Mark Fuller will reopen the Admiral Benbow Room this week, lighting up a new era for the pirate-themed bar that’s been a West Seattle landmark since 1950. The chef says it’s mostly coincidence that his new place debuts roughly a week after he closed his flagship restaurant, Ma‘ono, for good.
Yep, lots to unpack there. Let’s start with a farewell to Ma'ono. Fuller’s reasons for closing aren’t exactly a surprise. “It’s just so hard to find cooks and keep a kitchen staff and keep people enjoying their jobs every day,” he says. The stress no longer feels worthwhile in a pursuit that's supposed to fulfill him creatively. Recently he found a buyer and reached a point where he can describe this transition as bittersweet. “I’m ready to move forward and just keep going.”
Moving forward has always been a hallmark of Fuller’s original restaurant. In 2008 he first opened the restaurant at 4437 California Ave SW as Spring Hill, the sort of elegant Northwest destination restaurant good enough to land its young owner on the James Beard Awards’ semifinalist list, not to mention the cover of Food and Wine. Half a decade later, restaurants skewed more casual, and Fuller made a bold choice. He shed Spring Hill’s fancy format to rebrand the restaurant as Ma'ono Fried Chicken and Whisky. He installed his cult fried chicken as the centerpiece and embraced his family roots in Hawaii with dishes like saimin noodles and fried chicken musubi.
These were the innocent days when we didn’t yet use the word “pivot.” But Ma'ono’s food felt like it had been waiting for us all along. “It worked,” says Fuller. “Until it didn’t.”
A longtime West Seattle resident, he subsequently added more casual spots, like the pizza bar Supreme and a new generation of New Luck Toy. He took over the Benbow Room last August, becoming the latest proprietor of a three-chambered piratically inclined space that harbors the back end of a Spanish galleon built into one of its rooms. "It's a West Seattle staple," he says by way of explanation. "It's historic."
The Benbow takes its name from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It reportedly opened in 1950 and visitors have since known it for the rum drinks and an unconventional in-floor koi pond. By the time Mudhoney filmed an early music video here, the Benbow had achieved storied dive bar status.
Fuller remembers his dad—a disc jockey pre-parenthood—telling him stories about this bar. “All the radio stations were on Harbor Island and they would all come up here and hang out at the Benbow.”
It’s weathered a couple versions of its name (and one unexpected stint serving Midwestern comfort food) but Fuller has re-christened it the Admiral Benbow Room. He spent the past year restoring the best parts of a bar that has at times resembled a pre-PC Disney movie. The ship sparkles. So do the doubloons embedded in the bar top. Chainsaw artist Tomas Vrba sculpted a skeletal pirate dubbed Billy Bones. The defunct koi pond is consigned to the shipwreck of history.
The space offers a mix of games (pinball, skee-ball), a shipside cocktail lounge, and nightly DJ sets in the main room. The chef that once presided over Spring Hill now owns a bar with pull tabs. The slushy and draft cocktails should look familiar to fans of Supreme’s bar offerings, but Fuller says to keep expectations in check when it comes to the food. “Right now we’re just doing hot dogs.”
He's hardly the only restaurateur embracing bars over restaurants right now. But Ma'ono isn’t gone for good. The counters inside Rachel’s Ginger Beer locations live on (next up: re-opening the one on Capitol Hill). Fuller’s building a commissary inside the cavernous Benbow space. He’ll sell those excellent fried chicken sandwiches and chicken fingers for delivery only, taking a David Chang-ian swerve into cloud kitchen territory. “Eventually we might serve them inside the Benbow,” says Fuller.