Your table is not waiting, but you are: the 'no reservations' game
With just 27 seats and chalkboard menu listing fewer than a dozen items, Blind Pig Bistro appears to be the sort of neighborhood place that wouldn’t take reservations, much less offer a tasting menu.
But the two-year-old Eastlake eatery announced this week they now accept reservations, plus they’ve made their popular whole-menu tasting option more attractive: the 8 to10-plate shareable feast is priced at $35-$45 per person.
The news got me wondering anew why some restaurants take reservations, while others—to the annoyance of many diners, me included—don’t.
Walpole says he’s thinking of his customers. “The idea at this point is, how can we be better, how can we grow. Taking reservations is one way we can improve service. It’s asking a lot to ask people to come in and not have a table waiting.”
He’s also thinking long term. In 2014 he plans to transform the adjacent Eastlake Teryiyaki into a 35-seat bar and lounge. The two storefronts will be connected but have separate names and menus.
The reason many small restaurants don’t take reservations, says Walpole, is largely a staffing issue. “It requires managing the tables, calling and confirming the reservations. We have a bigger staff and a stronger team. We feel we can do it now and do it right.”
Trevor Greenwood says about two years after opening the first Cantinetta restaurant in Wallingford, he considered taking reservations in a limited way because of customer complaints. Instead, he has held to a no-reservation policy for parties fewer than six at the Wallingford Cantinetta and in Bellevue, as well as at the much smaller Bar Cantinetta in Madison Valley.
Not having to hold tables for reservations brings a certain energy to a restaurant, Greenwood believes. “As a neighborhood restaurant, I like the idea of ‘come as you are and we’ll take care of you.’ Often it’s only a 15-minute wait and I hope our hosts make people comfortable. We try to be accommodating. We encourage people to call when they are coming in. We try to guide them if they are looking for a specific time. We’ll put them on a waitlist if we have one.”
The restaurateurs I talked to agree that not taking reservations is more profitable.You don’t run the risk of empty seats because of no-shows, or last minute cancellations, or having customers occupy tables far longer than calculated. But that works best when you have a steady stream of customers willing to wait, or to dine very early, or very late—a scenario that a hot, new place might enjoy every night but more mature establishments may only experience on weekends.
“We were one of the first to make people wait,” says Ethan Stowell of two restaurants he opened in 2008--Tavolata and How to Cook a Wolf. Neither took reservations at first, but the policy changed after about a year. Demand was still high but one day Stowell ran into a former steady customer who lived two blocks away from How to Cook a Wolf. He said he had stopped coming in because he couldn’t make a reservation and didn’t want to eat at five o’clock.
Taking reservations became a core value rather than a dollar thing for Stowell. “It’s not very hospitable not to take them. If we’re a neighborhood restaurant we want the neighbors to come. We want to still be here in ten years with a solid profitable business.”
All of Stowell’s restaurants (except Ballard Pizza Co.) take reservations. “If you’re a dinner time house, and people order drinks or a bottle of wine, it’s a dining experience. People are spending big money. It warrants being able to make a reservation,” he says.
Still he wishes more customers would recognize the complexities involved for the restaurant. “We don’t want people to wait but they should cut us some slack.” (The trio who sat for more than four hours at Rione XIII---he’s thinking of you.)
Renee Erickson, proprietor of two restaurants notorious for long wait times, believes more people get to eat in a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, like her Ballard oyster bar, The Walrus and the Carpenter. Her newest restaurant, The Whale Wins, accepts a very limited number each night, but getting one is tough because they keep two-thirds of the restaurant available for walk-ins.
If you manage to snag one of four nightly slots via The Whale Wins’ website, you’ll see this reservation policy: “Unless otherwise agreed, we allow the following times for all parties: parties of two to four - 2 hours; parties of five to six - 2 ½ hours; parties of 6 or more - 3 hours.
This doesn’t mean they ask people to leave when their time is up, Erickson says. “We hope people will honor the time limit and realize that if we are offering reservations, there will be people coming in behind them. The policy acknowledges that.”
