As the pandemic continues and the Seattle economy falters, the picture of a post-Covid restaurant scene is murky. Best estimates are that 40% of restaurants that have closed down may never reopen.
Some met the challenge of staying alive while customers stayed mostly isolated by mounting an aggressive takeout and delivery menu. They have the best chance of reopening their doors, although social distancing will necessarily limit the number of customers daring enough to eat out again. According to Ron Holden of Forking Seattle, those that bit the bullet and closed their doors early–Steelhead Diner, Blueacre, Orfeo and Zane & Wylie’s Steakhouse–also could be among the survivors.
It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time there were only two restaurants in and around downtown Seattle that were open for dinner after nine o’clock — Tai Tung and the Thirteen Coins. The neighborhood options stopped serving even earlier. Bars, yes, a few saloons that would serve a 90-proof customer a burger until the short-order cook went home, and Dick’s – that was it. Even Canlis didn’t take reservations after eight, and once you’d had a couple of pupu platters during happy hour at Trader Vic’s, you were on your own. And everything that swam was fried before serving.
By the early ’70s, though, there were enough restaurants offering adequate if not inspiring cuisine for a fledgling publication called “A Gourmet’s Notebook” to launch a subscription newsletter. It was folded into a local, glossy weekly aimed at the affluent readers of The Argus, which was owned by Phil Bailey, who lived in Washington Park and delighted in presenting his neighbors with complementary subscriptions. In those days I wrote a column for The Argus called “Best Bets,” which was frankly modeled after a column with a similar name that was a feature of New York Magazine. Like everything in Argus except Phil Bailey’s weekly column, “As I See It,” my column was edited by David Brewster, a serial mediapreneur who left Argus to start the Seattle Weekly in 1976 and, many ventures later, pulled together the motley crew of writers who populate Post Alley.
I was no Gael Green, the glamorous NYM food critic, but I’d been eating solid food for over 30 years, and I owned a set of escargot plates as well as a mortar and pestle, so I bellied up to the task of dining around town on an expense account, along with a couple of good friends who were actually knowledgeable about food and had much more discriminating palates than mine.
Together we dined at some very good French restaurants and a few Italian ones, tried to love nouvelle cuisine, which always left us hungry if feeling au courant, sampled the intermittently successful but always interesting offerings from serious or at least pretentious chefs like Roberto Rosselini and Peter Cipra, and even got around to lovingly but essentially uncritically reviewing Seattle landmarks like Ivar’s, the Doghouse, Ruby Chow’s and the Alki Homestead. The Homestead was my last review. As I recall, it mostly noted that everything in the joint, from the waitress uniforms to the gazpacho, was the same unappetizing shade of pink.
Always at least a decade behind the times, Seattle caught up to the food craze in the mid-’80s. Between then and the end of the first tech boom, a lot of new money and an influx of new chefs combined to burnish the city’s reputation for destination dining. Restaurants seemed to open in the blink of an eye. One closes, another opens – that was true after the recession of 2008, and in the last ten years more have opened than closed.
The most discernible difference in the restaurant scene is the explosion of inspired, often ethnic dishes offered in smallish establishments owned by young, mostly self- or family-financed chefs who followed their dream to every neighborhood in the city. The other difference is the number of multiple restaurants, each with its own distinctive cuisine ambience, owned by the Ethan Stowells and Tom Douglases and Renee Ericksons who’ve flourished as well.
Which will survive the pandemic, and which will close their doors forever? Even Tom Douglas scaled back his empire to one outpost of Serious Takeout in Ballard, which was on its way to becoming the epicenter of Seattle’s restaurant scene before the pandemic. South Lake Union is as empty and lifeless as it was before Amazon staked its claim, and Canlis is only doing takeout.
Will your favorite restaurant be one of the winners? Much depends on money, of course – who has enough to back the next restaurant boom, and who’ll have enough left to patronize them? And the courage to dine out again?
Meanwhile, send us your nominations for the top ten places you hope will still be open.