Will the Southwest Seattle Historical Society soon be in the restaurant business? Alki Homestead restaurant's longtime owner, Doris Nelson, died last month at age 80, and her will...

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Will the Southwest Seattle Historical Society soon be in the restaurant business?

Alki Homestead restaurant’s longtime owner, Doris Nelson, died last month at age 80, and her will grants the Historical Society an option to buy the West Seattle landmark. The catch: “Mrs. Nelson wanted the property to retain its present configuration,” says James Barnecut, attorney for the estate.

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Mrs. Nelson’s will, filed in probate court on Nov. 22, stipulates a purchase price of $2 million, $500,000 of that price to be returned to the society as a gift earmarked for maintenance and repairs. According to Barnecut, the society has 60 days to exercise its option on the 100-year-old log house located near the spot where white settlers first came ashore and just half a block from the Historical Society’s Log House Museum.

Up in the air

Whether the society can come up with the money, or even wants to be in the business of running a restaurant, are issues that their board is considering. Meanwhile, uncertainty about the restaurant’s future has made a table at the Alki Homestead the hardest-to-get dinner reservation in the city this holiday season. “We are completely booked through Dec. 23,” says hostess Donna Watson to dozens of disappointed callers daily.

“Pink and silver were her colors,” hostess Donna Watson says of the Alki Homestead’s longtime owner, Doris Nelson, who died last month at age 80.

Should the society be unable to meet the requirements of the will, the restaurant will be put up for sale, though not necessarily on the same terms, says Barnecut. “It doesn’t have to remain a restaurant, but because of its landmark status there are restrictions on what changes a new owner can make. If the Historical Society declines, then we will have to have the property professionally appraised.”

The board expects to announce whether the society can fulfill the requirements of the will in early 2005. “One of our options is tracking down some big angel investors,” says Jordan Hecker, the society’s attorney, who acknowledges that several restaurateurs have expressed interest in the building already.

“It’s a unique institution. We need a fit with someone who can operate the restaurant and understand and respect the historical aspect.”

Since its founding in 1984, the Historical Society enjoyed a close relationship with Doris Nelson and helped secure landmark status for the restaurant in the past decade, says board President Joan Mraz.

“In light of that role and because of our long-standing relationship, Mrs. Nelson graciously specified a role for the society in her will. The opportunity to acquire the Homestead is exciting. It’s important and historic.”

Landmark’s history

Originally called Fir Lodge, the William J. Bernard family built the house and lived there from 1904 to 1907. In addition to the homestead, the Bernard estate included several outbuildings, among them a carriage house that was purchased in 1995 by the Southwest Seattle Historical Society and turned into the Log House Museum. The chance for the society to bring both structures under its wing is understandably alluring.

The homestead was a rest stop and overnight retreat for members of the Seattle Driving and Auto Club for most of the first half of the 20th century. In 1950, Swend Neilson turned it into a restaurant and christened it the Alki Homestead. Adele Foote took over as proprietor five years later.

But it was Doris Nelson who put the indelible stamp of her personality on the restaurant that West Seattleites hold so dear. She bought the place in 1960 and lived for a while in the apartment upstairs with her two children, Joan and David. In the beginning, she did everything herself, from cooking to sewing uniforms.

Over the years in her high heels and upswept do, a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, she became a familiar fixture hobnobbing with guests in her comfortably fussy dining room and was just as conspicuous driving around West Seattle in her pale pink Mercedes with “Hoop T Doo” on the license plate.

“She liked things done her way, and she got it her way,” says Andrew Strasser, the Homestead’s cook. “But she was fair and honest and always gave you a chance.

“We’re still doing it her way,” he adds, eyes rolling upward with a laugh as he pulls biscuits out of the oven and tends to several large sizzling skillets full of frying chicken. “We’re being watched.”

“I swear I heard her heels tapping down the hallway the other day,” says a server to customers. “But no one was there.”

Phones ringing off hook

News of her death, and rumors that the restaurant might close or be sold, started the phone ringing with people hoping for one last plate of sautéed shrimp or prime rib, or the Homestead’s signature pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes and giblet gravy.

Among the lucky ones dining on a recent evening were Bill and Nancy Moffat. “Forty years ago I was cooking fried chicken here and I haven’t been back until now,” confesses Bill, a retired Seattle police captain. “When we heard it was closing, I said we had to come,” adds his wife.

They joined friends Helen Langkam and Ann Brumbach, who have been celebrating birthdays and entertaining out-of-town guests at the restaurant for at least a dozen years.

It wasn’t hard to find customers of more than 50 years standing, like Mary Manning, Denny Anderson, Margot McKee and Mary and Neal Sorenson. “I was her friend,” says Mary Sorenson of Doris Nelson, “But she made everyone think she was their best friend. That was her gift.”

Dec. 23 was to have been the Homestead’s last day of service, but a notice posted on the door of the restaurant says that it will close for the holidays beginning Dec. 24 and re-open Jan. 5 “with Mrs. Nelson’s original hours and menu.”

“We’ll be glad to have the time off, so we can mourn and just be quiet,” says Watson, who has done “a little of everything” in her 12 years at the restaurant. Her mouth smiles but her eyes are sad as she checks the dining room one last time before service begins.

Everything is immaculate from the plush carpet to the crystal chandeliers. The dull glow of firelight burnishes the antique sideboards and old master reproductions that hang on the rippled log walls. On each table, pale pink napkins, ornate flatware, a silver candleholder and a vase of pink carnations, white tea roses and baby’s breath are precisely arranged on lacy white tablecloths

“Pink and silver were her colors,” says Watson. Behind her a pink and silver Christmas tree twinkles, a reminder that this is the season for angels. Perhaps a few will find their way to West Seattle.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com