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THE GOLD rush is on. Again.

After decades of decline, development is fueling a residential boom in Pioneer Square. Only this time the saloons in “Seattle’s first neighborhood” are pouring Negroni cocktails, and the call of the Yukon is answered with organic wood-roasted potatoes.

Almost without exception, when Seattle developers ask how to bring life to a neighborhood, restaurants are the answer.

The city’s historic heart is just one neighborhood where restaurants are the key to revitalization. Here, they’re transforming an existing urban center into more than just a worker-bee hive, a sports fan’s stampede-ground, a haven for the homeless.

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Leading the charge is champion Matt Dillon, 41, who had already made a national name. He opened the original Sitka & Spruce on Eastlake Avenue in 2006; forged into Georgetown with The Corson Building in 2008; then captured the Melrose Market limelight two years later with his relocated Sitka on Capitol Hill.

Yet he’s always had his eye squarely on Pioneer Square.

As a young cook, Dillon was drawn to its redbrick buildings, cobblestone plazas, tree-lined streets. “It reminded me of Paris,” he explains. “If you worked all week and had one day off, going there was like a vacation.”

And so he went, often, to sip coffee and smoke cigarettes at Torrefazione Italia. To ponder where he might be in 20 years.

The answer was: right there.

Today Torrefazione is Caffe Umbria, sharing a lovely stretch of Occidental Avenue with a tri-corner trifecta of Dillon-driven food and drink: Bar Sajor, The London Plane and Little London Plane.

He’d have landed a lease sooner, but “Pioneer Square wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready.”

Ready or not, he’s put the rev in the revival, helping draw a band of intrepid restaurant owners to the city’s oldest newest neighborhood.

Chef Mike Easton was one of them.

Last year Easton relocated his pastaria, Il Corvo, from the Pike Place Market Hillclimb to James Street.

Before then, says Easton, “I avoided Pioneer Square like the plague.”

He had reasons. Despite the transformation, there are still, as Dillon put it, people shooting up and beating on each other day and night.

But affordable rent and a robust lunch trade went a long way toward convincing Easton to come in.

“You’re in a much better spot as a restaurateur when you’re wanted in the neighborhood than if you’re trying to break into the neighborhood,” he says.

In the summer, persuaded by his landlord, he launched a second lunchery — the Roman-style Pizzeria Gabbiano, in a redeveloped building on Second Avenue South.

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Families find plenty to like at Kisaku. “My original plan was two highchairs,” says owner Ryu Nakano, “but I ordered six more after I saw what kind of neighborhood this is. I adjusted myself to the reality.”

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Kiyoko Cozzatti lunches with her father, Jean-Paul, at Kisaku in Seattle’s Tangletown neighborhood. Kisaku, open 12 years, remains popular at lunch and dinner.

RYU NAKANO sought out a less urban experience when hunting down a lease for his sushi bar and restaurant in 2002. He opened Kisaku in Tangletown, a tiny Green Lake-area business district surrounded by single-family homes and long known for its landmark Honey Bear Bakery.

“This is a really safe neighborhood, and that’s attractive to a lot of people,” says Nakano. Including his core demographic: “Young professionals with disposable income.”

Add to that business-lunchers and date-nighters from nearby Phinney Ridge, Ballard, Wallingford and Fremont.

“Location determines more than 80 percent of the business outcome,” he says, having turned down the Honey Bear lease in favor of a high-profile corner in a new condo complex across the street.

Tangletown is much busier now than it was when he made his choice. Elysian Brewing Company turned the Honey Bear into Tangletown Pub, while Mighty-O Donuts filled the sweet-tooth void in the historic Keystone Building’s opposite corner.

Then, a year ago, one of the biggest names in the restaurant business moved into the tiny space between them.

Ethan Stowell’s been my customer for a long time,” says Nakano, and with the addition of Mkt. (an acronym for Meridian, Keystone and Tangletown), he’s now a welcome neighbor.

Stowell’s foodie-followers are legion, says the sushi chef, so he “brings the whole neighborhood to another level. It increases my exposure.”

It works both ways. “I love the neighborhood business model,” says Stowell, who has opened 11 restaurants in 11 years.

“Longterm, the more business there is in a neighborhood, the more people come there to eat, the more they’ll be exposed to our restaurants.”

LINDSEY WASSON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

North Ballard’s “farm to neighborhood” restaurant Brunswick & Hunt features an expansive antique bar made by Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. The restaurant in the W.E. Hunt building is the latest and the largest to put down roots in this neighborhood, which is also home to Delancey and Honoré Artisan Bakery.

EXPOSURE ISN’T an issue for Barry Rogel, owner of the DeLuxe Bar & Grill — his family’s Capitol Hill business since 1962.

He’s seen that district go through enormous changes — and now he’s betting on another one, in a residential enclave of Ballard with room to grow.

Last summer he and his brother, Scott, opened Brunswick & Hunt, a “farm to neighborhood” bar and restaurant on Northwest 70th Street in North Ballard.

