Not many James Beard medals got handed out this year as the foundation scrapped most of the awards until 2022, citing “substantial and sustained upheaval” in this disaster of a year for the restaurant industry (with some attendant controversy and confusion). But Ballard’s Rupee Bar just received the 2020 James Beard Foundation Award for Restaurant Design (small-size division, for places under 75 seats). The jewel box of a space — with deep teal walls, geometric Indian clay tiles and glowing Oregon walnut woodwork — is the project of local Heliotrope Architects, also responsible for the design of Rupee Bar’s Fremont/Wallingford sibling Manolin, along with Joule, Willmott’s Ghost and more.
Co-owners Rachel Johnson, Joe Sundberg and Patrick Thalasinos did much of the Rupee Bar buildout themselves, with help from Sundberg’s father, who’s a contractor in Longview, Washington, building the bar, chairs and more in his workshop there. The pews that became Rupee Bar’s banquette seating came from a church in Longview as well.
It’s a very strange time to receive a James Beard award, particularly after the foundation flip-flopped on whether they’d give any more this year at all. “It’s so messy …” chef Liz Kenyon says. “No one really knows what to say — we’re just trying to focus so much on keeping things afloat.
“It just doesn’t seem like the time to be celebrating things, with so much going on in the industry,” she continues, referring to the dire impact of COVID-19, with some predicting that up to 75% of independent restaurants may close permanently. “But I appreciate the nod.”
Rupee Bar also won a place on GQ’s 2020 “Best New Restaurants in America,” alongside By Tae on Capitol Hill. Kenyon was also named a 2020 semi-finalist for the James Beard “Rising Star Chef” award (one of the many categories ultimately scuttled for the time being).
Co-owner Johnson says the team is “pretty psyched about the award,” but, echoing Kenyon’s sentiments, says they’re “not quite sure how to celebrate it.” Her thoughts, too, turn to just surviving, as she notes that this week might be the last for their outdoor tables, saying, “We’re hoping that our take-out program continues to be successful for the winter.”
Seattle scored another rare 2020 James Beard back in February, when Oriental Mart in Pike Place Market received an “America’s Classics Award,” given to longtime favorites that the foundation finds “have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”