Fine Dining Finally Finds Seattle
By Jess Thompson
November 4, 2016
Holly Smith, chef/owner of Kirkland’s elegant Cafe Juanita, runs her hands through her hair in anguish as she describes a recent situation in her newly remodeled dining room.
A customer had called, a medical professional stressed about a babysitter situation, wondering if it would be OK to show up at this bespoke Italian establishment—one of the Seattle area’s nicest restaurants—directly from work in clean scrubs. “Of course,” the staff had said. “Come as you are.” But a diner at a nearby table hadn’t approved, and took it upon themselves to be the dress-code police. Diners at another neighboring table had intervened, sending the complainer away. But the scrubs-wearing diner had trouble enjoying dinner. Smith was horrified.
Image by Junko Mine; bittersweet chocolate pavé and smoked gelato from Cafe Juanita.
“We have many of the fine dining elements,” says Smith. “I have a lot of staff. I have the best ingredients. We strive for a very high level of service. But I do not care what you wear. We are fine dining because of what we do, not because of what you do.”
Except for the white-tableclothed Cafe Juanita and Canlis (where you’ll find fine print on its website that requests that gentlemen wear a sport coat, at the very least), the dress code at Seattle restaurants is reliably indeterminate, regardless of price. While it may be fun to dress up, in recent years Seattle has not pinned the definition of “fine dining” on things such as attire and tablecloths, table spacing and valet parking. The Gore-Tex City has relied on a restaurant’s other features to determine fanciness: quirky, novel or spartan decor; the provenance of each ingredient; the opportunity to breathe the same air as a big-name chef. (See: Westward, Bateau, Salare.)
But with strong tech hiring at Amazon, Google, Facebook and the like, Seattle is changing. According to Scott Bailey, an economist with Washington’s Employment Security Department, the number of tech jobs in Seattle has increased from 112,127 jobs in 2013 to 125,865 in 2015—a majority of which, he says, are “extremely well paid.” That the flood of high-paying jobs has fueled a booming restaurant scene is clear. But it’s not just that there’s a restaurant opening on the ground level of every new downtown tower. Some say the very nature of our restaurants is changing, leading our city away from its traditionally casual norm to experiences that are, in a word, more refined.
Image by Suzi Pratt; The Butcher’s Table upstairs bar.
Of course, the definition of fine dining is as subjective as the taste of the food on our plates. But recently, there has been an increase in undeniably fancy feasts. In July, Kurt Dammeier of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese fame opened The Butcher’s Table, a two-level South Lake Union steak house with a plush bar upstairs. The moody lower level, accessed by leather-lined stairs that descend beneath a cascade of giant, sculpted, ice-cube-shaped lights, is meant to be Dammeier’s signature restaurant, offering what he calls Canlis-level service. He’s capitalized on what has proven popular in Seattle—the beef is from his own ranch, and his beloved Beecher’s mac and cheese is on the menu—but he has also included the dim lighting, live music and wide table spacing reminiscent of fine steak houses of decades past.
“People love a steak. People love to be catered to. And people love a production,” says Dammeier about why he went so upscale. The Butcher’s Table shows what he calls evolution in the fine steak house concept, leading us away from tuxedoed servers and hushed tones, and axing heavy dishes like creamed spinach, but preserving a distinct air of prosperity and splendor. In August, people were dressed beautifully. I couldn’t help but wonder whether women in stilettos will be slipping down the stairs when it rains.
Image by John Vicory; The Circadia team, from left: co-owner Jeanie Inglis, chef Garrett Melkonian (formerly of Mamnoon), beverage director Andrea Fulton-Higgins and co-owners Corry Hart Clayville and Jake Kosseff.
Circadia, the no-holds-barred restaurant slated to open this month at Seventh and Olive in the Denny Triangle, is also aiming for a glamorous experience. In classic fine dining form, servers will fulfill diners’ needs before the diners themselves—relaxing on velvet banquettes, naturally—are even aware of them.
The service component is crucial to the definition of fine dining, says Circadia owner Jake Kosseff, formerly of Miller’s Guild and Cascadia. “We have a lot of amazing chefs in Seattle. But we have fewer places where Seattleites go for the service. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to go out and be pampered again? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel a tablecloth on your table? And get dressed up?’”
But according to Kosseff and co-owner and wife Jeanie Inglis, they’re modernizing fine dining, not just making it more opulent. Sound will be carefully managed without being stamped out entirely. Seating will be crafted to match each party’s needs. Circadia won’t be what Kosseff calls “baroque” dining, meaning elegance without functionality. Tablecloths make service quieter and add a feeling of luxury, whereas waiters wearing ruffled white shirts add nothing to the experience. Servers will be pleasantly stylish. There may be traditional tableside service, but only when a dish could actually suffer in the time it takes to transport it from kitchen to table—say, a scallop that must be poached tableside immediately before consumption, lest it turn to rubber languishing for extra seconds on a kitchen pass-through.
Image by Suzi Pratt; The stairway at the Butcher’s Table.
