Share story

Carmelita file photo by John Lok/The Seattle Times
Carmelita file photo by John Lok/The Seattle Times

Carmelita Vegetarian Restaurant and Bar, one of the first restaurants in Seattle to elevate vegetarian food to “dining out” status, will close its doors Sept. 29.

Kathryn Neumann and Michael Hughes opened the gracious Phinney-Greenwood bistro in 1996, overseeing it with a particular knack for hiring high-quality chefs who went on to omnivorous excellence in their own ventures. John Sundstrom of Lark cooked at Carmelita, as did Ericka Burke of Volunteer Park Cafe and Dan Braun of Oliver’s Twist. Jonathan Fusell, a longtime sous chef, now heads the kitchen.

During Burke’s tenure, at a time when veggie burgers and pasta were the eating-out norms, Nancy Leson wrote that Carmelita’s food was “capable of changing the way so many of us feel about meatless diets in general, and vegetarian restaurants in particular.” On its tenth anniversary, the verdict was this: “Date-night right, family friendly, perfect for gatherings large or small and home to a dreamy little garden patio, it remains, a decade later, one of the city’s better neighborhood bistros.”

The closure is bittersweet for the owners as well as customers. The recession hit the restaurant hard, as did rising costs and a rising workload, Neumann said. Adding a bar in 2009 helped — but not enough. Consultants recommended adding meat to the menu or raising prices. “That just seemed like such a wrong idea.”

But why make the final decision now, just when fine vegetarian fare is becoming mainstream?

“Several people have said that to me,” Neumann said. “When we opened so many years ago, Cafe Flora was really the only other vegetarian restaurant in town. Since then, so many have opened, and it’s also become so mainstream for high-quality restaurants to have really good vegetarian choices — like Maria Hines, her restaurants have awesome vegetarian and vegan choices. I think that actually is great for people that are vegetarians, but I also think in part it may be diluting our hardcore customer base.”

Carmelita didn’t seem the sort of restaurant someone else could take over. It’s named for Michael’s mother, after all, and Hughes and Neumann and their friends, who have fine arts backgrounds, created most of the artwork inside. (Neumann painted the mural.) Instead, they’ve sold the spot to local restaurateurs Chris Navarra, Chris Gerke, and Shannon Wilkinson, who they say will be as committed to the community as they have been, and are planning on a “neighborhood-friendly restaurant” that will not be vegetarian.

Neumann said that Hughes has been working as a photo editor at Nordstrom for the past few years, and she’s looking forward to getting back to her own home studio. They want to spend more time with their 10-year-old son. Long-term, they’re not sure about their plans, but for the short-term, they want to make the most of the restaurant’s final summer, for long-term employees and customers as well as for themselves.

“I know it sounds really cliche, but the restaurant really has been like our family,” Neumann said.

They’ll post plans for celebration dinners and customer appreciation nights on their Facebook page, and gift certificates will be honored through the last day, Sept. 29. They’re planning a self-published book of Carmelita cocktail recipes, among other ideas, with profits going to a severance fund for employees.

“It’s going to be fun over the next couple of months. That was one of those things we really wanted to be able to do, not to just shutter our doors…” she said.

In the summertime weather, “our patio is so great, so glorious — it’s kind of perfect timing to say goodbye.”