2017 went out with a bang — the sound of a lot of restaurant doors closing. Here’s what we lost in the last couple months of last year.
It’s a city full of great food, along with the multitude of mouths (and money) necessary to support a restaurant scene that’s burgeoning in a big way — yet it’s also beset by a rash of recent closures. Chefs say they’re contending with a slew of problems: a crazy boom in the number of new restaurants, diluting everybody’s audience; exorbitantly rising rents; a severe shortage of workers, both for the kitchen and front-of-house; and a dearth of support for creativity, amidst an abundance of poke and ramen. (Oh, and when it comes to citywide minimum wage increases: “That’s not it,” one bigtime restaurateur says. “We’re paying [workers] more than that already.”)
Sounds familiar, right? But all of the above comes from an end-of-the-year article in the Chicago Tribune, complete with the doomy headline “Chicago restaurant owners see correction, a lot more closings, coming in 2018.”
These are precisely the pressures facing Seattle’s restaurants (as detailed in my November story, “Seattle’s crazy restaurant boom”). To compare the two cities is, of course, apples to deep-dish pizza (and with no Amazon in the picture for them… yet?). But it’s alarming to see that, while more than 100 restaurants shut down in Chicago the year before, “2017 may be remembered as one of the city’s worst dining years” — with not even Michelin stars keeping places safe. “That is,” writer Phil Vettel continues, “unless 2018 proves to be even more challenging.”
We’re not dealing with a restaurant reckoning on this scale in Seattle… yet? Openings continue apace, with 23 more just recently, and 33 the month before that. But the worry continues, too, and closures are examined with forensic scrutiny. And while the shutdowns represent less than a deluge — and with more than a little two-steps-forward-one-step-back — the last couple months of 2017 aren’t making anyone in the industry feel more comfortable in the new year.
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Sam Crannell served his last dinner and threw his last party at his restaurant LloydMartin on New Year’s Eve. “We had a fantastic run,” he says — six years of what was, by all accounts, a thoughtful, beloved, delicious Queen Anne place. (I’m embarrassed and sad to say that I never had the pleasure; the Chicago Tribune story also notes that with so many new restaurants and stories, food media don’t give existing favorites the love that they deserve. Point taken… please send more stomachs/time/budget money.) Crannell, like others, says that when it comes to dining and spending, “Seattle has changed the rules of the game while we are all playing.” His costs kept going up, while he watched his profits “all but disappear.” He cites location and the particular strictures of his space (tiny kitchen, no ventilation hood) as well, but more generally, the increasing stressors on an independent, creative one-shop operation.
“Ultimately, it seems all Seattle wants is a shiny penny of cookie-cutter restaurants anymore,” Crannell laments. “New is king.” He himself will start something new, yet tried-and-true, this year: South Town Pizza, in South Park, projected to open in March. “I am hopeful for the future,” he says.
We might think we’re numb to the loss of our dear old-school favorites in Seattle by now, but saying goodbye to lunchtime hero Bakeman’s (after 47 years), historic dive the Two Bells (74 years!?), and 24-hour classic 13 Coins (a half-century) hurt. If it helps, the owners of both Bakeman’s and the Two Bells opted for highly deserved retirement (“I will be 71 in February. I’m tired,” said Two Bells owner Jeff Lee), while a shiny new Seattle branch of 13 Coins will open in Pioneer Square sometime soon, so that’s… something?
Meanwhile, Amazonland just might be a tough place for local small businesses… who would’ve thought?! La Toscanella shut down its South Lake Union bakery at the end of November. “We were following a dream and working to break out of mass-production mediocrity and cookie-cutter ‘ambiance,’” they said on Facebook. “It’s painful to lose against the machine, but at least you had a taste of delicious along the way.” (For more of that taste, go see them at their South Park shop.) A few weeks later, two and a half blocks away, mermaid-free indie Wheelhouse Coffee gave up, with a counterperson there citing a dramatic increase in their lease — which, then, went to the voraciously anticipated national burger chain Shake Shack. “Hope to see you again soon at a new location,” Wheelhouse wrote — which is hard to read without rue.
And here’s a curious closure: An outlet of former smash-hit Paseo lasted only around nine months right in the sloshy center of Capitol Hill’s bars and clubs. It seemed like a shoo-in location for the kind of big, messy sandwiches that could save your night (and the morning after). But in September, someone on Yelp mentioned a Groupon (never a good sign), and several reviews there cited skimpy sandwiches and questioned the chain’s newish ownership, asserting the superiority of Un Bien (from the sons of the original Paseo owner). After quietly shutting down, Paseo owner Ryan Santwire told Capitol Hill Seattle that the location was moving because “we need more room and want/need to do alcohol in our space.” A branch of White Center’s Bok a Bok has already taken over the Neumos-adjacent space, with an opening-night sell-out of its Korean-style fried chicken, sans liquor license. (Santwire did not return a call for comment.)
In sad neighborhood-restaurant news, Volterra — a Ballard institution after 13 years — also auld-lang-syne’d out on the 31st. It’s the new same-old story — the lease expiring and the building being sold — but fatalists should note Volterra’s still open in Kirkland, and in the process of looking for a new Ballard home. On Capitol Hill, Ethan Stowell shuttered his Anchovies & Olives, but next-door Bar Cotto stays open for now, and his group has not one, but two more restaurants in the works. Lower Queen Anne theater-goers’ standby Ten Mercer also took its curtain call, after 17 years — but with a sign already in the window promising Sal Y Limon Restaurant and Bar will take over. Likewise, if shorter-lived, the Atlantic in the Central District is no more, but new owners reportedly already have plans for the space. The Magnolia location of cocktail bar Oliver’s Twist will be replaced by sushi of Yume, from the family that runs Shiku in Ballard.
Nara Japanese Restaurant in Redmond met a familiar-to-Seattle fate: Open and family-run since 1989, its building was sold, with owner Angie Wang Chen telling the Redmond Reporter, “I feel like we’re getting pushed out, that small businesses are getting pushed out.” Bellevue’s 99 Park was lost to redevelopment, too.
In the U-District, after nearly 30 years in five different locations, Shalimar has shut down, with a sign saying the “difficult decision” was driven “primarily by the constantly changing negative economic conditions for running a restaurant in Seattle” (a family member declined to give details). In Ballard, Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen has ceased whatever kickin’ it may have been doing, while in Pioneer Square, RPM Pizza & Record is no more — both were a bit off the beaten path in their respective neighborhoods. In Pioneer Square, Marcela’s Creole Cookery calls it done after a 10-year run, with the two owners going in different directions (after, presumably, splitting up all the dollar bills affixed to the ceiling).
To end with a silver lining: If you miss Babirusa, the great little Eastlake place from chef Charles Walpole, it will be reborn: They’ve signed a lease and are hard at work on reopening where Kushibar used to be in Belltown. With their excellent burgers, there, at least, the new year will be a happy one.
An approximate, back-of-the-napkin tally for noteworthy Seattle restaurants this year: 290 openings, 85 closures. Cheers to all the hard work, condolences for all the heartbreak, and here’s to the future…!?