It’s been a great run for Eli Dahlin. He’s been the chef de cuisine at Renee Erickson's The Walrus and the Carpenter since it opened back in August 2010 —part of an integral crew that helped catapult the Ballard oyster bar into a nationally recognized restaurant.
“It gave me a lot of confidence as a cook to do what I thought was good,” Dahlin told me after he got off shift last night. We talked about the new cocktail bar/restaurant he’ll be opening with former Rob Roy barman Bryn Lumsden called Damn the Weather. It's taking over the old New Orleans space in Pioneer Square (A.J. Rathbun has the scoop). The news is something he’s been holding off on letting me go public with because opening a new place means announcing that you’re leaving behind a familiar one.
"I feel a little bit happy and sad at the same time, like when I graduated from high school. I'm moving on to more exciting things, and at the same time, those are my friends and that's my past and there's nostalgia and I have an identity in that place."
He’s thinking his last day at Walrus will be May 1. He’s anxious to concentrate on the new project.
"We're trying to close the gap between the cocktail bar that barely serves any food and the restaurant that has really good cocktails but closes at 10 p.m. and does most of their business selling food."
"We tried to put together a concept that would take advantage of both of those things. So, during restaurant hours, we'll operate as one of those restaurants that has great cocktails, and then during happy hour and bar hours, we'll still have a full bar menu — we'll have a full bar menu all the time, so you can always get a hamburger or sit down and have a full meal between like 6 and 10 p.m."
Damn the Weather will serve food daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
At the moment, the concept is to have a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard where Eli will write the bar menu, about 10-15 things that you can order all day long. During "restaurant hours," they'll hand out a separate paper menu that has a few more dishes that are more conducive to sitting down and having a meal with a glass of wine, “but you'll still be able to come in and have a duck hot dog and a Manhattan or whatever drink you like,” Dahlin promises.
Duck hot dog. Yep. That’s one of the few items he’s working on right now. He swears you won’t find anything on his menu fermented with whey or things like pickled lichens; you won’t find anything that's not already recognizable. “I like to take things people are familiar with and repackage them or rearrange them or mash them up with something else familiar."
For instance: "We'll have a burger, but it will be made from corned beef. And instead of lettuce, you'll have a whole leaf of sauerkraut. We'll put cheese on the inside instead of the outside. We'll have Thousand Island dressing, caraway brioche. It's essentially a Reuben in hamburger form. We're going to try and do a duck hot dog, a beef cheek terrine. We'll have frites and various fried foods and stuff like that. And then the dinner menu — that will be closer to the type of food I do at Walrus now, more refined, more plated."
Dahlin is also stepping away from seafood, not because he doesn’t like preparing it, “but because there's so much more to explore."
He’s also going to try and have a gluten-free menu available at all times. And there’s early talk of eventually introducing breakfast, brunch and lunch down the road.
It’s been interesting to see the evolution of the way people are eating in Seattle. Bars are becoming focal points in restaurants, which in turn are becoming less rigid and much more accommodating to those wanting to create a meal from small plates and washing them down with great drinks.
"I think that's the way my generation prefers to eat. I think we all like to bar hop. Sometimes you don't know you're hungry until you've had two cocktails. Or sometimes you're hungry again shortly after you just ate."
Someone needs to coin a new term for this style of restaurant. It’s not a gastropub, which is a pigeonhole Brimmer & Heeltap side-stepped by calling themselves a bistro-pub. Dahlin and his crew are calling their place a “cocktail restaurant” because it's not a bar, it's not a restaurant — it's both.
“There's so many good restaurants and it's so competitive, in order to be a top tier restaurant, you have to have something else. Walrus has oysters, Ethan Stowell has pasta — it's a thing that you do. The thing that we do is going to be drinks."
Look for Damn the Weather to open in early summer. If you're keeping score at home, it will join Quality Athletics, London Plane, Good Bar and Pizzeria Gabbiano as 2014 Pioneer Square inductees. More to come?