If the five acres of Swansons Nursery in Crown Hill feel like an oasis in the middle of a neighborhood, it’s probably because the business sprouted up in 1924 when 15th Avenue was still a gravel road. As the automatic doors whoosh open to let you into the greenhouse where Barn & Field is located — behind a verdant curtain of ferns, flowers and two koi ponds — you might feel like you’ve stumbled into an oasis inside an oasis. It’s this kind of “Inception” (remember that movie?) I can get behind.
There’s a long history of baked goods at Swansons — a peek at their company history shows that Selma Swanson used to feed employees (and the occasional customer) cinnamon rolls and coffee — and a formal cafe was added in the ’90s. Chef Casey Barnes bought the cafe three years ago, changing the name from Seasons Cafe & Bakery to Barn & Field, and says he didn’t know too much about the space before learning it was for sale.
“Someone mentioned the Swansons cafe was for sale and I thought it was a joke, assuming it was something along the lines of a hot-dog cart with wheels. But it happened to be the space that it is, which is this big, beautiful 55-seat cafe,” he says.
Three years in, he says people are still discovering him and the cafe: “It’s been great.”
The cafe opens at 9 a.m. with a breakfast menu (served until 11 a.m.) filled with freshly made pastries, biscuits, granola, and traditional egg dishes bolstered by bacon and ham. Lunch (served until 2 p.m.) is a collection of sandwiches: fried chicken on a pretzel bun, a black-bean burger, a BLTA; salads: quinoa with beets, baby lettuces with seasonal vegetables; and a few sides: French fries, chips. There is no liquor license at the location, so drinks are relegated to coffee service from Olympia’s Batdorf & Bronson, tea and a few bottled soft drinks.
Barnes says everything but the rye and ciabatta breads and the jam served alongside the toast at breakfast is made in-house. This translates to pickles, the preserves inside flaky croissants, pretzel rolls, and even house-cured ham and brisket. However, he’s got sourdough in the works and a plan to add a small CBD menu before summer is out.
Every time I’ve visited Barn & Field, it’s busy, rain or shine. There’s always a few tables of seniors chatting over coffee or a croissant; kids peering in at the koi pond (Barnes jokes he knows that one day one of his kids is going to be the one to fall into the pond); and people like me, wrangling a 1-year-old who wants to touch everything in sight while also keeping a French fry in the other hand at all times.
I get it. Those fries are great, thick-cut and golden. A whole pile of them come as a choice with any sandwich (other choices are chips or salad) — and the sandwiches on their own are nicely sized. The brisket sandwich ($15) is stacked with layer upon layer of Barnes’ tender smoked brisket, braised cabbage and gooey melted Gruyère. It’s rich, tangy and satisfying.
The fried chicken ($14) pairs a wonderfully crisp piece of chicken with a tangy slaw and a mighty kick from a jalapeño aioli. The housemade pretzel roll is nice and squishy — able to handle all the textures of shatteringly crispy chicken and goopy sauce without breaking down in your hands. Not a fan of spice? The staff will swap out the jalapeño for a regular aioli in the blink of an eye.
The baby lettuces ($13) are piled deep in a bowl and shot through with seasonal vegetables. The day I had it, that meant crisp green beans, carrots and a thick slice of olive toast with a schmear of goat cheese. Barnes changes that salad and the menu in general based on “whatever mama nature gives me.”
Barnes says he’s also working to expand the grab-and-go items for purchase to help satisfy salad or sandwich cravings after lunch service ends at 2 p.m., until the cafe closes at 5 p.m. Still, you’re able to get a dreamy chocolate cookie ($2.50) to chew on while you ponder purchasing one of Swansons’ $425 Adirondack chairs. The chair might not be in the cards, but you definitely won’t regret that cookie — or the fried-chicken sandwich, for that matter.
Barn & Field; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; 9701 15th Ave. N.W., (Crown Hill) Seattle; barnandfield.com
Corrections: A previous version of this story listed the incorrect price for Swanson’s Adirondack chairs — they are $425 each — and misstated Barn & Field’s neighborhood. It is in Crown Hill.