A Seattle landmark gets with the times.
What’s a grand dame like the Sorrento to do? The first hotel on First Hill, which opened for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, felt stuck in time. It’s a beloved local landmark, but few Seattleites had reason to go there.
On Wednesday the Sorrento debuted anew, with updates throughout and the latest edition of its restaurant, re-christened with its former name, the Dunbar Room.
The hotel had reached “a turning point,” said Barbara Malone, who along with her husband, Michael, owns the 76-room Italianate classic. “We needed a refresh … We have a vision for the hotel and its place in the community.”
With a wave of chic new hotels coming to town — including the swank Thompson chain opening adjacent to Pike Place Market and the Philippe Starck-designed Mark, featuring a restaurant by world-famous chef José Andrés — the Sorrento’s refresh comes not a moment too soon. Bloomberg reported that nearly a dozen downtown hotels are on the way, and at least two more are slated for South Lake Union.
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To make the Sorrento competitive again, the Malones turned to hospitality-management and real-estate-development firm Magnetic/ERV. Chief among its concerns: making the hotel a gathering place for both locals and tourists, and turning the forgotten Hunt Club restaurant into a place that Seattle would remember again.
Magnetic/ERV’s approach was to work with the building’s excellent bones toward an update reflecting the hotel’s long life without the stodginess, to find “a magical mix of different eras,” according to partner Jared Lovejoy.
The Sorrento was wonderful before, in its own peculiar way. If the service in the ornate, octagonal lobby Fireside Room always seemed to be swimming through an extra-viscous dimension of time — President Taft was the first to sign the register here — at least the tassled-and-upholstered-to-the-gills décor seemed to suit the gleaming Honduras mahogany woodwork.
The patterned upholstery of a million throw pillows, overstuffed sofas and wingback chairs fought genteelly with each other, and the fireplace glowed with its lovely Rookwood tiles. To sink into the furniture here and order a cocktail was to feel cosseted, if not outright muffled. The Sorrento prompted a pleasant stupor.
Lovejoy consulted historic interior photos for the refurbishing. He hopes the lobby, which hosts live music, a monthly silent-reading party and more, will be “a more useful space. Hotel lobbies used to be that, and there’s a movement in the boutique hotel world to return to that.”
The Fireside’s transformation is disorienting. The full bar now occupying one of the room’s eight sides is startling, but it also seems like it always should have been there, its wealth of bottles reassuring. The wall-to-wall, with its dizzyingly repeating quasi-floral motif, has been banished in favor of the original, lightly marred oak floors with tastefully overlapping oriental rugs. The floors creak underfoot, while music like Al Green plays. (Al Green would’ve made the old Sorrento apoplectic.)
The furnishings are a harmonious hodgepodge of midcentury and other: a tufted leather sofa, bentwood chairs, white marble-topped coffee tables, Deco lamps, contemporary art leaned carelessly (but carefully) against walls, a baby grand. There are a restrained number of Turkish kilim pillows and candles flicker inside Moroccan tea glasses.
If the old Fireside Room seemed put together by a wealthy grandmother on Valium, the new one has the sensibility of the stylish, well-to-do bachelor uncle who has dabbled in hashish during his travels.
A new courtyard area for al fresco drinking and dining is also replacing the hotel’s circular driveway at the corner of Terry Avenue and Madison Street. “We’re hoping between the garden and the lobby, people will come hang out and use the space,” Lovejoy says. (As for the budget, he says it was “not big … We’ve been doing our best to make the most impact with smart choices.”)
As far as the restaurant goes, Magnetic/ERV had its work cut out for it. If you haven’t thought about dining at the Sorrento’s Hunt Club in a long time — or never — you’re not alone. It had fallen so far off anyone’s radar, no one even noticed that it got a new menu way back in January, nor wondered who was behind it.
The pomp and frump of the dining room has been supplanted by the feeling of a European bistro in a building with a storied past, with Moroccan tiles lightening and brightening the space.
Its adjoining bar is now a place for scheming instead of snoozing, where cocktails like the Old Cuban feel earned by the atmosphere instead of like trendy impositions. Both rooms’ gorgeous woodwork looks almost visibly grateful for new white-marble-topped tables and deep-green leather banquettes.
The new chef is Seth Caswell, formerly of the Stumbling Goat, his own short-lived emmer & rye, and the Beach Store Cafe on Lummi Island. The menu checks all the hotel-restaurant boxes and it won’t change much, though local and seasonal foodstuffs are thrown in. The Dunbar isn’t going to be a hotbed of culinary experimentation; Caswell doesn’t want “a challenge to the customer.”
As he puts it, “If a local farmer says, ‘Hey, I have some lamb testicles for you, are you interested?’ I’m going to say no.”
The most provocative the menu gets is the “Secret Burger.” It’s $26, loaded with umami-heavy toppings, made with half wagyu beef and limited in quantity each night. But for those who find that too challenging, there’s also a regular $15 grass-fed burger.
The Sorrento’s guest rooms have gotten an update, too. But what the Malones and Magnetic/ERV, which will stay on as management, are working toward is more than a place for out-of-towners to lay their heads. If all goes well, the Sorrento will soon be a nexus instead of an end point.