Bell + Whete’s Marcus Charles on Why He Gave Up the Nightlife to Get a Real Job
When Bell & Whete (“wheat”) officially opened its doors on Saturday (here are 10 things to know about the restaurant), it became the newest hot spot to hit Belltown—a masculine, meat-heavy, Medieval-inspired restaurant sandwiched between Local 360 and The Crocodile—all three owned by Marcus Charles.
Charles, a bit of a legend in Seattle, is still getting used to the title of “restaurateur,” having been a successful bar owner for the better part of a decade.
Much like his female empire builder counterpart Linda Derschang (Oddfellows, King’s Hardware, Tallulah’s), Charles transitioned rather seamlessly from owning a string of bars to operating restaurants.
I sat down with him over a cup of coffee this morning at his new spot to talk about how he knew when it was time to say goodbye to the nightlife and get a “real” job. The story is a long and incredibly interesting one.
Charles started his career in 1997 with Marcus’ Martini Heaven in Pioneer Square (where Little Uncle sits now) at the young age of 23, followed by the Bad JuJu Lounge and Jack’s Roadhouse on Capitol Hill, which was his first attempt at food. “Jack’s was my first stubbed toe. My first place that didn’t work,” says Charles of his 24-hour diner that stood where Clever Dunne’s is now. It closed in 2003, two years after it opened, giving him the opportunity to do Neumos with Jerry Everard, who was one of the original owners of the original Moe’s (and the developer for John Sundstrom’s new projects). It was also a great tie-in to the Capitol Hill Block Party, which Charles started along with Dave Meinert (The Comet, 5 Point, Lost Lake Café) in 2000. They sold it in 2011.
“I remember a lot of things about Neumos, but the Cliffs Note version is that for years, every time a new incarnation opened in that space (Aro.Space, Paradise Garage), everyone would refer to it as the old Moe’s. So I said, ‘Everyone keeps calling this place the old Moe’s. Maybe we should call it the New Moe’s.’ And then Jerry was like, ‘Let’s spell it N-E-U-M-O-S.’ So that’s what we did.”
In 2006, Charles decided he was going to change careers after almost 10 years living the party lifestyle.
“I was at Neumos one night and I had like three different managers and we’re sitting in this meeting and one manager was leaving and this other person was being groomed to be a manager and lots of stuff was happening. I remember thinking, ‘When that manager leaves and this manager is in this spot, do I still want to be in this spot?’ And I just decided—you know, I was tired and there weren’t a lot of vacations, so between 2005 and 2006 I sold all of my businesses.” Those businesses also included Spitfire Grill, which he opened with Everard around 2005.
“Essentially, I did some introspection and asked myself what it was that I really wanted to do. I really liked brand management and lifestyle brand marketing, so I envisioned keeping the Block Party, selling all the bars, and going back to school to get his MBA,” which he did at the University of Washington in 2008.
But unfortunately for Charles, back in 2008, there were no lifestyle brand marketing jobs for him to scoop up. So he set his sights on opening another bar to help pay the bills.
“Stephanie (Dorgan) had closed The Crocodile in 2007. Essentially she came to me and said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re going to open another bar. Are you interested [in taking over the Crocodile]?”
“It probably took me a good three weeks of deciding if I wanted to do it or not. It was definitely a life changing thing, because I knew I would just be an entrepreneur forever. It was a big effort to sell everything and go back to school. It was a monumental life-changing decision. And now here I was, being pulled back in. I could either pull the trigger or not.”
He pulled the trigger, remodeling the legendary Seattle club and reopening it in 2009.
“I think there’s always going to be this, ‘Is the grass greener’ question, because frankly I don’t know. It’s kind of this weird thing to set this humongous goal to get a real job and then not actually make it there. But having said that, I like what I do and I think what I do now is different than what I did before. Before, it was a very personal, ‘This speaks to me and what I want and it’s my own money,’ whereas now it’s more of a collective that I happen to be in charge of. It’s more than just me. It’s more people, so that has been very beneficial. I don’t feel all the stress that I used to.”
Around 2010, the “Now what?” question struck him and he opened Local 360. His first legitimate restaurant with Mike Robertshaw (now the chef at Roux) at the helm.
It should be noted that while Charles doesn’t consider himself a foodie, he does have cooking experience, having helped out his uncle’s long-standing Lorenzo’s Italian Restaurant in Tacoma when he was nary a pre-teen. He also cooked at Anthony’s Homeport on Shilshole for four years during his first spin around UW.
When Charles was approached by developers last summer to open another restaurant in Belltown, he said “no” three times before caving. He then started sifting through books for inspiration and found a book called British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History by Colin Spencer.
“His whole things was he thought the Anglo-Norman period was the most exciting culinary time up until now. They had a zeal for life. I started reading a bunch about that cuisine and the whole culture behind it and said, ‘This would be something we should incorporate.’”
Fast forward to today. Charles and his Bell + Whete crew are starting their official first week in business, hoping to capture the magic Charles has a history of making.
“I don’t ever want to say that I’m just going to open restaurants just to keep opening restaurants. I like to think I’d open them if they made sense. I think this restaurant makes a lot of sense.”