its final day next week. "Right now my mode is navigate first, grief later," says the chef.

The word "pioneer" gets overused in all sorts of dumb and troubling ways, but let's call Hines what she is: Someone who imposed sourcing limitations that were unheard of when Tilth opened in 2006, then spent the next 14 years rising to that challenge with plates that never tasted of limitations. Maybe the most impressive aspect of her cooking was how easily diners could forget all the ingenuity required to adhere to those organic certifications...not that you'd want to. She was among the first to credit farmers and fishers and foragers on her menus, helping place local names like Skagit River Ranch in a regular diner's vernacular.

In that sense, "I did what I set out to do," says Hines. "Create community and give people a relationship to the land." While she dropped a few well-deserved F-bombs in describing her current state of mind, she was quick to note all the resilience arising out of pandemic struggles. It's easy to wallow in the darkness, says Hines. "But right now what we need is hope."

When I moved here in 2010, my first dinner out as an official Seattleite happened at Tilth. Hines, and her commitment to a revolutionary level of organic strictures, had won a James Beard Award the previous year. She hadn’t yet dominated on Iron Chef, but she had captured national attention for her rigorous sourcing.

I still remember entering that converted craftsman bungalow, and opting, wisely, for the five-course tasting menu. I remember the roasty cauliflower flan and the Eel River flatiron with buttery potatoes and the dainty plate of cassoulet that's a Hines signature. I definitely remember the woman at the next table wearing Adidas track pants to a dinner that was the highlight of my month, because Seattle.

The thing I remember most, though, was our server learning that we were new to town. At the end of the meal, unbidden, she brought us an oversize index card where various cooks in the kitchen had written their favorite places to eat—a variety of handwriting welcoming us into the club of good banh mi and noodles. Most recs were in Chinatown–International District. As we spent the next few months confirming, all of them were spot on. It was next-level hospitality in the form of a haphazard index card that lived on our fridge for the next five years.

Tilth’s announcement continues a tough week, with Boat Street Kitchen and Tarsan i Jane also announcing their intent to close. I know these won't be the last restaurant casualties of this pandemic year, but please zip up your rain gear and remember to patronize the places that you love, even (especially) in colder weather.

This story was updated after a conversation with Maria Hines.

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