The iconic building is getting a major overhaul. But what about the food at SkyCity restaurant?
No one’s playing the baby grand at the restaurant at the top of the Seattle Space Needle. A sign on top of it reads “PLEASE DON’T PLAY THE PIANO.” Upon arriving for our dinner reservation, we’ve been told, peremptorily, “Go stand by the piano and we’ll call your name” — no “welcome,” no “good evening,” no “how do you do?”
A man by the piano asks a server about beer, and she names several local ones. He looks confused and says he’d like a lager. She tells him that one of the beers is the most like Manny’s. “Mayonnaise?” he says, perplexed. It’s as if somewhere in the employee manual, it says, in all caps, to act as if you do not know that pretty much everyone dining here is from somewhere else.
SkyCity at the Space Needle is set to get a major renovation by superstar architecture firm Olson Kundig, closing Sept. 5 and reopening in late spring of next year. The outer, revolving ring of the restaurant will have a cool-sounding, if acrophobic-challenging, glass floor. The current motor responsible for rotation, alarmingly lurchy at points during a visit last week, will be replaced. The stairs from the observation deck down to the restaurant will go from a brightly lit, claustrophobic passageway to a grand circular affair.
The current interior, while unobtrusive, has a dated, upscale-office aesthetic: abstract-patterned carpet, different-abstract-patterned inner walls, glass-panel dividers along the backs of banquettes. A rendering of the future SkyCity space shows spare, swooping lines and well-heeled, stylish people. An update is a great idea. But, as Mom always says, pretty is as pretty does. And dinner last week at the Space Needle wasn’t pretty, and it was damned expensive.
After more than half a century, isn’t it about time that one of our city’s most expensive restaurants, housed in its most iconic structure, was also one of its best?
The “freshly prepared seasonal soup” promised by the menu was, our brusque server said, chicken tortilla. The staff at the Space Needle should be forgiven some short-timers’ apathy (though they have been guaranteed their jobs back and will receive a years-of-service payment, plus a stipend for benefits, during the closure), but our server’s manner and the soup du jour both signaled more diner than fine dining.
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Diners are speedy, though. By the time a bottle of rosé was ordered and brought, we’d gone much of the way around a 47-minute full rotation of the restaurant. Then it was the wrong rosé. “You ordered this one,” the server said insistently more than once, as if she were trying to forcibly hypnotize us.
We skipped the soup. A $13 “hearts of romaine” salad had no hearts in evidence, just chopped romaine plated in the carefree manner of your neighborhood pizzeria. It seemed to want to be a Caesar, aspiring to “garlic-white anchovy vinaigrette, Grana Padano cheese, garlic croutons,” according to the menu. With the exception of the valiant effort of the single anchovy flopped on top, it tasted bland. “You’re not done yet, are you? Can someone finish the Caesar?!” the server bullied, all but invoking the clean-plate club.
For $18, two Dungeness crab cakes fell apart at the fork due to abject mushiness — forget about any lumps, or taste, of crab. Their pink sauce was “rhubarb lacquer”; an unbilled, yellow beurre-blanc-ish sauce was slightly less oversweet. On the side, a small pile of wilty pea sprouts were overpowered by a variety of pickled allium too severely salty-sour to be readily identified. A few marcona almonds seemed to have landed by accident on the plate.
So far, while not at all worth it, these prices are entirely reasonable by any upscale-dining standard. The entrees are where the Space Needle gets you — last week, the average cost was $56.50. Last year, SkyCity once again landed on Restaurant Business magazine’s list of the top 100 highest-grossing non-chain restaurants in the country, coming in at number 53 with nearly $16 million in estimated annual sales. And if you think you can come up to SkyCity, enjoying the included visit to the observation deck upstairs, and just have a drink and an appetizer, think again: The menu dictates a minimum charge of $50 per guest.
A plate of pan-seared scallops cost $57. The six small scallops ranged from disappointingly, firmly overcooked to outright stringy and fishy-tasting. Their citrus-Peppadew marmalade tasted predominantly, unpleasantly bitter; so did two undressed leaves of treviso in the middle, acting as boats for some wilting, also-undressed spinach leaves. Salsify glued the salad, such as it was, to the plate, while a few crispy sunchokes were the best thing on it.
The $67 Snake River Farms American Kobe eight-ounce tenderloin was cooked, as ordered, to a lovely medium-rare and inundated with an extremely sweet, sticky red-wine reduction. A charred spring onion riding atop the beef had its tough outer skin still on, which became apparent as I chewed and chewed and chewed it. A flat griddle cake made with bacon and out-of-season asparagus was dry and chewy and bitter, reminiscent somehow of lawn clippings. The green beans were good.
By the time you get to the Lunar Orbiter, it makes perfect sense to pay $11 for a couple scoops of ice cream, a modicum of chocolate sauce, and the hidden dry ice that makes a fog roll out across your tabletop. The ice cream isn’t anything specially made in-house, but at least it’s local Full Tilt.
THE VIEW AT SKYCITY, of course, is marvelous, even without a glass floor. The whole city unfurls all the way around, from the ubiquitous construction cranes of South Lake Union, to the giant shipping cranes of the Duwamish, to the Olympic Sculpture Park’s elegant “Eagle” looking ready to take flight over the Sound. On a clear day, the Cascades, Mount Rainier, the Olympics, Mount Baker and more provide a ring of majesty in the near-seeming distance. As you go around, adorable notes that children have placed on the endless windowsill circle by, asking you to “Draw a heart!” or “What’s your favorite number?”
My favorite number is not $310.94, which is what dinner for two, plus tax and tip, cost at SkyCity at the Space Needle. It should’ve been $260.72, but we were charged for both the $39 bottle of wine we drank and the $32 one we didn’t. (Always check your receipt! I should have, clearly.)
Some more numbers: The entire Space Needle remodel will cost more than $100 million, covered by owners the Wright family. Meanwhile, in 2015, after four years without a raise, employees got advice from management on how to “Live on Less,” including “Learn to cook gourmet, not pay gourmet.” In 2016, Space Needle LLC agreed to pay a man who’d worked as a servers’ assistant at SkyCity for seven years the sum of $24,000 to settle a complaint that he was fired for engaging in union activities. Earlier this year, after six years of sometimes contentious negotiations, the Space Needle and the union representing its workers finally reached agreement on a labor contract.
Discussing the renovation recently, Space Needle CEO Ron Sevart said, “It’s about getting out of the way of the view. When the [elevator] door opens, angels need to sing.” Food like this, at this price, served to those here for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of our city, which is so rich in good food, makes angels cry, or at least sigh heavily.
In response to an inquiry about a menu update that’s been mentioned in passing as part of the remodel, P.R. director Dave Mandapat sent information about restaurant interior designer Adam Tihany’s previous work, name-checking world-renowned chef Thomas Keller and others. As far as the food goes, Mandapat wrote, “We’re excited to see what our culinary team comes up with … and to reopen with an Iconic Pacific Northwest Dining Experience.”
What if our updated icon featured one of our iconic chefs: Renee Erickson, Ethan Stowell, Rachel Yang, Tom Douglas? What if dinner at the Space Needle was actually, truly wonderful?