Taking reservations is an art, she admits, and something they are still experimenting with. “We are sort of learning people have different expectations and time frames. We learned a lot from Walrus to [The Whale Wins]. Table turns are much longer. Even the weather affects timing; when it’s colder people don’t want to leave."
Her goal is to fill seats. “The more people you get into your restaurant the more likely you’ll survive,” says Erickson. “But we don’t want it to be torture for people, that’s for sure.”
Il Corvo chef bringing Roman-style pizza to Pioneer Square
The couple behind the most Italian lunch in Seattle is adding on a new Pioneer Square restaurant with a new specialty. Mike Easton, chef-owner of Il Corvo Pasta, and wife and business partner Victoria, are planning a Roman-style street pizza place to be called Pizzeria Gabbiano. They plan to open the restaurant at 2nd and Main in late spring, working with an 150-year-old starter and daily batches of hand-pulled mozzarella.
Describing the pizzas he'd like to create, Easton wrote about "the depth of flavor, the chew, and the overall satisfaction" that diners might find at Rome's Campo De Fiore. He described a dough that wasn't just about simplicity and quality of ingredients, but also about the time it takes to allow natural fermentation over a period of days, to develop flavors from wild yeasts, to allow starches to break down to sugars, to mix and knead by hand. After all that, he wrote, "now caramelize those sugars in a 650 degree oven, letting the bright acidity of the tomato embrace the milky richness of the hand made mozzarella, and you have in many peoples’ opinion, some of the best pizza in the world...And a pizza we will be striving to emulate at Pizzeria Gabbiano."
The setup sounds like a pizza version of the astoundingly good, reasonably priced, and creative cuisine coming out of Il Corvo each day. That busy business is one of the places I name when people ask where to eat with just one day in Seattle, and it's triumphed over far pricier and fancier joints on recent awards lists.
Still, adding a second restaurant seemed like a big move for a chef who once scaled down to a cash-only, lunch-only operation (the original Il Corvo on the Pike Place Market hill climb) to have more time with his wife and daughter. Even when moving to Pioneer Square last year, he made it clear he wanted to stay away from big bank loans and endless hours and other potential traps of expansion.
Turns out he's still keeping it small, in that respect. The couple is using personal savings for the project, has one silent private investor, and is also well on the way to raising $20,000 to $35,000 in loans from Community Sourced Capital, a crowd-sourced funding business recently founded in Seattle -- which is also headquartered in Pioneer Square. (What did we say about the neighborhood?) Unlike Kickstarter projects, which offer gratitude and various rewards in exchange for donations, the CSP funding is an actual loan, where investors will be repaid, though with zero interest. It's neither a donation nor an investment, the CSP site says, it's "a right-sized mechanism for moving money to a business in your community while still getting paid back." Other food-related projects among its early successes include a $12,000 industrial juicer for a Long Beach cranberry farm, $6,900 in equipment for Delicatus deli in Pioneer Square, $15,050 in cheese-making equipment for Willapa Hills Cheese, and more than $20,000 to expand the Stockbox project serving grocery neighborhood deserts.
Kickstarter campaigns have been quite successful for both big and small local food projects (like this and this and this, just for starters,) so I wondered why Easton didn't go that route, or seek out a few investors with deeper pockets. I also wondered what made him want to take on a second restaurant at all, jumping to that next level of restaurant ownership where you're no longer always cooking on the line. On that, Easton wrote me that:
"My head is full of restaurant ideas and plans, much more so than I actually have time for. But the more Il Corvo has become a smooth sailing ship, the more time I've been able to make time to daydream. Daydreaming leads to investigating the possibilities, and sometimes that investigation opens doors for you. I've really wanted to do this pizza place for the about past 10 years, and the right opportunity finally presented itself. As far as time management goes, I will have one of my most trusted employees and friends, Johannes Heitzeberg, running the operation, he has worked with me over the past 5 years and 3 different restaurants. He's been there since the beginning of Il Corvo and is up for the task." The restaurants will be easier to manage being so close together, he noted, and he also lives just 5 blocks away.
