Current concept not drawing the dining crowds? “Pivot” is the new verb in the industry. Here’s how some local chefs are changing it up (or, in some cases, down).
Una Kim’s restaurant served oysters on the half-shell and a mean cioppino. She gave it a flight-of-fancy name: The Faerie Queene, after an unfinished epic by Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser. The funny-shaped, airy little room — equipped with a bit of Pioneer Square’s characteristic exposed brick — along with her thoughtful, delicious food made the place a total charmer. She earned critical praise (from me), copious online love (“If I could give it 6 stars I would”), and a loyal group of regulars.
But a year and half in, Kim says, “On every level … it just wasn’t sustainable.” She wanted to serve “fresh, affordable and local” seafood, but the environmental state of Puget Sound worried her, and the cost equation wasn’t penciling out. With Seattle’s shortage of kitchen workers, she had trouble finding staff who could execute her more complicated dishes.
It just wasn’t working. So at the end of January, Kim closed down The Faerie Queene — and that, it would seem, was the end of that.
Not quite. Kim joined a growing group of Seattle restaurateurs who, faced with an increasingly competitive, mutable market, are refusing to throw in the towel.
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“Pivot” is the new verb in the Seattle restaurant world. Your moody, upscale Denny Triangle place for Mexican favorites made with all-Pacific Northwest foodstuffs (like guacamole with eggplant instead of avocado) isn’t working? Change it to something currently tried-and-true — this is Josh Henderson’s Bar Noroeste, now known as Kiki Ramen. In Belltown, the cuisine of conquering Normans (”modern interpretations of old world dishes, such as pottage with fried bread … pork knuckles, venison, boar”) isn’t selling, but the beer sure is? Make it a brewery/brewpub — thus did Bell and Whete get reconcepted into Belltown Brewing. Maria Hines’ organic $20 gyro just never caught on at Ballard’s Golden Beetle; hence, her new Young American Ale House. Similarly, Capitol Hill’s Naka recently became Adana: same chef, more accessible (and less expensive) menu.
It’s easy to be flippant about an industry trend, but none of these decisions was easy to make. A word that comes up — and feels euphemistic — is “bittersweet.”
“I have so many feelings around this,” Henderson says. Having expanded at an unprecedented clip, he now finds himself with not one but two pivots under way: Not far from what’s now Kiki Ramen, his restaurant Vestal is transforming from a high-end chef’s counter to quick counter service.
His Huxley Wallace group hoped to “expand and push [Seattle] a little bit, from a food perspective.” One lesson learned is that the hungry and thirsty of Amazonland are not yet ready to be pushed — there, “It’s Monday through Friday, it’s lunch and maybe a little bit of happy hour,” Henderson says. He anticipated that both Noroeste and Vestal would be destination places, but that did not materialize. He cites more competition, especially in fine dining: “You start to divide up that pie a number of times …”
Vestal was meant to be, Henderson says, “sort of a beacon for us, and sort of a home.” He often cooked there himself, over the flames and coals of a wood-fired hearth, scoring a place on last year’s Seattle Times 10 best new restaurants list. But while the area around it will eventually fill in, Henderson judges they opened a couple of years too soon. “It’s a pretty soul-sucking experience to have a restaurant that’s empty on a Tuesday night,” he says ruefully.
Kiki Ramen is already doing better than Noroeste ever did, according to Henderson, while Vestal’s scheduled to reopen, probably under the same name, next month. “In the end,” he observes, sounding resigned, “it’s not about what I want at all — it’s about what they want. And people vote with their dollars.” But he’s proud of what he and his team accomplished, and, he says, “The path feels clear.”
Out in Ballard, chef Hines has felt his pain. She ran her second restaurant, the criticallyacclaimed Golden Beetle, for several years, serving all-organic Eastern Mediterranean food. She thinks it was ahead of its time for the neighborhood — “more expensive than your down-the-street Mediterranean place,” with unfamiliar stuff on the menu like kibbeh, labneh, sumac. At the same time, she notes, on “savvier” Capitol Hill, the similar-minded restaurant Mamnoon took off.
Like Henderson, Hines sees the fine-dining audience getting “spread thinner and thinner.” Even a James Beard Award–winning chef like her “can’t just be like, ‘This is the kind of food I want to cook — here you go.’ ” With so many more chef-driven restaurants in Seattle, she contends, “The ‘foodie’ crowd — they’re not as loyal as they used to be … They’re loyalists to the newest restaurant opening up. Which is every week.”
So Hines took down the dozens of Turkish mosaic lanterns that prettily lit the Golden Beetle space. Now, as Young American Ale House, it serves all-Washington beers and an excellent chicken potpie; she’s even got a kids’ menu, and she recently installed TVs. She says the neighbors “are really stoked.” She estimates sales are up 25 percent. And, she says, she loves eating (and drinking) this way too — “I built my dream pub.”
She has regrets, however. “Of course, my heart aches for Golden Beetle,” Hines says. “Of course it does … I don’t do anything if I’m not over-the-top excited about it.” But, she laughs, “You’ve gotta be able to pay the rent. I thought long and hard. That restaurant was an incredible restaurant — it just wasn’t a good business.
“It’s all kind of grim-sounding,” Hines acknowledges. But she still loves Seattle. “You just have to find a way to grow with it,” she says. “As it grows exponentially fast, how do I grow exponentially fast, and hold onto my craft for dear life?”
Back in Pioneer Square, Una Kim’s pivot was a relatively simple one: She honed her menu, forsaking the seafood focus, then added breakfast and weekend brunch. (She still closes early in the evening, with happy hour in lieu of dinner service.) And, listening to her customers, she added a cute little “in-a-pinch” corner store, where, in an area with a dearth of markets, you can pick up an organic onion, a box of cereal, some batteries or gummi bears. Her place is now called Pittsburgh Lunch & Superette.
“After being open for a little bit,” Kim says, “I kind of knew what the neighborhood liked … It’s funny. Going into it, I had a certain idea in mind, then I went a different direction.
“People seem to like it,” she says.