“Look where we’re located!” he says, pointing from the rehabbed W.E. Hunt Building to the main drag only steps away: 15th Avenue Northwest. “It’s the main thoroughfare from Crown Hill all the way into Ballard and beyond.”

Development, they believe, will soon explode along that thoroughfare, bringing “more neighbors, more density and greater walkability — which is really important to us.”

Rather than looking for “a 50-yard-line space on hot-hot commercial streets like Market Street or Pike/Pine,” Rogel says, building a new restaurant in this perfectly primed “pocket neighborhood” was a no-brainer.

Its only missing link, to his eyes, was a casual, comfortable bar and restaurant with a Northwest-oriented dinner menu. Looking up the street he counts its blessings: “You’ve got Delancey, Essex, Fat Hen, Honoré — busy places that are already connecting with the neighbors and to a wider audience.”

It was proximity to Honore Artisan Bakery — and the fact that he lived nearby — that sold Brandon Pettit of pizzeria Delancey on a small storefront here in 2009.

A wannabe pizzaola and dynamic do-it-yourselfer, he’d been scouring the neighborhood for the right spot at the right price, and found it while walking to a friend’s house for dinner.

At the time, “there was something like 13 bars — but no restaurants,” recalls Pettit. “I figured the same people who’d drive across town for a great croissant would drive across town for a great pizza.”

He was right. In fact, they’d even fly there.

For that, he tips his kerchief hairband to his wife and business partner, Molly Wizenberg, an acclaimed food blogger and memoirist whose second book, “Delancey,” chronicles the rise of the pizzeria that shares its name.

Delancey has since morphed into a community hub, with the annexation of a cooking school and events space (The Pantry) and a storefront housing their craft-cocktail adjunct, Essex.

“The location we chose is perfect,” says Pettit, who closes Delancey early because he can. Something he couldn’t do were he in a rowdier ZIP code.

But like Rogel, he can hear the train a comin’. “The neighborhood is getting denser and more urban, and we’re here to see it happen. We’re part of the change.” Change, he admits, that can be both a blessing and a curse.

First, restaurants colonize a “cute little neighborhood and make it awesome,” says Pettit. Next, rents escalate — and you’re priced out of the neighborhood. “I hope that doesn’t happen here.”

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Meredith Molli, co-owner of La Medusa (center), tends to customers at her Columbia City restaurant. Tuesdays are big nights for regulars, she says, but with a growing influx of newcomers to the neighborhood, most nights, “50 to 60 percent are first-time diners.”

WHEN MEREDITH Molli moved with her boyfriend from Minneapolis to Seattle in 2008, they made a beeline for Ballard, aware of its reputation as a restaurant mecca.

“When we lived there, we never left there,” says Molli, save to head to the University of Washington for grad school (him) and commute to a job cooking at Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island (her).

It didn’t take long for them to realize “Ballard wasn’t our scene. We wanted something that felt more small town, more homey — with restaurants within walking distance.”

Hello, Columbia City.

Five years later, Molli is co-owner of La Medusa in the heart of Columbia City’s Historic District — where history is clearly repeating itself in one of the most ethnically and economically diverse ZIP codes in the nation.

“For me, it was a bit of a rash decision,” says Molli, 32, who was sous chef under Gordon Wishard when the two bought the restaurant last year from their former boss, Julie Andres.

Andres was sous chef when she purchased the place from its original owners, chefs Lisa Becklund and Sherri Serino.

As owner, Molli manages the front of the house. Looking out onto Rainier Avenue South — and back into her dining room — she sees a generational shift: “It’s getting significantly younger.”

She ascribes that, in part, to the availability of the “trendy” new condos and apartments that may soon have Columbia City looking more like Ballard.

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Gordon Wishard, executive chef/co-owner of La Medusa, presides over the kitchen. He and his business partner, Meredith Molli, bought the restaurant from their friend and former employer, Julie Andres.

Trendy is not the word her landlord, Mark Hannum, would use to describe the Columbia City he moved into in 1992. Back then, he worked at Grazie restaurant in Southcenter. In his newly adopted neighborhood, “there was no place to eat.”

No Columbia City Ale House. No Tutta Bella. No Lottie’s Lounge, Geraldine’s Corner or Island Soul. Not even a Starbucks.

“Why don’t you open a restaurant?” his neighbors asked.

“We were a little ahead of ourselves,” Hannum laughs, recalling the decision to open his short-lived bistro Rutabaga, now La Medusa. But he and his former partner were savvy: They’d bought the building.

The mid-’90s were a low point for retail, though, with rampant closures in Columbia City’s center. But with the debut of the landmark Columbia City Bakery a decade later, says Hannum, the neighborhood took off.

For a business district to remain healthy, it must have a broad mix of restaurants and retail, insists Hannum, now a mortgage loan officer and former chairman of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board.

“Everyone has to eat, and there will always be a strong market for restaurants. But attracting — and keeping — independent retailers in the small buildings that define the historic district remains a constant challenge.

