When I got this job three years ago, my main gig was to report on great neighborhood restaurants. Ones that are beloved by their neighbors, woven into the fabric of their community. It didn’t always happen — which isn’t to say I didn’t eat a lot of good (and let’s be honest, some pretty terrible) food — but neighborhood restaurants integral to their neighborhood aren’t so easy to come by.

However, when I walked into Jude’s in Rainier Beach the other night, the community vibes were immediately apparent. At one table, a family with a toddler was navigating dinner — complete with all the things dinner with a toddler needs to be successful (snacks, crayons, toys). At the bar, a gentleman eating a burger was talking with bartender and co-owner Mark Paschal about how he used to walk his sister to dance class at the studio just next door. He couldn’t believe the dance studio was still there, all these decades later. Another couple at the bar asked Paschal about a menu item and if it would be sticking around — they live across the street and didn’t want it to disappear without ordering it again.

It’s this level of comfort — knowing it’s OK to bring your kid to dinner, or striking up a friendly conversation with a bartender where the responses are more than a noncommittal “hmph,” or having a familiarity with the menu — that to me anchors the vibes of a neighborhood restaurant. Jude’s has all that, and more.

Jude’s was originally opened by Beau Hebert in 2014. Paschal served as the bar manager from 2016-19. He left the bar in early 2019, but that fall got a text from an old co-worker saying Hebert was looking to sell. Paschal and Leith Shenstone ended up buying the restaurant and reopened the beginning of January 2020 with bare walls, rented furniture and a banquet license.

“We just gave away booze the first night and had a liquor license by the next day,” Paschal said during a recent phone call.

Jude’s was the kind of place that didn’t have a phone — “The experience was the most important thing. If you wanted takeout, you had to come in and say hi to us,” he says.

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The pandemic changed all that. Soon they had online ordering for takeout and like many restaurants were doing anything they could to survive — including starting a wine club. By August 2020, Shenstone had moved to Cle Elum, telling Paschal that “all the fun parts of owning a bar don’t exist, just the headaches.” Paschal bought him out and in March 2021 he presented the staff with three options for how the restaurant could look moving forward.

“I will be your god as the business owner, everything I say goes and I’ll try to be good. We can do profit-sharing, which is essentially the same thing. Or we can do worker ownership where we all collectively determine what happens here. We learn skill sharing, you all will be able to learn how restaurants work and if someday you want your own, we’ll help you,” Paschal says.

The employees collectively chose option three where the restaurant would become worker-owned. For the past nearly two years, the restaurant has been worker-operated as the group of 10 writes and ratifies its bylaws, and while Paschal says there have been a few “bumps and hiccups” along the way — which is to be expected as there aren’t a whole lot of co-operative restaurants to look to for guidance — “it feels really great.” Employees can now start buying in with a starting price of $1,000 for membership.

Paschal believes that being worker-operated has only added to the vibe at Jude’s.

“No one expects anything in Rainier Beach that they’re excited about. There are fantastic things here and we love our neighbors, but it’s not Ballard or Fremont. We’re a neighborhood spot. We create the atmosphere we want to work in, and people will either respond to that or not,” he says.

He’s found that because the employees get to determine what it means to work there, the result is an environment where no one is dreading a customer coming in.

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“Most of the bartenders could make more money somewhere else, but because it’s a collective thing and we get to have a say in what our labor looks like, it’s the most exciting and invigorating work experience I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.

That feels good as a customer, too. I sipped a cocktail while waiting for my takeout, Paschal and the rest of the staff whirling around the bar and dining room taking care of customers with genuine smiles and ease. The menu still features some of the same Creole flavors from when it first opened — blackened or fried catfish with dirty rice, Tabasco Caesar salad, gumbo. Paschal doesn’t claim to be authentic — in fact, he says, “authenticity is a marketing term.”

“I don’t think any of us have been to New Orleans, but I don’t think you have to have been there if you have a respect for the foundational ingredients and you have good taste. Our ambition, once the kitchen has more time, is to think about what it means to be Pacific Northwest Cajun or Creole,” he says.

They’re also homing in on what it means to be a Pacific Northwest-centric bar, using responsibly foraged ingredients from apples and blackberries to spruce tips and magnolia blossoms to infuse drinks.

Even for takeout, the food at Jude’s shone bright. Gumbo ($16) is an ideal takeout food — the soup was rich and thick with andouille sausage, chicken and a scoop of fluffy white rice. It was still hot by the time I got it home and I ate it straight from the container with no shame. Every grain of the dirty rice ($22), served with your choice of catfish or chicken, was packed with flavor. I chose the blackened catfish, the filet slightly spicy and pleasantly firm against the soft rice. I also grabbed a side of fried chicken breast. The breading lost a bit of its crunch in transit, but it was still pretty terrific. The breading was light and smooth — almost like a McNugget-esque skim coating than a craggy crunch — and also full of salty, spicy, herby flavor.

And while I’ve been to Jude’s one evening during a pop-up takeover, I’m excited to get back for something other than takeout to experience the fried chicken, gumbo and the environment Paschal and staff are so proud to create. That feeling of belonging at a neighborhood restaurant, even when it’s not my neighborhood.

Jude’s Old Town 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 4 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; 9252 57th Ave. S., Seattle; 206-379-6629; judesoldtown.com