As far as the financing, these were his thoughts:
"We were very picky about the type of, and $$ amount we would bring an investor in for. We didn't like the idea of somebody with deep pockets funding the lion's share of our restaurant, then demanding a say in how it works (they always do). We chose CSC because we really liked the fact that it is a local grass-roots kind of company. I never really liked the "free money" in trade for gifts and special treatment aspect of Kickstarter, not to mention it can be a tax nightmare.
"A community sourced loan, that we are responsible for paying back, puts a certain amount of validity in our business plan. It puts realistic expectations on the recipient to do a good job and run a good business. I feel much better about that, than counting on the kickstarter good-will alone, and as they always say: There is no such thing as a free lunch."
True. With the precedent he's set, though, I'm expecting an affordable and very good one.
Party like it's 1933: Repeal Day cocktail specials around Seattle
Who needs a drink?
Surprise of surprises, I'm raising my hand. And I found a good excuse. Thursday is Repeal Day, marking 80 years of legal drinking. Cocktail geeks and dudes with ironic mustaches may not know much about history, but they all seem to know that Dec. 5, 1933 was when the US repealed the 18th Amendment, re-allowing the consumption of alcohol.
With the cocktail renaissance, many bars now celebrate Repeal Day by throwing parties and getting patrons to dress up in 1930s garb. Though Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler has been the driving force behind the Repeal Day celebration — which has caught on nationwide — in Seattle, dozens of bars will extend happy hour, offer discount drinks and concoct other specials to mark the occasion. Below are some events:
Most of the Repeal Day celebrations take place around Capitol Hill.
Smith will offer Prohibition era drinks from 8 p.m.-1 am. You can also stumble a few blocks down to Liberty to check out its holiday punch bowl contest for charity.
The faux speak-easy Knee High Stocking Co. will offer a punch bowl special until 9 p.m. and extend happy hour until closing time. Folks can also get dressed up in Capone attire or dust off those bowlers and hit Bar Cotto for its Repeal Day get-together (10 p.m.-2 a.m.) with $9 drink specials and happy hour.
If you really wanna celebrate in style, head to Canon, which will feature a 1930 Haig & Haig Scotch. Shot is $99. (Regular price on other days, $325. )
And the owners of Old Sage, Tavern Law on Capitol Hill and Spur in Belltown will have drink specials to be announced later.
What is Seattle's top-rated restaurant?
Zagat has ranked its 20 top-rated restaurants across the country, and #1 in the Seattle area is Nishino in Madison Park. It won a rating of 29 (out of 30) for food, 27 for service, and 23 for decor.
Last year, counting only food ratings, Cafe Juanita took the top spot, followed by Paseo, Mashiko, Spinasse and The Herbfarm. Nishino was #9 on that list, scoring 27 for food.
The Zagat-esian writeup puts it this way: "Kyoto-born Nobu alum Tatsu Nishino conceives "delicate, inventive" and altogether "amazing" sushi for deep-pocketed fin fans at his "low-key" Madison Park Japanese; "expert" service and "masterpieces on the walls" by local artist Fay Jones put diners "in a Zen state", but those who want a truly transporting experience know "it's all about" the "straight-from-heaven" omakase menu (just be sure to "order a few days ahead").
Here's how Nancy Leson summarized the place in her piece pairing classic restaurants with newcomers:
"Tatsu Nishino made his mark on the city with a menu that nodded to Latin America (papaya salsa, jalapeños) and the Mediterranean (crème fraîche, arugula), setting trends by matching finned favorites with accents other than his own. Today, crossing cultures at Seattle sushi bars is as commonplace as premium sake and California rolls.
Madison Park regulars have flocked to this standard-bearer since 1995 for good reason: Nishino and his creative cohort are as adept at pairing sevruga caviar with toro as at divining which sea creatures (live shrimp? sweet uni?) will fulfill the food fantasies of an "omakase" omnivore."
Are the masses of Zagat voters on target here? Who gets your vote for Seattle's best?
Pioneering peninsula chef Jimella Lucas left a culinary legacy
Long before the era of celebrity chefs and Northwest cuisine and "local-seasonal" cooking, there was Jimella Lucas.
