I’ve moved a lot in my adult life, and one thing I always do even before we’re done unpacking is figure out what restaurants the neighborhood has to offer. Where my favorite coffee shop will be, where I’ll grab a quick lunch and where our go-to place will be for dinner when I just can’t be bothered to cook.
The decision isn’t always instantaneous; it can be based on much more than just the food. I have an uncle who used to eat breakfast at the same diner almost every morning for 30 years until one day a new server asked him for ID when he wrote a check. He was so offended he didn’t go back for a year.
Your neighborhood restaurant (or bar or coffee shop) is a place where you inherently feel comfortable. A place to meet up with your neighbors and possibly meet new friends. The food is dependable — not only in flavor, but in prices. There are restaurants like these from coast to coast; in big cities, small towns and everything in between. The Seattle area, with its myriad communities, has its fair share of neighborhood favorites. And as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, these places have become more important than ever. Because even though we can’t gather in them in quite the same way, they still anchor and foster those ever-important bonds of community. Spots like Bucatini in Edmonds that partner with local churches to feed people in need, or Classic Eats in Burien that consistently donates to community fundraisers.
“My neighbor and I joke that we’ll text but we don’t see each other until it’s warm outside. So when we go to Classic Eats, everyone is out and talking, you don’t have to wait until it’s warm outside to see your neighbors,” Classic Eats regular Tonita Webb says with a laugh.
Webb lives within walking distance of Classic Eats and it’s become a place she and her family go because “you feel like you’re part of the family, you’re part of the community. It’s nothing to be in there and have a general conversation and [have] someone from another table say ‘yeah!’ and add to it.”
“Sometimes we just go in for coffee and dessert. We just love the atmosphere,” Webb says.
Tony Hayes is the chef and owner of Classic Eats, which serves everything from Denver omelets to Cajun chicken pasta, burgers, shrimp po’boys and beignets — a nod to Hayes’ childhood home of New Orleans. Hayes took over the restaurant, formerly called Mark Restaurant and Bar, in fall 2016, rebranding that December to become Classic Eats.
Even though Hayes spent his youth in New Orleans, he went to Highline High School in Burien, and compares himself and his memorable high school football career to the old TV character Al Bundy: “People still talk about my high school football days. We laugh and joke, it’s a high school reunion every day. I’ve been embraced by the city,” Hayes says.
“[Classic Eats] brings some normalcy to our lives. … In a time such as this when we know people are losing their jobs and they’re struggling financially, this is something you can contribute to and feel really good about it,” Webb says.
Changing with the neighborhood
The pandemic-induced dining room shutdown has hurt almost every restaurant in Washington, and even some long-established neighborhood restaurants have had to pivot to survive.
After nearly 15 years, Hill’s Restaurant in Shoreline’s Richmond Beach neighborhood has recently become Blackbird Cafe & Bar, says owner Chris Hill.
Hill grew up in Richmond and opened his eponymous restaurant in the neighborhood because “I knew there was a need here.” He converted the space from a coffee shop to a restaurant and says the response from the community was “immediate.”
Now, he’s turning the restaurant into a cafe to better serve the neighborhood during the pandemic. The change includes moving from table service to counter service, and the addition of weekend brunch, espresso, pastries and some other menu changes. Many of the Hill’s core menu items will remain — burgers, fish and chips, and salads.
It’s a similar story at Bucatini’s in Edmonds, where the front half of the restaurant has been transformed into a small market.
Tables once filled with diners devouring bowls of pasta, plates of garlic bread and trays of Italian cookies are now home to bottles of wine, olive oil, alcohol, fresh and dried pasta, balsamic vinegar and sauces. The hours haven’t changed — Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. — and, when you walk in to pick up your order, there’s upbeat jazz playing during the day and Sinatra crooning at night. Even without a packed house, Bucatini has retained the same friendly, upbeat vibe that people have loved since the restaurant opened in 2016.
Even after a terrible day, longtime Bucatini patron Jake Edens says knowing that he can go to Bucatini and “support someone who is investing in the community and get a wonderful meal” helps melt away some of the added stress from living in a pandemic.
