Melissa Nyffeler, who ran Dinette on Capitol Hill, has been making tasty toasts for the past 10 years, adding toppings that critics called rustic comfort food with an elegant twist.
LONG BEFORE toast was a trend, before it was “artisanal,” before it even had a backlash against it, there was Dinette.
Fancy open-faced toasts were literally the toast of the menu at the sweet Capitol Hill restaurant Melissa Nyffeler opened in 2005. It was more than just her bread and butter, though she did use excellent bread and fine butter.
Nyffeler made most of her specialties from thick slices of crusty Columbia City Bakery bread, adding toppings that critics called rustic comfort food with an elegant twist — or crunch.
She would add a schmear of chicken liver mousse and spicy pickled peppers for a more traditional toast, or make rabbit rillettes in the spring with celery root slaw . . . on toast. Ribbons of frittata joined frisee and truffle oil to top other toasts. Fig-anchovy paste and prosciutto won more fans. Then she offered crispy pork belly with date relish and blood orange mayo, also on toast.
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Now, as the private chef and Seattle restaurant consultant sees similar toasts on every national food craze list, she’s not surprised that it has taken off.
“It’s so delicious,” she says. “I can see why people gravitate toward it.”
She doesn’t know if the Dinette menu would have stood out so much if she had given her specialty a more highfalutin name, like crostinis or tartines. “Because I just called it what it was in English and didn’t give it an Italian or French name, it was like I invented it. People were like, ‘What is toast?’ ”
Before long it was a thing; Hill residents comfortably dropping by the charming spot decorated with robin’s-egg-blue paint and gilded serving trays, ordering a “toast board” and a carafe of wine.
Such European tavern foods made sense given the space, a small kitchen that had no room for a traditional cooking line. And for Nyffeler, an obsessive bread-baker who loved sandwiches, toasts also offered “a fancier way to have sandwiches on the menu and still not be a deli or a casual lunch spot.”
It became a fun challenge, if Nyffeler was dining out and inspired, to figure out how to transform those flavors into a toast topping.
“I like the parameters,” she says. “I feel like I thrive when I have to figure out how to be super creative and everything has to fit on this little piece of bread.”
While some were simple, with others “it was like making jewelry to order.”
Dinette, ranked by Eater.com as one of the nation’s most underrated restaurants, shut its doors in 2013 — ironically, about the time that toasts were taking over the menu at San Francisco Bay Area hot spots, though often featuring simpler toppings than Nyffeler’s versions.
The coffee shops and cafes that have embraced toasts (in the world where they’re not just a side for two eggs and hash browns) tend to charge $4 and up per slice. That’s been slammed with complaints like “the ultimate embodiment of hipster nonsense” (USA Today) or a portent that “there’s officially no reason to try to save our species” (Jezebel.) It’s easy to see the shock value — but also easy, looking at menu descriptions of long-fermented loaves topped with quail eggs or crab or house-smoked black cod, to consider that the ingredients are rarely as cheap as the word “toast” implies.
These days, Nyffeler loves the toasts at sunny Vif in Fremont, where owners Lauren Feldman and Shawn Mead are known for smoked sprats on Sea Wolf rye bread, and for cubed avocado mixed with preserved Meyer lemon and other seasonings. “I feel like we have the same tastes, a lot,” Nyffeler says.
And, as always, great toasts can be made at home.
Nyffeler advises using day-old bread, or even two- or three-day old bread: “It’s better if it’s dried out a little bit.” For toppings, “keep it simple and seasonal. I think sliced tomato with sea salt on it and olive oil is so good. Mashed avocado is so simple, but delicious.”
Eggs are good, as is canned fish, and pickles.
Take it from Nyffeler, one of the original toast masters: “You probably have more toast toppings than you think without having anything in your fridge.”