Dinner reservations for the last week of Tilth filled up in less than an hour after chef Maria Hines announced the Oct. 30 permanent closure of her pioneering Seattle restaurant on Wednesday. Soon after she opened it in 2006, Tilth began winning acclaim: In 2008, The New York Times named it one of the best new restaurants in the U.S.; the following year, Hines won a James Beard award.
But more than that, the little green Wallingford Craftsman house represented a movement in Seattle dining: talented, independent chefs expressing creativity and supporting local farmers in a city that, in turn, supported them. People loved the ethos, loved the care and loved the all-organic Pacific Northwest food that Hines served in her dining room with the butter-yellow walls.
But small restaurants — even those with big ideals, many plaudits and a loving fan base — will be harder and harder pressed to survive COVID-19. Hines says her sales were off 70%. She describes running the kitchen at Tilth without the heat on for initial to-go-only service back in March. She’d been hopeful that she and her team could keep it up, but with her indoor seating limited by government mandate and just a tiny patio for outdoor seating, the new normal just wasn’t working financially. And with a PPP loan running out, she says it was time to call it.
Hines says she’s been inundated with messages on social media, email and her phone from friends and fans and the Seattle restaurant community — messages grieving the loss of the place, but also of support. She says she feels both she and Tilth are being “wrapped in love.”
Conditions for Seattle’s independent restaurants were tough even before COVID-19, with a huge restaurant boom that looked healthy from the outside eating away at the industry’s independent operators. “As prices started going up, Seattle itself was growing and booming so much…” Hines observes. “More and more restaurants opened up, and naturally everyone starts getting a smaller and smaller slice of the pie.”
Pre-pandemic, she’d already reconcepted and renamed a second Ballard restaurant in 2017, then still ended up closing it. She then sold her Italian restaurant in Fremont, Agrodolce, last year. Notably, another local creative culinary luminary, chef Matt Dillon, opted out of the Seattle restaurant game entirely at the beginning of this year as well.
“We’re in the middle of that, and then, boom — here’s a pandemic,” Hines says. “Enjoy.”
Hines expresses empathy for the many other independent operators going through the same thing. But she says preserving lives during the pandemic is more important than the loss of her business, calling the closure “downright trivial compared to a lot of the suffering people are going through.” Of the COVID-19 shutdown and subsequent Washington state Safe Start response, she says, “Even though it’s destroyed my business, people’s lives are at risk. So if anything, we should’ve been more aggressive.” She also states flatly that in terms of governmental response, “The support for independent restaurants is too little, too late.”
But Hines also holds hope for the future. Of “the heart and soul” of an enterprise like Tilth, she says, “My love and my creativity and my desire to share happiness with the world through my craft — all of that still is there. It’s just that the vessel is going to change. Whatever form that takes, you can’t take that away.”
Seattle fans who’d like a last taste of Hines’ shared happiness in its current incarnation can still try for takeout or day-of patio reservations, weather permitting, through Oct. 30. Then Tilth goes dark. But Hines calls the restaurant’s last days a celebration. She continues, “There’s this sense that it’s ending — that there’s a finality to it… we really need to look towards the light, and think about all that light we still have in us. Don’t let the temporary darkness block that out.”