The owners seemed to sense a citywide backlash at a perceived shortage of truly luxurious experiences. Eating there will be, as intended, a two-hour vacation from normal life. There will be no such thing as waiting 15 minutes for that first cocktail. There will be no official dress code à la Canlis, but the owners anticipate an equally elegant (if not more fashionable) scene. Celebrated former Mamnoon chef Garrett Melkonian will helm the kitchen.
But not all restaurateurs think there’s much appetite for this type of experience, regardless of how much money new Seattleites have. “I’m not going to go as far as to say fine dining is dead,” says Ethan Stowell, founder of the eponymous restaurant group. His smart, casual Goldfinch Tavern, in the Four Seasons Hotel downtown, replaced the hotel’s original white-tablecloth Art restaurant. “But fine dining is being redefined. I consider anything to be fine dining if someone puts thought and care into it,” explains Stowell, who fought the normally staid Four Seasons to allow jeans to be part of the official staff uniform at Goldfinch. People are eating out more, he says, but not necessarily because they want to spend a lot of money; he says the industry’s most successful restaurants will serve people replacing their meals at home. And people don’t want to get dolled up every night.
Image by Angela Ciccu; Diners at Goldfinch.
The data says he’s right; in 2015, the U.S. Commerce Department released information showing that sales at American restaurants and bars actually passed grocery store spending for the first time since data collection began in 1992. So, while Goldfinch might be the kind of place where your fries will be refired if you happen to be in the restroom when your meal is delivered (the restaurant is in the Four Seasons, after all, where service is paramount), Stowell’s goal there is to make customers feel comfortable. And to him, that means providing thoughtful food with lower-cost alternatives on the menu (which, at Goldfinch, translates to a $17 burger), in an environment with a sense of ease and community. This is his version of fine dining; jeans will remain the de facto dress code. Stowell says that’s what Seattle wants.
Image by Maria Billorou; Copine’s Jill Kinney and Shaun McCrain.
Many other openings also suggest that Seattle still wants to eat fancy food wearing fleece—or, at least, not wearing a suit and tie. New high-end restaurants such as Copine, in Ballard, and Tarsan i Jane, in Fremont—both with industrial-style concrete floors and naked tables, and adventurous, intelligent food that feels new in Seattle—offer takeaway counters that essentially create two separate restaurant experiences. At Copine, where you can eat handsome house-made pasta and delicate foie gras terrine for dinner, you can also grab a $32 lemon-and-herb-brined roasted chicken on a Sunday afternoon to take home. Inside Tarsan i Jane, where the Catalan-inspired five-, seven- or nine-course dining experience is driven by chef Perfecte Rocher, there is no menu at all, which creates a “money is no object” vibe. But in warmer months you can get a sausage for $10.
At either restaurant, you come as you are, whether you’re staying for a bite or a feast. I personally enjoyed Tarsan i Jane not just because the experience produced a definition of Valencian food in my mind, but also because a former punk rocker named Perfecte cooked it. Copine—from Shaun McCrain, former Book Bindery chef, and his wife, Jill Kinney—is delicious but also interesting, in part, because it feels extra decadent to eat modernist-leaning, French-inspired food at a nondescript intersection in Ballard. I dressed up for both, not because it seemed required, but because I happen to like doing it.
It’s hard to imagine Seattle adopting a New York state of mind in the dinner fashion department. Or in the service department, for that matter: An attempt by The Nest (the swanky bar atop the bespoke Thompson Hotel) to take paid reservations for small parties flopped. It still charges for reservations for larger parties, but the pretension of a reservations-only bar—even one with sweeping views of the waterfront—just didn’t fly here.
Image by Lara Swimmer; Cafe Juanita’s sleek new remodel.
Although the details differ, one thing seems to unite the owners of Seattle’s new fine dining establishments. Pretension is never the goal. “A guest shouldn’t feel like the restaurant is doing them a favor by existing,” says Inglis of Circadia. Even at chef’s tables—group tables close to the kitchen that diners reserve for a multicourse menu plated by the restaurant’s chef, which Cafe Juanita has—the point is to feed people, not to feed an ego at the helm. Although the game at each may differ, I can’t think of a restaurant on any level that doesn’t share Holly Smith’s professed goal: to make its guests feel special, known and cared for.
So perhaps it’s not that fine dining is changing, or becoming fancier and more service-focused than before. Maybe it’s just that in a city increasingly benefiting from its corporate constituents, and now more populated than ever by those who can afford a (very) nice dinner out, more upscale spots are opening, and more of us have the opportunity to consider what we want our dining room to feel like.
So, go ahead and dress up. Or put on your scrubs. Just don’t be surprised if some passive-aggressive Seattleite interrupts your dinner with an opinion.
Enjoy a night out:
Copine, Ballard, 6460 24th Ave. NW, 206.258.2467; copineseattle.com
The Butcher’s Table, South Lake Union, 2121 Westlake Ave.; 206.209.5990; thebutcherstable.com
Circadia, Belltown, 624 Olive Way; 206.486.6428; circadiaseattle.com
Tarsan i Jane, Fremont, 4012 Leary Way NW; 206.557.7059; tarsanijane.com
Café Juanita, Kirkland, 9702 NE 120th Pl; 425.823.1505; cafejuanita.com
Goldfinch Tavern, Downtown, 99 Union St; 206.749.7070; goldfinchtavern.com