Jason Stratton looked out the windows of his striking new Spanish-inflected restaurant, Aragona, earlier this month. The beautifully styled interiors faced a picture-perfect view of the Seattle waterfront and Great Wheel, in a prime downtown spot near the Four Seasons hotel, just a block from the fish-throwers at Pike Place Market.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Stratton, one of the bright young stars of Seattle’s culinary scene. “It’s really kind of ground zero, the middle of everything.”
Years ago, it would have been no surprise to hear downtown described that way. In the late 1990s, with the tech industry and economy both on fire, a blizzard of new eateries with big-name stars from other towns peppered the neighborhood — Stars, Wolfgang Puck’s Obachine, Roy Yamaguchi’s Roy’s.
“When I arrived here in 1985, most of the best-known restaurants and chefs were in hotels,” and people drove downtown for destination dinners, said Tamara Murphy, who worked in the area for years and opened her award-winning Brasa in Belltown in 1999.
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But event after event — from the violent protests of the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999 to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to the dot-com bust and the crashing economy — made modestly scaled neighborhood restaurants the newer face of Seattle.
“After 9/11, and I mean almost immediately,” Murphy recalled, “little restaurants began popping up in neighborhoods all over the city in response to people wanting to stay close to home, and the downtown scene, big restaurants, began to suffer.”
Lately, though, downtown is flush with new residents and workers. It’s the hot neighborhood of the moment for restaurants — not just any eateries, but flagship spots operated by some of the city’s outstanding chefs.
Downtown “is a brand new place, and it’s great to see,” said Jason Wilson, who won national acclaim with his romantic New American restaurant, Crush, in a remodeled home near Madison Valley. He also just upsized to a downtown showpiece, opening Miller’s Guild in the Hotel Max, which features a 9-foot-long wood-fired oven dubbed “The Inferno” and an ambitious program that includes dry-aging beef and cask-finishing spirits.
“I’ve always enjoyed that big-city feel that San Francisco and New York offer, and that Seattle is growing into at a very rapid pace.”
Wilson’s previous downtown experience came when he arrived in Seattle in 1998 to head the highflying Stars restaurant in the then-new Pacific Place mall. After work, he said, the streets were deserted.
“That was it. You’d run home, there was nothing going on.”
Earlier this month, preparing for Miller’s Guild to open, Wilson and his crew stopped their work around 11 p.m. and headed over to the Palace Kitchen on Fourth Avenue.
“It was packed. We couldn’t even find a seat.”
A “demographic transformation” over the past 20 years has actually made the downtown area the most populous neighborhood in Seattle, according to a 2012 report by the Downtown Seattle Association and Seattle Public Schools. The residential population stands at 57,643, up 24 percent since 2000, according to Downtown Association figures. Upcoming business and residential projects are expected to raise the numbers sharply again over the next few years.
In addition, the number of downtown workers has increased from 190,834 in 2003 to an estimated 202,222 in 2012. Tourists and business travelers also contribute, with an estimated 4.5 million overnight visitors annually.
Despite high-profile incidents including, earlier this year, a Metro bus driver wounded in a shooting and a security guard assaulted at Westlake Center, the city’s neighborhood chefs now seem more willing and more able to come to the heart of the city.
“Seattle is one of the healthier cities in America, there’s no doubt about it,” said developer Matt Griffin, managing partner of the Pine Street Group, whose properties include Pacific Place mall and the 656-unit Via6 apartment complex at Sixth Avenue and Lenora Street.
What stands out for him now is the unique impact of Amazon, which already occupies about 3 million square feet of office space in South Lake Union and the nearby Denny Triangle and is building a massive three-block, 3.3 million-square-foot office complex in the area.
For 25 years, said top chef Thierry Rautureau, his fellow chef and pal Tom Douglas has been trying to convince him to come downtown from Madison Valley, where Rautureau ran high-end French-influenced restaurant Rover’s in a charming cottage, along with the casual Luc bistro down the block.
This year, Rautureau was finally sold. He closed Rover’s in June, and earlier this month opened Loulay in a beautifully remodeled space in the Sheraton Hotel building at Sixth and Union. A former jeweler’s shop has been transformed into a 100-seat modern French bistro for everything from bar drinks to breakfast to romantic dinners, with 20-foot ceilings and a private party room. Every seat was filled opening night.
