MONDAYS MEAN PAELLA NIGHT at Seattle’s Terra Plata, and on this particular spring evening on the triangular rooftop deck, the skies are still blue with the lengthening Northwest light. A big party gets traditional pans portioned for four spaced out down the middle of the long central table, calling for more wine and joyously digging in. Two-tops share paellas of deceptively small circumference that prove to be heaped tall and deep. The mixto version practically bristles with the myriad goodness of land and sea: perfectly cooked shrimp tasting almost sweet; clams and mussels housing their little treats; housemade chorizo with a spicy jolt; whole chicken pieces with tender meat; tiny, fresh green peas; parsley, red onion, watermelon radish and lemon wedges; and glossy, smoky, saffron-scented rice with that slight sear on the bottom, in such quantity that leftovers are a distinct possibility.
Groups of friends come to Terra Plata, along with families — visiting parents or lucky teenagers in tow — but paella night is especially great for dates. How will this person share: with or without equitable allocation of shrimp? Are they knife-and-fork or a get-messy kind? Will they conspiratorially converse table-to-table about the advisability of following up with the brioche bread pudding, studded with chocolate yet not too sweet, and/or the lush, firm, creamy flan topped with poached rhubarb, caramel and mint?
The rooftop’s second-story Capitol Hill views let locals feel like they’re on vacation, while all around the edges a garden grows, with someone from the kitchen occasionally sneaking through to snip fragrant fresh herbs. Downstairs, the convivial dining room features well-loved, golden-toned reclaimed wood and walls of windows, with a sinuous bar and busy open kitchen on one end anchoring the airiness to warmth, the base of the space’s isosceles. Beams above the bar cleverly showcase part of Terra Plata’s capacious, largely old-world wine list, plentiful with thoughtful reds plus lots of bubbles and rosé.
The Monday menu is a tribute to chef Tamara Murphy’s 11 years running Belltown’s highly praised, Spanish-inflected Brasa. Before that, she helmed storied Campagne in Pike Place Market, winning a 1995 James Beard Award. (Along the way, she also mentored Holly Smith, now of Cafe Juanita, as well as Jim Drohman of Le Pichet and Daisley Gordon of Café Campagne …) The regular menu could be called seasonal Pacific Northwest, but it’s that and more. Murphy opened Terra Plata with her life and business partner Linda Di Lello Morton in 2011, and a decade-plus in, the restaurant represents a celebration of our farmers, fishers and foragers, of that community as well as the community of our city. It’s about commitment to causes and to principles. And it’s also more than a little bit of a love story.
THE TWO OF THEM can’t quite remember when, exactly, they met. The occasion itself is indelible: in San Francisco, at the grand opening of Traci Des Jardins’ Jardinière (which would go on to 21 years of legendary service). The circumstances, likewise, remain unforgettable: on a double date, and not each other’s date (yet). And it was 1998, Murphy says. “No — it was 1997,” Di Lello Morton interjects, their voices overlapping until hers emerges, gently but firmly: “That’s correct.” (It is.)
Murphy calls Di Lello Morton the patient one in their partnership, good with the details of running the restaurant, with front-of-house flow and matters of staffing including unending encouragement. Di Lello Morton also designed Terra Plata along with an architect friend, then did a lot of the build-out herself. “She wears a tool belt quite well,” Murphy says. As they reminisce in a recent interview, bitter moments from the restaurant’s beginning are outweighed by the sweet. Of protracted litigation with their landlord that delayed the opening for two entire years, Di Lello Morton says, “It gave us more time to sort of — I don’t know — we put more love into it … we really made that building our own.” And from the beginning, they both adored the space Di Lello Morton made. “We were like, ‘Oh, my god, look how shiny …,’” Murphy recalls, “‘Look — look how beautiful.’”