“If it was someplace else in Seattle,” he says, “they’d probably mow the buildings down and build a six-story mixed-use.”

John Lok / The Seattle Times

It’s a bustling scene in front of Tallulah’s, in the 19th & Mercer building on Capitol Hill. “I run into people who say to me ‘Open a place in my neighborhood!’ says owner Linda Derschang of her latest effort, “and that is one of the most gratifying things that I can hear.”

John Lok / The Seattle Times

At Tallulah’s, sophisticated food is served with casual flair. Owner Linda Derschang says she wanted to create “a place you could come to a few times a week.”

A NEW MIXED-USE complex, called 19th & Mercer, stands four stories tall and takes its name from its corner location.

The name that anchors it is Tallulah’s. The woman who anchored it is Linda Derschang.

Once hailed as Seattle’s queen of nightlife, Derschang, 56, has since divested herself of the title, having sold her club interests. Today, she’s better known for her bar-centric restaurants on widespread East Capitol Hill: Linda’s Tavern, Smith, Oddfellows and Bait Shop.

“I was intrigued with everything the developers told me they were hoping to do here,” says Derschang of her new address. “They understood Capitol Hill, and were thinking about community.”

Their plan? To populate their storefronts with experienced entrepreneurs, “independent businesses that would work together really well, and work with those on the next block — Kingfish Cafe, Monsoon and Fuel Coffee.”

Sold on the notion, Derschang became part of a girl-group extraordinaire: Fuel founder Dani Cone (co-owner of the specialty foods store and mercantile Cone & Steiner, since cloned in Pioneer Square) and Molly Moon Neitzel (who persuaded clever baker Robin Martin to debut Hello Robin, a charming cookie shop selling Molly Moon ice cream).

They all live in the neighborhood.

Tallulah’s, billed as “a neighborhood cafe” when it opened to raves last year, turned out to be all that — and more.

“It’s my first restaurant with a children’s menu.”

Derschang’s vision was to bring together “stylish and tattooed 20-somethings, gay couples, families with children and older people all mixed up and having a good time.”

Her true niche, she realizes, “is for places that become neighborhood institutions.”

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Il Terrazzo Carmine has always been a place for the “power lunch.” Here, coiffure king Gene Juarez, left, chats with prominent attorney Gary Gayton.

John Lok / The Seattle Times

A portrait of the late Carmine Smeraldo greets patrons near the entrance to Il Terrazzo Carmine. Restaurant manager George Dyksterhuis has worked for the family 11 years.

AFTER 30 YEARS, and the death in 2012 of Carmine Smeraldo, the Italian restaurant Il Terrazzo Carmine remains a Pioneer Square institution.

Carmine was “the only beacon in Pioneer Square,” says Maria, Smeraldo’s widow, of the time before the recent renaissance. From the start, “He had to offer what no one else did: complimentary parking, spoiling his guests with every extra.”

Though she can’t help look back, Maria is also looking forward — to the continued success of Il Terrazzo, and that of its new sibling, the swanky First Avenue bar, Intermezzo Carmine — run by her husband’s successor, their 23-year-old son CJ. (CJ’s younger brother, Philip, works in the kitchen at Il Terrazzo.)

The family is restructuring its vision for the future, she says, and is looking to expand into Bellevue. But Carmine’s vision will live on.

At their fine-dining institution, “we don’t see our guests once a year, we see them a couple times a week.”

After 16 years running Bis on Main in Old Bellevue, Pioneer Square expat Joe Vilardi — a former maitre’d at Il Terrazzo — can say the same.

“I knew from working at Carmine’s that many customers lived on the Eastside,” he says of his decision to open a restaurant on Main Street, in the heart of Old Bellevue.

In 1998, he says, the street “was funky and tired” with a “revolving door” of retail shops. As for restaurants, “there was less competition, and it was cheaper to get started.”

Five years in, Vilardi “rolled the dice,” adding a bar and lounge and a second dining room for private parties “to stay fresh and current.” And to compete with the growing number of restaurants at Bellevue Square and Lincoln Square.

Competition has since arrived with hotshot branches of Seattle restaurants Monsoon and Cantinetta — bringing younger clients and a more casual cocktail culture.

Bis on Main, says his Main Street neighbor, Eric Banh of Monsoon, is “one of those restaurants that have been around a long time. They take fantastic care of their customers. The tricky part is to be around a long time. How do you cultivate the young market, to support it for the next 10 years?”

Vilardi still attracts “the who’s who of the Eastside and Seattle,” familiar names like Nordstrom, Gates, Brotman and Ballmer. Some nights he knows 75 percent of his customers. He’ll greet them at the door “and it takes 10 minutes for them to get to their table — because they know everyone in the room.”

Having the right mix of culture, art, theaters, retail and restaurants, Banh says, transforms a community from viable to vibrant.

“A good restaurant will make a building, or a complex — or a neighborhood.”

Nancy Leson, former Seattle Times restaurant critic and food writer, is a freelance writer. Reach her at nancy@nancyleson.com. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.