There for each other
With many people working from home, the pandemic has deepened the bonds between neighborhood restaurants and their communities.
Hill temporarily closed his second restaurant — Matt’s Rotisserie and Oyster Lounge in Redmond — after the second dining room shut down in November. But his calculus was different with Richmond’s Blackbird: “This neighborhood is going to get takeout, the neighborhood is going to come by,” Hill said.
He knew he could rely on people like Brent and Julie Rogers, who’ve been eating at Blackbird since the beginning.
“We just love the vibe, consistency and quality. Chris is a gem,” Brent Rogers says, adding that the pandemic has “amplified the need for community and places where neighbors can get together and share those common connections and support a local economy that has its own personality.”
Hill’s restaurant continues to fill that need: “The sign says Blackbird now, but you still walk in and see the owner in the kitchen making stuff, he’s connected to the place. His fingerprints are on it, it’s always nice to see,” Rogers says.
And the most special neighborhood restaurants are the ones that weave themselves into the fabric of people’s lives, popping up in photo albums and family memories through the decades.
That’s what Auburn’s Athens Pizza and Pasta has been for Ashley Reinosky-Lucas and her family. Reinosky-Lucas doesn’t remember the first time she ate there because she’s been going since she was a child. Over the years, Athens became the place where her family celebrated holidays and milestones. When family members visited from Oregon, the only place they all wanted to go was Athens for grinders.
“It holds a special place in my heart,” Reinosky-Lucas says.
Athens Pizza and Pasta, long beloved in the neighborhood for grinder sandwiches and pizza, was first opened in 1980 by Tommy Tsantilas. In 1996, brothers Bill and Tom Contoravdis, longtime employees and in-laws of Tsantilas’ son George, bought the restaurant.
“It’s always had a comfortable feel, mom-and-pop style. It’s literally in the middle of a residential neighborhood and people thought it wouldn’t last because of the location,” says Nina Contoravdis, Bill’s wife.
Reinosky-Lucas says she doesn’t remember the change in ownership, and attributes that to it “always feeling the same.”
“When you see customers, two or three times a week, we created a bond with our regulars. We’ve seen our regulars have babies, those babies grow up and have their own babies … We’re Greek, so we naturally love big families and love that feel,” Contoravdis says.
Stick around long enough, and neighborhood joints develop deep relationships with their communities, sponsoring Little League teams, allowing Girl Scouts to set up cookie stands or, as Athens has done for the past nine years, sponsoring free Thanksgiving dinners.
After the first few years, other area businesses and community members began asking if they could donate toward the effort, Contoravdis says. Last year, they raised nearly $15,000, giving away 540 turkey grinder meals and 200 blankets. Leftover funds were donated to Auburn Food Bank, the Auburn Police Department and the Auburn Fire Department.
On Dec. 9, Athens was dealt the ultimate setback when an electrical fire in a neighboring business caused major smoke and structural damage, closing the restaurant for the foreseeable future.
“We’re at the mercy of the builder. The builder has to repair the roof first, we can’t repair anything inside until the roof is fixed. It could be six months, it could be eight months. And with COVID we’re just not sure,” Contoravdis says.
In Athens’ time of need, its Auburn neighborhood rallied, and the silver lining has been the “outpouring of support of our customers,’ Contoravdis says.
“I was so emotional after the fire. I said, ‘let me help, [I’ll] buy some gift cards to support. If you get your T-shirts or hats or beanies, I’ll buy another shirt and hat. I’m doing everything I can to help,” Reinosky-Lucas says.
Reinosky-Lucas and her neighborhood hope they’ll get Athens back someday soon; in the meantime, they’d like to remind you, as do I, to support your favorite neighborhood restaurant during this pandemic. As 40-year restaurant industry veterans such as Bucatini co-owner Anthony Donatone would tell you, these places exist to feed their communities because: “It’s a passion.
“Everyone is going through something different in their life,” Donatone says. “We want them to feel right when they come in here. You want to make them feel good when they come in.”
Correction, Jan. 28, 10:50 a.m.: A previous version of this story misidentified Julie Rogers under an incorrect first name.