The ethos of Terra Plata was set to be both a culmination and continuation of Murphy’s already decadeslong fidelity to local, organic, sustainable foodways, making converts by making gorgeous seasonal dishes. Intentionality was everywhere. “To have the rooftop, and have the herbs and the garden, [was] for people to … be close to all of that” physically, Murphy asserts — for diners to see and smell a connection to the Earth. “Buying local product is kind of like voting …,” she says. “You put [it] out there … the way you want to live, the way you want to be, the way you want to see the health of our planet go.” She notes that she wasn’t the first or only one cast this way, but it’s also noteworthy that like-minded luminaries such as Maria Hines, Matt Dillon and Jerry Traunfeld left restaurants and their fraught economics — even pre-COVID-19 — behind. Murphy has gone so far as to raise her own piglets, and her cookbook “Tender” is not just about making her marvelous food, but also about community, giving, considering connections and making choices.
All along, Murphy and Di Lello Morton have also sought to give back through organizing and cooking, through social, community and political activism. Countless fundraisers have found homes at Terra Plata with space, time and food donated. Season after season, save during COVID, the duo has also helmed An Incredible Feast and Burning Beast, two big, beautiful events connecting chefs, farmers and the community while raising money for and awareness of the Good Farmer Fund and Smoke Farm, respectively. In 2016, Murphy and Di Lello Morton won Community Leaders of the Year from the Greater Seattle Business Association, the largest LGBTQ+ and allied chamber of commerce in North America, promoting equality and diversity in the workplace; Di Lello Morton is now on the board. COVID brought Terra Plata’s participation in the nonprofit Food Is Love, preparing thousands of meals for those in pandemic need. Meanwhile, “Our community is far and wide, and they really came … I really saw that during COVID,” Murphy notes. “We just had so much support,” both moral and in the form of an outpouring of takeout orders, ongoing month after month after month.
To Murphy and Di Lello Morton, Pride means brunches that turn the restaurant into a huge party — one fueled by Capitol Hill community, by cocktail specials that raise money for the GSBA and by a special Pride beer from Ballard’s Rooftop Brewing raising funds, this year, for Planned Parenthood. “With what’s going on right now nationally with Roe v. Wade …,” Di Lello Morton says, “it’s terrifying how easy the path that they’re creating [is] to change all sorts of constitutional rights that we have” — rights that, she says, “hopefully don’t become past tense.”
“We can’t sit back now,” she says. “We’ve always been more vocal and outspoken politically with our business than most people. … But, you know, our business is on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and we just are the way we are.”
CERTAIN THINGS CAN’T ever come off the menu at Terra Plata — the community won’t allow it. Murphy laughs when asked whether she resents the popularity of the housemade potato chips — sprinkled with truffled sea salt, served with pecorino-chive crème fraîche, they are lacy and amazing and nearly lighter than rooftop-deck air, and their preparation demands major ongoing real estate in the walk-in. Another signature dish is the roast pig, rich in flavor and luxuriously tender in texture, with chorizo and clams also bathing in the smoked-paprika-and-sofrito-spiked broth. And there are the blistered shishito peppers featuring the occasional rogue super-spicy one, a dish Murphy started serving long before its wave of popularity and must continue serving forever.
Meanwhile, the seasonal stuff at Terra Plata can instantly, almost achingly renew one’s gratitude about being alive, bite by somewhat unbelievable bite. Right now, forest meets field in the form of pan-roasted local morels and Eastern Washington (of course) asparagus, plus more springtime via green garlic and ramp butter, all topped with an egg so nice — and so nicely cooked — the yolk gets practically licked up and even the white tastes remarkably great. Ramps resurface, pickled, with a very peppery-crusted steak that gets a lovely Northwest take on a typical side: creamed nettles. Cushy diver scallops — which could’ve used slightly more sear — along with pepitas, citrus gastrique and chrysanthemum sprigs are nearly outshone by humble baby carrots, miraculously fresh and new and just-right cooked, both orange and yellow because the Earth is amazing.
“Terra Plata is more than just a restaurant,” Murphy says. She speaks more of building and being built by community over the years — community that’s carrying her and Di Lello Morton through, absurdly, the yearslong construction-problems-and-COVID-related delay of their second restaurant, Limeña, slated to open in Columbia City someday. “It’s not always just about the food,” she says. “It’s about a place where people come to celebrate, they come to come together. I mean, we’re the place to gather.”
“In some ways, it doesn’t feel like we’ve been open that long,” Di Lello Morton says. “And in other ways, it feels like we’ve been open forever.”