With partner Nanci Sofia Main, Lucas pioneered culinary magic on the Long Beach peninsula, with dishes like fresh-caught salmon sauced with peaches at their peak, or classic oyster stews and chowders cooked with seafood harvested within view of the dining room.
Long before chefs felt a James Beard Award was their profession's highest honor, Beard himself dined at the restaurant at The Shelburne Inn, which Lucas and Main once ran, and at the Ark restaurant, which they owned for 25 years, bringing national attention to the pair's cooking and connections to their food. Never in his 80 years of life, Beard wrote in the introduction to the first Ark cookbook, had he seen a restaurant "that glorified the great gifts from the sea, nor the fine vegetables, or the wild mushrooms, or the small fruits or the game" in the way that Lucas and Main did.
Lucas, 69, died of cancer Nov. 30 at her home in Oysterville.
She was born Dec. 2, 1943, in Grants Pass, Ore., to Eileen McCorkle Todaro and Frank Todaro, and graduated from Marycrest High School in Portland. Food and cooking were in her blood from a young age.
At 18, she was arriving at work before 3 a.m. at an Italian produce market, packing fruits and vegetables for 75 cents an hour. Delivering that produce led her to the Arrow Club, a workingman's club in Portland, where she got intrigued by kitchen work and began working her way up. She started out washing pots, so short that she had to stand on a box to reach the sink. (She was 5'2'', but "with a six-foot attitude," Main said.) At the upscale Waverly Country Club, Lucas caught the attention of classically trained chef Al Kuester, who "recognized her as a chef before she knew she was a chef," Main said. Lucas apprenticed with him for three years, further broadening her training and palate with later moves ranging from commercial fishing in Alaska -- key to her particular appreciation for fish -- to working in a Jewish deli, to turning out hundreds of late-night meals at Red's Restaurant, which used to be packed at 3 a.m. with fishing crowds heading out in the heyday of the charter boats.
Friends said Lucas was complex -- no-nonsense, disciplined and feisty and blunt, yet with a deep tenderness for children and animals, and an intense commitment to community.
She was a taskmaster, but "respected people that worked hard and kept their word," said Main, her friend and cooking partner of 45 years. Main used to escort occasional child diners at the Ark into the kitchen, where they could cook their dinners at the stove with Lucas. Years before the Edible Schoolyard projects, they did a Kids Feeding Kids project with the local school, taking children out to harvest oysters and potatoes and other local ingredients, then bringing them to the Ark kitchen where they would cook them, then serve the meal they had prepared to classmates -- the full circle of hospitality. The pair founded the region's garlic festival, now in its 33rd year. They composted and recycled in an era when few recognized the words, eventually wining a state award for their efforts. They were chef-owned and women-owned when both those features were rare.
At a celebration of Lucas's life in September -- some 250 people gathered for a potluck in her honor, including the musicians who used to play at the Shelburne -- person after person who had worked with her talked about how "I mark my standard of what I do according to what Jimella taught me," Main said.
The pair met while working at the original Jake's Famous Crawfish in Portland. "I would always tell people we were eating partners. There are some people you go out to eat with because they enjoy food on a whole different level, with gusto and with curiosity, with appreciation," Main said. An early adventure was picking wild blackberries -- Lucas told Main she knew the perfect spot to find them, Main recalled, but neglected to mention that there was a wild bull in the berry field. They exited quickly.
With Lucas in the kitchen and Main baking and working the front of the house, they leased the restaurant at the Shelburne Inn from owners David Campiche and Laurie Anderson. The inn owners wanted people in the restaurant who were as excited about food and wine as they were, Anderson said, and Lucas and Main delivered. "They were an amazing pair... they were bringing a whole level of cuisine to the peninsula that just didn't exist here yet.
"We in the Northwest are really proud of where we come from," Anderson said. Lucas, with her championing of local ingredients, helped define just what that meant when it came to food.
