The chef Seattle diners first encountered atop Queen Anne has staked his own ambitious claim on the other end of town.

A woman parked on White Center’s commercial stretch one recent afternoon graciously made way for the workers coming in and out of a papered-up address:  an unmarked storefront tucked between family friendly watering hole Beer Star and the decidedly adult Taboo Video. Before the woman hopped in her car, she couldn’t help but query the guy out front. The one with the dark curls and faded T-shirt from Roberta’s pizzeria in Brooklyn.

“What do you guys have going on in there?” she asked chef Brady Ishiwata Williams, directing a glance at the matte-black room visible through the doorway. “Some sort of restaurant?”

She’s not the only one who’s been curious. One of the city’s most notable new restaurant projects, one likely to reverberate on the national landscape, is quietly taking shape at 9811 16th Avenue Southwest. Williams arrived in Seattle from a pair of deeply credible Brooklyn restaurants in 2015 to take over the kitchen at Canlis, one of the most visible chef roles in the city. In February of this year, he announced his departure and plans to open his own place. That transition culminates with Tomo, which opens September 9.

“We have no clue what we’re going to make,” he says of the specific dishes. “Which is cool, right?”

It’s also not surprising, since Williams plans to build his menu around the peak produce of any given month. Yet it’s hard to imagine a restaurant more thoroughly considered, from the lighting to the wine list formatted as a zine. He’s long known Tomo’s bathrooms will play whale sounds; servers will be required to know the most recent happenings of the J Pod, says Williams. “We’re a mile from the water!”

Tomo’s arrival is auspicious not just for Williams’s culinary trajectory; since he took over Canlis’s kitchen at age 28, he’s earned nearly every significant culinary accolade America has to offer. But also for the ways it seeks to update many timeworn constructs of restaurant culture.

Tomo is a high-profile project forged during a depressing era of kitchen culture exposes that make Animal House feel like a safe, feminist space. Williams wants to establish certain boundaries—work-life balance, a collaborative professional environment—but still push, hard, against the creative ones. Cooks will work in a kitchen that’s open for transparent display, but not the room’s focal point. Staff will have four-day workweeks and be encouraged to weigh in on everything from the cancellation policy to the service style.

“Comfortable, but not coddling” is how he envisions this place for diners. Most importantly, “I want people to have fun.”

The Brady Williams version of fun involves vegetables. At Canlis, he cooked food that drew from his Japanese heritage and the land around him; the kitchen might invest a multitude of unseen steps or techniques to produce a dish that comes off as minimally adorned: dungeness crab and rice with a stewed garnish of strawberries and hazelnuts. A bean stew made with 23 varieties of heirloom beans cultivated by the Washington State University Bread Lab.

Tomo will continue this ethos, albeit at a different price point. Meat and seafood play supporting roles in a $68 five-course menu that kicks off with snacks. Diners looking to go big can add supplemental dishes—maybe uni pizza or tableside shabu shabu in winter. Lunch is a la carte, a mix of original dishes and ones adapted from dinner.

Over a Montucky one evening at nearby Can Bar, Williams remembers how long he debated whether to serve food a la carte or in a tasting menu that isn’t overly lengthy. He and his partner Jessica Powers, who runs the restaurant’s operations, took many an informal poll. Offering both felt like a good balance. “It’s funny, you spend your whole career thinking about what it would be like to open your own restaurant,” he says. “Then you realize, it’s not about you.”

 

Tomo pastry chef Richard Garcia stands in a glassed-in test kitchen outfitted with overhead cameras, giant TV screens, and rows of stadium seating, sealing peaches in a bag of white miso. The setup around him is meant for culinary demonstrations, not for covert restaurant projects. Or a guy who just wants to prep some summer produce for future desserts.

This summer, this demo space at Bargreen Ellingson, a restaurant supply store in SoDo, became Tomo’s interim HQ while the restaurant morphed from construction zone to functioning kitchen. Buffered by wire shelves stacked with metal pitchers and enormous salad bowls, Williams, Garcia, and chef de cuisine Diana Mata García (no relation) prepped a larder’s worth of syrups and vinegars and pickles, preserving the best of Washington’s summer for menus to come.

Mata García worked with Brady both in New York and at Canlis. For her entire career, contributing to a menu meant presenting your dish to a chef for feedback. It’s a lot of pressure, she says. “At the end, I’m making this dish, but everybody’s going to see it as the chef’s.”

At Tomo, she and Williams and Garcia brainstorm dishes from inception, an experience Mata García says is entirely new. “It’s coming from a comfort zone.” She wants to retain this approach even when her staff includes more cooks.

