Cafe Nordo is giving the old Elliott Bay Book Company space in the Globe Building new life as an ingenious dinner-theater.

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If the brick walls of Pioneer Square’s Globe Building could talk, they’d have plenty of colorful yarns to tell.

Stories about a 1901 fire that roused sleeping hotel guests on the upper floors, and a bone-rattling 1949 earthquake that heavily damaged the roof. There would be tales, too, of the crazy-quilt of businesses in residence over the past century — including a shady “lady barber shop,” an Italian wine emporium, and, not long ago, a celebrated bookstore.

A new chapter for the Globe Building begins this week when The Culinarium, a unique combination of theatrical bistro and gathering spot for foodies and theater fans, makes its debut.

Coming up

‘Don Nordo del Midwest’

Presented by Cafe Nordo, April 17-May 31, at The Culinarium, 109 S. Main St., Seattle; $75-$100 (800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com).

Devised by the ingeniously creative Seattle performing troupe Cafe Nordo, The Culinarium is the latest (and one of the more unusual) ventures to occupy the 125-year old Globe Building, which also now houses architectural offices and an art gallery.

 

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“We want to create a Seattle institution that brings food and art together,” says Cafe Nordo producing director Terry Podgorski, who envisions adding cooking classes, literary events and other activities in the future. “Pioneer Square seems like a great place to do it.”

The first presentation at The Culinarium is “Don Nordo del Midwest,” a show about the troupe’s phantasmagorical namesake chef-guru Nordo Lefesczki, garnished with live music, surreal comedy, fine wines and a hearty spread of tapas — small, shareable plates of “Spanish cuisine inspired by Midwestern food,” and served by the cast.

Cafe Nordo has renovated this shoe-box-shaped storefront section of the former Elliott Bay Book Company with gallons of sweat equity and a lean budget of roughly $300,000.

The next step is bringing in the group’s fans, and drawing new patrons who will pick up on the raffish, boho spirit of the Nordo world — which is in some ways more in tune with the old frontier version of Pioneer Square than the slicker foodie culture of the new one.

Construction and permitting delays have pushed The Culinarium’s public opening later than first planned, to Friday, April 17. And a buzzy sense of excitement about the venture has been steadily building in the neighborhood over the past year.

“This is a big deal, a really big deal,” says Karen True, the business development director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, an association promoting the resurgence of the historic downtown district. “Cafe Nordo is bringing energy back to a wonderful space, and giving people another reason to be excited about what’s going on in Pioneer Square.”

Like True, Derek Shankland and Mike Klotz, owners of the nearby delicatessen Delicatus, actively encouraged Cafe Nordo to establish itself in the area, in the First Avenue South and South Main Street retail space vacated several years ago by Elliott Bay Book Company (now in new digs on Capitol Hill).

“Our biggest industry around here is food and beverage, restaurants and bars,” Shankland says. “Having a dinner theater and other nightlife options brings a more diverse audience to Pioneer Square. We need more things like this for sustainable growth.”

Indeed, to some young tech professionals new to the city, for whom plunking down $75 for a meal and a show ($100 with wine flight) is a bargain, The Culinarium could become an enticing addition to the scene. Nordo co-founder and artistic director Erin Brindley also hopes to bring in a more culturally and economically diverse crowd for future programs, including some that may involve the nonprofit activist group FEEST (Food Empowerment Education Sustainability Team.)

The Culinarium will be the first theatrical venue operating in the district since the early 1990s, when the (now-defunct) Empty Space Theatre left Occidental Square and moved to Fremont.

Back then, Pioneer Square was perceived as a picturesque but down-at-the-heels enclave, frequented by homeless people, drug dealers and rowdy revelers. The Empty Space staffers said the unruly club scene and spurts of violent street crime had frightened away theatergoers.

But that is changing. Today, while not devoid of violent incidents, Pioneer Square is cultivating a boom in upscale new bars, eateries, retail outlets and real-estate developments. Spiffy new apartment and office buildings have increased foot traffic and the residential population substantially, according to True.

“Fifteen thousand people are working [in the vicinity] every day, and a thousand more are living here than a year ago,” True reports. “There’s a lot of life, a lot of new discovering and exploring. And we’re eager to see more things going on in the evening.”

Podgorski and Brindley got an early sense of the shifting ambience in 2013, when Nordo presented “Smoked,” a mock “spaghetti western,” in a former saloon in Pioneer Square used by Delicatus for catering and special events.

“We practically sold out the whole run,” Brindley reports. “People liked coming down there, and the local businesses were really nice and welcoming to us.”

After years of producing successful shows on the fly, the footloose company was eager for a home of its own, and Pioneer Square seemed like a possible option.

Cafe Nordo was formed in 2009 by an ensemble of actors and other stage artists who had worked together in Seattle’s Circus Contraption, a grungy, surrealistic punk-cirque troupe with a bicoastal cult following.

When Contraption called it quits, Podgorski, a writer and theatrical jack-of-all-trades and Brindley, an inspired chef and trained stage director, decided to create a new enterprise that thoughtfully, entertainingly connected the communal aspects of dining and theatergoing.

“I didn’t want to just do regular dinner theater,” Brindley says. “That would be too gimmicky. I wanted to make people happy like the circus did, and give them a sense of magic to take away.”

Nordo’s first show, “The Modern American Chicken,” was staged in a Theo Chocolate warehouse in Fremont that the company transformed into a shabby-chic supper club. In a fanciful tribute to the life of a fowl named Henrietta, theatrical antics were accompanied by a gourmet dinner, with an ecological message in every locally sourced course. Seattle food and theater critics gobbled it up, as did audiences.

Nordo followed up the chicken show with other deliciously whimsical fare, scripted by Podgorski with an historical/environmental slant and set to music composed by the inspired Contraption alum, Anastasia Workman. A growing fan base turned up for the likes of “To Savor Tomorrow,” set on a jetliner winging toward the 1962 Seattle Worlds Fair, and “Sauced,” a murder-mystery about the lore and lure of alcohol.

But the peripatetic producing took a toll on the troupe, which had to re-create the ambience of a supper club in spaces never intended for that purpose. Brindley’s meticulously designed meals also had to be prepared in outside commercial kitchens, then trucked in.

After a couple years hunting for a home base, the nonprofit troupe struck a deal with Globe Building owner Ilze Jones, a community-minded architect well disposed to renting to an arts-related tenant offering public events.

With grants from the city’s Office of Arts and Culture and the King County agency 4Culture, a crowdfunding campaign and individual gifts, the group has since been able to turn 4,000 square feet of plank-floored space into a flexible and well-equipped, shoebox-shaped theater and dining hall that seats 100. And best of all, there’s a new on-site commercial kitchen downstairs, and convenient offstage areas for dressing rooms and food prep.

It’s nothing fancy, but relatively palatial for Cafe Nordo folk, who are relishing being in a storied building where shoppers recently browsed for books, and in a fabled district trying to rekindle its own magic.

Information in this article, originally published April 15, 2015, was corrected April 16, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the Alliance for Pioneer Square.