Everybody in the restaurant industry’s been talking about “Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End” (or at least about Laura Reiley’s article about it for The Washington Post). Understandably so — author Kevin Alexander’s thesis is that the current restaurant boom is a bubble, and it’s about to pop. I’m just working my way through the book now, but it certainly stands to reason: What goes up must come down, especially when it comes to an unprecedented period of economic expansion in the U.S., and Seattle insiders have been privately predicting eventual restaurant-scene carnage for quite some time.
“There are too many restaurants,” Alexander says in the WaPo piece — something local chefs have been saying off the record for several years, as restaurants and bars have been multiplying like crazy in our high-rolling economy. Our back-of-the-napkin Seattle Times count for 2018 was 362 Seattle-area openings (almost one a day!) versus just 71 closures. And when times get tough, luxuries like eating out are first on everyone’s budget chopping block (though some will, inevitably, blame minimum-wage increases — sigh).
Seattle Times economics columnist Jon Talton tells me that Seattle currently enjoys “one of the best and most diverse economies in North America” — meaning “widespread high wages and disposable income, both of which benefit restaurants,” as does lots of tourism, he says. Furthermore, “downturns and recessions tend to arrive here later than most places,” Talton notes. “All that said, I keep wondering how many restaurants we can support. … Indeed, much of this is a result of a long expansion, and distortions and unsustainable business models always get slipped in — to be weeded out by the rough justice of the next recession.”
But that’s not happening yet. Since we last tallied up closures about a month ago, the following eight restaurants have fallen by the wayside or their departure is imminent; in the same time frame, we’ve had 20 fresh Seattle restaurant openings — and oh, wait, 28 more on the Eastside and elsewhere, plus five bars, too. Onward and, at least for now, upward!?
You’ve still got time to say goodbye to chef Jerry Traunfeld’s beloved Poppy on Capitol Hill, but hurry: The last night is Sunday, Aug. 4. As word’s gotten out, he says, “It’s just been insane” — online reservations are full and the phone’s ringing off the hook, so your best bet is to line up early. Traunfeld and his husband will be moving to Palm Springs, California, where he’ll keep cooking, gardening, writing and teaching, but he is “quite certain” he won’t open a restaurant there (unfortunately!). The James Beard award-winning chef has provided Seattle-area diners with decades of excellent dinners dating back through his 17-year tenure at The Herbfarm, representing that place’s heyday. He’s also been a mentor and inspiration to many along the way, shaping the way chefs here cook today — his wisdom will be sorely missed. He says his Sichuan-inspired Lionhead, next door to Poppy, will carry on, though it sounds like under new ownership — more to come on that.
This sad shutdown, however, comes with a huge silver lining. As the Seattle restaurant scene booms on, the Poppy space won’t be vacant for long — the replacement will be called Carrello, and it will come from Nathan and Rebecca Lockwood. They run what some call Seattle’s finest fine-dining spot, Altura, across the street — and they promise that Carrello’s prices will put Altura’s vaunted pasta “in a more rustic and generous fashion” within more regular reach, starting this autumn.
In the end of another Seattle restaurant era, Ludi’s downtown is losing its lease and closing after Aug. 31. Get your ube pancakes while you can — while owner Gregorio Rosas is seeking another space for the longtime diner, he needs it to be an affordable one, given the populist price point for what he calls his “real food, home-cooked food — hash browns, garlic rice!” After coming to Seattle from the Philippines in 1978, Rosas started out as an undocumented dishwasher at The Turf, the previous incarnation of Ludi’s. Recognizing his hard work, the then-owner eventually gave him some stock — then the entire business. After taking over in 2001, Rosas changed the name to honor his adoptive mom and introduced staples of his homeland to the menu; he says he’s blessed to have had the opportunity to own the downtown mainstay, helping others along the way. Now, after 17 years in its current location, Ludi’s — just by staying the same — has become the kind of business that rising rents crowd out, while American-dream stories like Rosas’ are also in danger of becoming impossibilities. What a world.
But there’s a little silver lining when it comes to Ludi’s, too: Watch for those beautiful purple ube pancakes to return at street fairs and maybe farmers markets under the name Happi Yummi, run by Rosas’ daughter Rita Glenister. It’s her recipe, and in a bit of cultural cross-pollination, she’ll be making them in the style of the mini Dutch pancakes known as poffertjes — “a walkable ube pancake,” she says, with more info coming on Facebook.
And while it’s never been known for its food, fans will still want a chance to say farewell to Tula’s Restaurant & Jazz Club in Belltown. After more than a quarter of a century, the last note will be played at the end of September, with much of the block set to be demolished for yet another high-rise development. Like Ludi’s, ownership has sought but not found a viable nearby space. “We’ve looked and there’s just nothing we can afford — not doing local jazz,” they said in a previous Seattle Times interview.
In the already-closed category, owner Travis Rosenthal has pulled the plug on Tango on Capitol Hill after 19 years in operation. But his neighboring Rhumba remains popular, and he also still runs Sand Point Grill. Moreover, he’s just taken over waterfront favorite Agua Verde, adding “Marina Cantina” to the name and some Rhumba cocktails to the menu, along with handmade tortillas and more.
Not far away, little Korean spot Blue Stone Bistro on Olive Way is no more, saying simply on Facebook, “Hi everyone, We’re now officially closed. This place will be replaced with high-end bar. Thank you for your business.” The high-end bar, according to Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, will be called The Doctor’s Office, owned by an actual doctor and specializing in pricey Japanese whiskey.
Also now closed: Plaka Estiatorio in Ballard, after 11 family-friendly years … OutWest Bar in West Seattle, after eight years as the neighborhood’s “premier LGBTQ bar,” and the only one, too … Tandem Dinner & Wine Bar in Woodinville, saying they “abruptly” lost their lease and are looking for a new location, while court records show the business filed for bankruptcy.