Anderson remembered a prominent food writer from The Oregonian coming to report on the restaurant. The writer asked "Jimella, what do you think makes a good chef? And Jimella's response was, 'Somebody who isn't afraid of a mop,'" Anderson said. "At the time, I'm not sure I understood what the heck she was talking about. But over time I have come to understand exactly what she meant by that. To be a chef, you can't be afraid of getting your hands dirty, you can't be afraid of getting in there... It's hard work, and you can't be afraid of hard work."
When Lucas and Main purchased the Ark from a local cranberry farmer -- Lucas had actually worked there once, too -- their fame grew further, helped by the raves from The New York Times and The Washington Post and Food & Wine magazine. There was something of a celebrity cooking circuit in those days, Main recalled, with chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, and for a time she and Lucas joined it, traveling and cooking for national audiences.
An announcer would present Jeremiah Tower from San Francisco, and Alice Waters from Berkeley, and then, to the public's bewilderment, it would be Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main from Nahcotta. "People would be -- Nahcotta?! It was heady and it was wonderful," Main said. Ultimately, they decided it also took too much away from their own restaurant.
"Thank goodness we agreed. We just made a decision that what we were doing was so important, in our own back yard, and who could ever replicate Willapa Bay?"
After selling the Ark, they took on Jimella and Nanci's Market Cafe in Klipsan, which remains open. Lucas, whose love for fresh fish was so legendary she could literally be seen stroking a salmon or hugging a sturgeon, originally wanted to sell fresh fish from a seafood case, but customers kept asking about the chowder, the rolls, the chocolate cranberry tart. Whether serving the fish or selling it, her knowledge wasn't wasted.
"She knew, of course, not only who caught that fish, but where it was caught and when it was caught," longtime friend Cate Gable said. "In many cases, something that might be served on the dinner menu as a special would be maybe just 3 or 4 hours out of the Columbia or out of Willapa Bay, and she knew exactly which fishermen she wanted to work with."
All in all, Gable said, "food was the vehicle for Jimella to nurture people on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level."
Friends in the close-knit area nurtured her in return over her illness this past year, with Gable helping coordinate daily shifts of "friendly faces" to visit, to share stories, to relieve caregivers, to help keep her comfortable and at home. "They'd make soup for her in beautiful jars with messages on them. It showed the high side of living in a small community," Main said.
Nobody could replicate what Lucas could do with some of the most unlikely ingredients, Main said. "Her sauces would just dance in your mouth." But she was able to train well her final sous chef, Katie Witherbee, who will now head the kitchen at the cafe. At a wake for Lucas, one of her former cooks, Charlie Zorich, heard that Lucas had planned to teach Witherbee one final dish, the technique for her famous Scotch salmon, made with a sauce that included Scotch and orange juice and cream. In the end, she was too ill.
Zorich said, "Nanci, remember the night I did Scotch salmon at the Ark, and you tasted it, and said 'That's as close to Jimella's as anybody's going to get?'... "I know all the moves, and I'll show Katie." She will make the Scotch salmon at the cafe, and Zorich himself is about to open his own restaurant in the area, and countless other employees and diners will carry on with their memories from her kitchen and dining room. "Her legacy will continue right here on the peninsula," Main said.
It's also, of course, gone beyond.
In Lucas's handwriting, Main recently found a mission statement from when the pair started the Ark. It reads as valid now as it did then, for big cities as well as coastal villages: Their restaurant should be about "creating a community connection that galvanizes the practices of sustainable ways. It creates good food as its goal in life, that connects the good table to the good earth."
They were partners in food until the end, with Main feeding Lucas the last meal she was able to eat, the night before Thanksgiving.
Other survivors include two brothers, Dean Todaro (and wife Pam) of Chicago, and Dale Williams, of Billings, Montana; a niece, Anna Todaro of Chicago, two nephews, Howard Todaro of Chicago and Lawrence Todaro (and wife Jennifer Trout-Todaro) of Chicago, and a great-nephew, Dean Everet Todaro of Chicago.
Services will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 15 at a community potluck at the old Chinook schoolhouse in Chinook. Donations may be sent to the Chef Jimella Lucas Culinary Scholarship offered through the Rotary Foundation, P.O. Box 752, Ocean Park WA 98640.