She also wants to make arepas. Mata García grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, eating arepas before school or, even as an adult, as balm for a bad day. “This is my food,” she says, which means some version of it will eventually harmonize with Williams’s Japanese dishes on Tomo’s menu.

Meanwhile, the wine list has graduated from the original plan of about 100 bottles to its current status, 200 labels and climbing. Williams and wine director Andy Comer keep adding producers who intervene as minimally as possible in the volatile art of making good wine. The results span price points and geographies, but roughly a quarter of the wines on Tomo’s list are made by women. “We make choices that reflect the wine world as we’d like it to be,” he says. It also has to be the most impressive array of wine ever poured next door to an adult video shop.

While Williams admits (claims?) he’s never actually browsed the wares at Taboo Video, he did start his restaurant search knowing, “I wanted to be in a neighborhood where I actually hang out.” That was one of a very few aspects of his plan that felt firm by June of 2020, the month he told his former bosses, third-generation owners Mark and Brian Canlis, he was pursuing his own place.

The paper currently covering the restaurant's windows is designed around the result of a late-night text chain among Tomo's staff. Williams asked everyone, "what's on your mind right now?"

Image: Amber Fouts

 

In January 2015, Seattle was in the midst of an unseasonably warm streak when Brady Williams’s New York flight touched down at Sea-Tac. He wasn’t a stranger to Seattle—he lived on the Eastside for a few years in elementary school. Now he was back for an interview at Canlis, and to see what the city might be like as a professional leap.

He shopped for his tryout dinner at Ballard Market and Uwajimaya and marveled at how our mountains made the Catskills look like self-confident hills. Once he got the job, “The plan was to be here a couple years,” Williams remembers. Then he’d head back to New York.

The notion of Williams striking out on his own wasn’t exactly surprising—most ambitious chefs want this eventually. What he didn’t quite expect was sticking around to do this in Seattle. Between family moves as a kid, a stint in minor league hockey, and a cooking stop in Dallas before heading to Brooklyn to work at conjoined restaurants Blanca and Roberta’s, “I’ve never lived anywhere longer than three years until I moved here.”

But he liked his new city, and how the combination of seasonal constraints and wild food prompted creativity. (“If you miss tayberry season, you’re nuts!”) The product that grows here, he says, “is as good as you can have to work with.”

During the first precarious months of the pandemic, Williams realized it was time to figure out his next step. “Everything had been stripped down to the studs,” he recalls. “It felt like time to take a risk.” He started looking for a space that would give his plan more shape. Within 30 seconds of walking into the empty storefront in White Center, he knew it would work. “It’s big enough that it’s vibrant and fun, but not so big that it feels out of control.”

Tomo has 28 seats, plus more on a sizable back patio that connects to the building’s neighbors. Williams’s tongue-in-cheek description—modernist ryokan meets convivial coastal dive bar—actually tracks pretty well in this charcoal-toned space. Its name comes from his grandmother, Tomoko Ishiwata Bristol, whom Williams calls the most important person in his life. By day, she and his grandfather ran a diner in Southern California, but her Japanese comfort cooking provided his earliest food memories. Now she’s 94, but plans to be in the restaurant on opening day, says Williams. “She’s got her kimono all picked out.” Tomo also means "pal" or "friend" in Japanese, an apt shorthand for how his restaurant approaches its relationship to everything from its staff to its producers to the land around it.

Of the few early details that filtered out about the project, its location far outside the usual destination restaurant zones took many by surprise. White Center is an unincorporated neighborhood eight miles south of the city center. By one recent count, the area is, ironically, about 60 percent nonwhite, a diversity reflected in all the great food that’s already here. None of which, thus far, describes itself in terms like “microseasonal” or “tasting menu.” But Williams lives in the South End, and limiting his search to the places where he spends most of his time narrowed things quickly.

He’s aware opening a destination restaurant here raises the specter of gentrification. Which, in Seattle, is both a damning accusation and incontrovertible civic fact. Walking White Center’s main drag on 16th Avenue, he points out multiple storefronts in ruins after the July fire that devastated the Lumber Yard bar and recounts how businesses banded together to weather the aftermath. “I want to be part of that,” he says. “Not taking up space or detracting from the neighborhood was important to me.”

Opening a restaurant is a form of alchemy; even solid plans and brilliant intentions have a way of evolving once diners arrive and dishes get fired. But Williams is already taking cues from his new neighborhood.

Tomo’s website offers a gleeful mashup of White Center imagery and vivid ingredients—a geoduck and clusters of cherries join images of Southgate Roller Rink and, of course, Taboo Video. The homage to the shop next door doesn’t stop there. The restaurant website lists Tomo’s location as “Next to Taboo Video,” the subtlest of assertions that drawing from the land around you can mean more than tayberries and geoduck.