To Rautureau, the area has “expanded and is becoming a community,” he said. “Downtown is not what downtown used to be.”
Does everyone feel that way? Not Rautureau’s pal Douglas, who insists that his advice to come downtown was as valid decades ago as it is today.
“Downtown is the same as it’s always been,” said Douglas, who recently bought a Pike Place Market condominium. He spars as easily with Rautureau on this point as the pair do on their joint radio show, now recorded in Douglas’ new downtown studio.
“I couldn’t be much more successful than what I’ve been over the last 25 years,” said Douglas, whose flagship Dahlia Lounge opened in 1989 at Fourth Avenue and Stewart Street, then later moved one block north. “I think it’s always been good.”
His downtown empire — 15 businesses at last count — includes stops in Belltown, Pike Place Market and South Lake Union. Four distinct venues opened earlier this year, including the modern American Asian restaurant Tanaka San, residing in the residential and retail collective he calls Assembly Hall, at the Via6 complex. Six months after he signed the Via6 lease, Amazon announced it would build its massive new development virtually next door, adding room for up to 12,000 new employees.
“That was the luck of the draw there,” Douglas allowed.
Douglas wasn’t trying to suggest he’s held the magic key to making downtown work for business. “I’m suggesting that, for the right business, there was business to be had.”
Douglas has a point. He’s far from the only restaurateur to pull off a grand success downtown, he pointed out, nodding to neighbors like Rick Yoder (Wild Ginger) and Kevin Davis (Steelhead Diner and Blueacre Seafood) or Matt’s in the Market (now owned by Dan Bugge, with original owner Matt Janke opening nearby Lecosho).
Part of the story is that there have been high and low spots around different segments of downtown, which itself is a series of neighborhoods. Once-sketchy Belltown roared back with restaurants during the tech boom. South Lake Union is now teeming with new employees of high-tech campuses like Amazon, whose lunchtime shopping helps make the prepared-foods section at the Westlake Whole Foods the busiest of any Whole Foods in the country, by one recent report. Historic Pioneer Square was this year’s standout for impressive new chef-owned restaurants, with James Beard winner Matt Dillon alone taking over three grand storefronts.
Further, in the downtown core, a single block can make all the difference.
Even within Pacific Place, for instance, there’s a huge difference in business between the corner at Sixth and Pine and the one at Seventh and Olive, Griffin pointed out.
“Foot traffic, foot traffic, foot traffic,” he said.
No one knows that better than Tamara Murphy. One of Seattle’s most-decorated chefs, she opened Brasa on Third Avenue in 1999, assuming the sudden popularity of a spiffed-up Belltown on First and Second avenues would spread to that street. Instead, it was the opposite. One retailer after another closed down on her block, from the cool bars to the hardware store. A YWCA was built where the bars had been. Plymouth Housing group, which provides apartments for chronically homeless people, built its offices next door to Brasa, in the last place that new retail shops could have gone, she said in an email.
“Third Avenue from Denny to Pioneer Square is a terrible avenue,” she said in an email. (In fact, a 2009 city report called that transit corridor “uninviting, unattractive and generally a dreadful place to walk, shop or wait for a bus.”)
After Murphy’s 10-year lease on Brasa was up, she stayed open downtown for another year as she prepared to open her current well-received Capitol Hill restaurant, Terra Plata. She never considered locating Terra Plata downtown. And yet she’s happy to see the new places, and wonders if it’s a return to days past, when it wasn’t such a big deal to drive and park and spend time at a destination dinner.
“I will go to Loulay and Aragona, probably even dress up, maybe take a show in and have a real night on the town, not just go to grab a bite or have dinner because I need to eat,” Murphy added. “Because of them, I am more eager to go on a date with my partner, celebrate something, go do something ‘special’ and I bet others will too.
“Perhaps we are feeling just a little better about things than we were 10 years ago.”
Jason Stratton, at least, certainly felt good about downtown as he looked out from his handsome new restaurant.
“It also is a neighborhood,” he observed. “I think that’s the thing people forget about downtown.”
Rebekah Denn writes about food at seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.