Welcome back to Throwback Thursday, a recurring column dedicated to the tried-and-true restaurants of Seattle and their secrets to staying relevant during an age of unrelenting competition.
Back in 1996, before restaurants and chefs elicited major fandom, a miniscule restaurant called Matt’s in the Market opened upstairs in a tiny nook of the Corner Market Building in Pike Place Market totally under the radar. Ten years later, Dan Bugge, a longtime fish thrower at Pike Place Fish, purchased the restaurant from its original owner and namesake, Matt Janke (who went on to open Lecosho), after falling in love with his lunchtime neighbor that he frequented on a daily basis.
I sat down with Bugge, who now also has his hands in a booze and smoked meats pot called Radiator Whiskey across the hall from Matt’s, on how he consistently keeps Matt's buzzing a decade deep into the restaurateur game.
What sort of impact did Matt’s have on the Market back in 1996?
Gosh, I didn’t even know that it was there! I started working at the Fish Market in 1994 and I didn’t even know Matt’s was up here. We got done setting up one day and a buddy of mine walked by that I played baseball with in college, and I was like, “Brad! What are you doing?” and he said, “I’m a chef up at this little tiny restaurant called Matt’s in the Market,” and I was like, “What?” It had been there for two years and I never knew it existed. I was asking him about what they do and he told me seafood and stuff, and suggested I bring my girlfriend up for dinner, but she didn’t eat seafood. He told me to bring chicken and he’d cook it for us, so I brought a chicken breast with me the first time I ever came to Matt’s! That’s how I found out about Matt’s.
And then after that—they weren’t even open for lunch at that time, I believe—once they started opening for lunch, a friend of mine who was one of the chefs, Charla Gibson, said she was working up at Matt’s and I’d go up and see her every day for lunch. I’d go up and hang out. When they opened for lunch, I feel that was about the time where I really started to hear about them and people coming and asking me where Matt’s was. Before Matt’s, we’d send people to Etta’s when they’d ask us where they should go eat.
Is it harder now to keep this place busy than it was, say, five years ago?
Nope. First of all, our location is ridiculous. We’re not on the ground level, so we don’t get the 10-million people walking by our front door everyday, but we’ve got the crowd down here and it’s up to us to get the people who enjoy food upstairs to Matt's. We definitely have the tourist time of the year to help fill the empty seats that we have, but most of them aren’t willing to wait an hour to eat.
How has the competition changed?
I want more competition down here. We’re only as successful as every other business that’s in the Market. That’s why we support the Market so much and buy our product down here. I think downtown is dying for more great restaurants. I love that Aragona has moved down the street. We want to have that buzz where people are coming down and walking around to five or six different great places on any given night.
How has your customer changed?
I think the dining level is different as far as, not necessarily the diner, but the level of dining that we can execute now in this kitchen. Matt’s has always been great for lunch when it was 23 seats and when we expanded to 60 seats. It’s always been great for lunch, but dinner is where this restaurant has really elevated from the old Matt’s. What we can do in a regular kitchen now is unbelievable. There’s a lot more coursed-out food. People are coming in and dining and doing starters, apps, salads, entrée, dessert, bottles of wine. It’s really become like a process.
How do you stay successful?
I think staying relevant is really important. It’s why we do PR. It’s nice to have someone else beating the pavement for you when we’re doing our job here and keeping the guests happy. It’s why we do very seasonal menus and change them all the time. There are some items that never leave [the menu], but never any repeat items make it on.
I think staying relevant, changing our menu as much as we do and then focusing on customers is a big part of why we continue to be successful.
How do you keep this place moving forward?
Still being passionate about it. Still loving to be here everyday. I think creating that environment where our employees…nobody wants to work, but if you have that space where you can come in and enjoy where you’re at, that’s been a big part of my personal success —everyday seeing employees come to work and have a good time. It makes me feel good that I can provide a great life for people. It really is rewarding for me. The day I’m not passionate about coming to work anymore is the day I should hang it up.
Does it ever bother you that people tend to get all riled up about new restaurants and not the tried-and-true ones?
I obviously have a skewed interpretation of our restaurant. I think it’s the best in Seattle. But sometimes it can be a little bit discouraging when restaurants that are popping up are getting all these accolades and we’re continuing to be busy and successful. I feel like [chef] Shane Ryan is really on the cutting edge with the seafood we do here. And by no means is any other place not good, but there’s a few places that get mentioned a lot that we go to that make me wonder. You know, I wonder, “What is it about this that I’m missing that is so great to everybody that it gets all of this attention?”
We have a goal this year as Matt’s to be on the James Beard list next year. We feel snubbed sometimes when the work that these guys put in…80 to 90-percent of our product is made in-house. We don’t buy stuff out of a bag and pour it into a fryer and cook it. It gets so much care. When I see what we do and how hard they work…It’s not the restaurant—Matt’s is always going to be Matt’s as long as we continue to push it in the right direction—I think our chefs don’t get the recognition they should get. They’re amazing. This place is driven by what they do.