Looking Back at the Queen City Grill, Set to Close in January
A landlord dispute ends the run of an iconic Belltown restaurant with a storied past
By Helen Freund
December 14, 2016
There was no other place quite like it.
From buttoned-down business executives to working girls, movie stars and rock musicians to club kids and politicians, sometimes it felt like the whole world was at “the Queen.”
The Queen City Grill opened on a chilly afternoon in 1986. The Belltown flagship eventually paved the way for an explosion of fine dining restaurants in the area, but at the time, the neighborhood looked a lot different.
“There were no condo buildings north of the Queen,” recalls Queen City Grill general manager and part owner Robert Eickhof. “It was all labor temples, working men’s bars and artist’s studios.”
Over the next thirty years, the landmark restaurant on the corner of First Avenue and Blanchard remained a constant fixture on the Seattle nightlife scene. It was a place that welcomed everybody, where one could just as easily go for an anniversary dinner as one could sidle up to the bar for a nightcap with a stranger. People frequented the restaurant for a number of reasons, ranging from the familial and friendly service, the dim orange lighting that somehow made everyone look just a little bit sexier, the seared steak with peppercorn demi-glace and the hidden stairwell enclave where lovers and smokers would sneak out for a rendezvous.
There were highs and lows, for sure—but throughout it all, the Queen City Grill retained an undeniable mystique and allure, characterized by the hosts’ unwavering hospitality and, at times, devil-may-care attitude.
On January 2, barring a last minute change of heart from the restaurant’s landlord, the Queen’s reign will finally come to an end, the result of an ongoing financial dispute between the restaurant’s owners and the Plymouth Housing Group, a nonprofit which leases spaces to commercial tenants and uses the proceeds to help the homeless.
According to Queen City Grill’s other owner, Steve Good, the fallout stems, in part, from a disputed $5,800 utility bill which has ballooned to more than $14,000 over the years after accruing interest and late fees. Efforts to repay and renegotiate with the group have been rebuffed, Good says.
“For us, the end of this restaurant would be a big letdown,” says longtime server Lorenzo Boini, whose sly wit and jovial attitude have earned the sexagenarian a loyal following in the city. “This place has become an extended family for me.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many: On the restaurant’s 30th anniversary party last month, the rallying cry “Save the Queen!” was painted on banners and shouted throughout the evening by the hundred or so patrons who showed up to support the restaurant.
Though it might feel like the end of an era, it’s also a story that Seattle knows all too well. Rising rents, shifting demographics, and an influx of tech money has changed the geography of the city at lightning speed. For many, the bright glowing letters on the restaurant’s awning are a lingering reminder of another time, where grit and glamour were not mutually exclusive terms.
“Thirty years ago, Belltown wasn’t like it is now,” recalls Boini who was part of the restaurant’s opening staff. “It was like skid row—opening the restaurant was a risk for everyone, and we didn’t know what would happen. But then the ‘90s came and we were rocking.”
“The Queen really helped turn around the neighborhood,” says Scott Soderstrom, another longtime employee. “It was really the cornerstone and the anchor of many businesses and residential buildings that came to the neighborhood.”
Belltown’s luxury development boom in the ‘90s and early ‘00s delivered a rush of posh clubs and restaurants, frequented by high rollers who didn’t bat an eye at dropping a few thousand dollars on any given evening.
“There wasn’t really anything else like it at the time,” recalls chef Brendan McGill, who worked at the restaurant in the early 2000s. “All of a sudden there were doormen and velvet ropes and people popping bottles of expensive champagne. I’ve never seen anything like that since or before, in Seattle.”
The restaurant became a hotbed for celebrity action, and included regular visits from actors Tom Hanks and John Corbett, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, Elton John, artist Dale Chihuly and Mary K. Letourneau, among others.