Lauded by Anthony Bourdain, praised in publications near and far, Seattle’s Café Presse is receiving an outpouring of local love in the days before its final farewell on Sunday.
Reservations at the French favorite filled up completely within 48 hours of the announcement of the closure, co-owner chef Jim Drohman said, with “really — all of a sudden — the phones just ringing, nonstop, all day long.” Then the line of devotees seeking a walk-in table for their last perfect omelet, ideal steak frites or a dream of a green salad began to stretch down the cold sidewalk, day and night.
Outside Café Presse midafternoon late last week, patron Krystle Pagarigan, who lives in South Seattle, described herself as “pretty heartbroken, I’d have to say,” about the impending ending. She’d left work early “to try and have a slightly shorter wait” in order to meet a friend for a goodbye happy hour. On her personal menu: “Definitely, a cheese plate,” possibly the famed roasted chicken and “whatever bottle of wine is calling my name!”
Drohman opened Café Presse with partner Joanne Herron in 2007, seeking to provide Seattle with the sort of all-day, egalitarian yet exemplary bar-and-restaurant common in France but all too rare here. Presse has always aimed to please “a mix of people of different affluence levels, and different sorts of levels of sophistication,” Drohman noted in a phone interview. “It was never really a place for one group of people — it always has been adopted by different kinds of people, and that really always made me very happy.”
The citizenry responded from the get-go, with the close-set tables and long marble bar becoming home away from home for one and all. With Capitol Hill’s Northwest Film Forum, Hugo House and numerous clubs all nearby, artists, writers and musicians flocked to scribble in notebooks and hatch plans over coffee or cocktails under the not-so-watchful eye of Café Presse’s big clock. Broadcasts of soccer matches drew fans from the beginning, with a packed house marking France’s 2018 World Cup victory so uproariously, the vibrations caused pans and pots to fall off the kitchen’s shelves.
Affordable prices brought students from adjacent Seattle University and beyond, while multiple customers told of multigenerational happiness found over the last 15 years. Pat Ledda of Shoreline waited in line with her grandson, Milo Vennes, newly turned 11 years old; he’d been brought here since it opened, she said. “It’s his favorite restaurant,” she noted, calling the place “wonderful.” Milo would be having the croque monsieur, because, as he succinctly put it, “I just like it!”
Drohman also noted that he and Herron were happy Café Presse provided “a friendly space for women alone, who’d come in and sit at the bar and felt that it was not like you’re gonna get meat-marketed or anything.” Waiting for her last-supper seat, longtime patron Erin Reitz of Capitol Hill agreed, calling it one of few spots in the neighborhood “where you can go and enjoy yourself as much alone with a book … as you can with friends or a date.” And not even the latter needed to be great, she said, in this special case. “I’ve been on so many mediocre dates here, and none of the guys have ever ruined this place for me,” she laughed.
Love flowered, too, at Café Presse — more auspicious first dates were toasted with sparkling crémant, and proposals were made on bended knee as fellow diners held their collective breath, then burst into applause. At least one couple, Drohman related, were quietly wed with their ordained minister and witnesses unostentatiously seated at a table in the back room.
A level of heartbreak necessarily accompanies the loss of a favorite place — a “mainstay,” as more than one adherent called it, one there through life’s vagaries, through love gained or lost, through a dramatically changing cityscape, and even, unthinkably, through a global pandemic. “It feels like losing a little piece of my heart,” Reitz said, “not to be melodramatic.” Susan Michl, who lives in Madison Valley and went to Presse from the very start, spoke of memories first with friends, then also with her family over the last decade and a half. “I’m gonna go home and cry,” she said, seemingly only half-joking. “All night long — maybe for the rest of the month … I mean, it really is a loss.”
Nothing lasts forever, but some end-of-days supplicants were consoled to hear that the demise of Café Presse is not pandemic-related. According to Drohman, the lease was up, and he and Herron had plotted retirement plans long ago. Herron looks forward to writing projects and gardening at her home in West Seattle, while Drohman and his wife Sheila McDonnal aim to eventually move full time to the countryside near the picturesque town of Orthez, France. With regard to Drohman’s future, as Ledda put it, “Why not? If you can do it, why not move to France?”
The time remaining on Café Presse’s clock — with the wallpaper beyond it genteelly peeling — now numbers in hours rather than days. Pagarigan was able to muster a philosophical approach, saying, “It’s just kind of the cycle of life here in Seattle. Great restaurants come and go.” Moreover, she noted, “I am excited to try the new spot” — that will be chef Grayson Corrales’ tapas bar, which is set to open in the Presse space this spring.
And the best consolation, more than one of Café Presse’s devoted clientele pointed out, is that older sibling restaurant Le Pichet, from the same owners, remains open — perched above Pike Place Market. It serves many of the same classic French dishes, especially during the day. For more than two decades now, Le Pichet has also been a Seattle mainstay, albeit a more upscale, bistro-style one with its pale-butter-colored walls and tile floor. It’ll be around, Drohman says, at least until its lease is up — that’s at the end of this year, which seems far too soon, and then will represent its own kind of heartbreak.
But there’s just no place like Café Presse — usually bustling and always welcoming, morning until late-night, a place for every occasion and everyone, from when the snow piled up on the skylight through warm afternoons on the postage-sized patio. This civic treasure will be sorely missed.