Lark opened on Capitol Hill in 2003, focusing on small plates and farm-fresh, creative food. In 2014, the restaurant’s owners moved into a renovated 1917 auto-parts shop.
“WOULD YOU LIKE coffee? Water? Are you hungry?” Chef John Sundstrom, wearing a characteristic blue apron, opened the door of his Capitol Hill restaurant, Lark.
A warm welcome is typical at Lark, which Sundstrom and his partners Kelly Ronan and J.M. Enos (also his wife) own and operate together. On the restaurant’s 15th anniversary, the chef reflected on his culinary journey and the evolution of Northwest cuisine.
Think back to 2003. Seattle hadn’t embraced the small-plates concept yet. We were comfortable with the traditional categories of appetizers and entrees. Menus didn’t list the specific farms that vegetables came from. Pan-Asian was exciting.
Today, thoughtfully sourced, farm-fresh, shareable food defines Northwest cuisine. And Sundstrom was one of the chefs responsible for that transformation.
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When Sundstrom was at Dahlia Lounge and Earth & Ocean in the W Hotel, he developed a network of farmers and foragers. “I’d go to farmers markets and look for a new farmer or a cheese maker, looking to supply great food to the restaurant,” he says.
After eight years at the W, Sundstrom was ready to spread his wings. “I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny.”
He, Enos and Ronan opened Lark in a small building on 12th Avenue just south of Union. Sundstrom’s copy of an original menu from 2004, printed on simple white paper, shows the categories, rather revolutionary at the time, were cheeses, vegetables/grains, charcuterie, fish, meat, desserts.
The small-plates concept was challenging. For the first several years, servers patiently explained the menu to diners.
“We wanted people to share,” he says. “It took so long to catch on, but it’s very commonplace now.”
Nevertheless, Lark was busy from day one.
By focusing on local and seasonal ingredients, Sundstrom and team hoped people would be excited about the first Yakima asparagus, or baby turnips from Local Roots Farm. Even in the early 2000s, Lark printed a new menu each week.
In 2013, Sundstrom and his partners planned a change. Local developers were renovating a 1917 auto-parts shop, Central Agency Building, on 10th Avenue and Seneca Street. Sundstrom liked the size of the space, the original wood floors and open rafters. After considering opening a new restaurant, they decided to move Lark a few blocks north.
“People loved that little room (in the original location), so the move was a little risky, but people embraced it,” Sundstrom recalls. A bigger kitchen, a raw bar and private dining space were advantages.
Designer Robert Cipollone provided upscale touches like blue mohair benches and Edison lights. After the move late in 2014, Sundstrom was quoted as saying, “Lark grows up.”
Sundstrom and team have thoughtfully blended longtime favorites with new dishes. For example, they kept the well-loved Hamachi crudo, chocolate madeleines and malt ice cream. Plus, seasonal favorites make appearances every year, like the fig tarte Tatin in summer, and oysters with bacon in winter. “These dishes bring back great memories for people.”
The menu today features plenty of bites to share, but also larger dishes like venison, scallops, quail and duck.
At the same time, the restaurant continues to innovate. Foragers find new berries, roots, ferns and barks. “Chefs are always on a quest for the new and different,” he says. “We have halibut every year. What else can we do with halibut?”
Today, with two other eateries — Slab Sandwiches + Pie and Southpaw — two cookbooks, two dogs, multiple awards and a teenage son, Sundstrom seems content. “I’d consider a new opportunity, but I’m in no rush. We’re in a really good place.”
And, luckily for Seattle, that means he, Enos and Ronan are still at the door, inviting us in, asking whether we’re hungry.