Saying farewell to places we loved
By Jean Godden
This isn't a good time to own a restaurant or to work at one. Nor is it a good time to be a restaurant critic, forced to report dozens of closures each week. The plague year has taken a toll and closed far too many places we had learned to love.
Most recently, I found myself grieving over news that Tom Douglas has permanently closed the Dahlia Lounge, one of his flagship restaurants, the one that featured his memorable coconut cream pie. A food lover’s only comfort was learning that Douglas plans to move his Serious Pie (gourmet pizza) eatery into the Fourth Avenue location and keep open Dahlia Bakery where they sell slices of cream pie.
The Dahlia is but one of several hundred restaurants (an estimated 650) that have closed forever in Seattle due to the ravages of covid-19. Even before the first case of flu, there was tough sledding for Seattle's many eating establishments (an estimated 3000.) For those remaining, the economic situation (rent, overhead, debt, utilities) is almost impossible to navigate.
The long list of casualties -- restaurants, eateries, cafes and bakeries -- is enough to make one cry. And that is what I almost did upon reading about the closing forever of Remo Borracchini's Bakery, a landmark fixture in Seattle. Opened in 1922 in the basement of the Borracchini home and then moved to a Spanish villa building on Rainier Ave. South, it was the purveyor of cakes -- delicious cakes, wedding cakes, baptismal cakes and even retirement cakes. It sold delicious sandwiches and deli favorites, irresistible cookies and imported specialties.
Borracchini cakes sometimes even made a statement. They became synonymous with departure after Pam Leven, a P-I business staffer, signaled she was quitting by bringing a sheet cake that read "goodbye" to the P-I city room. After that, whenever reporters complained they were mistreated (often), they were asked, "Are you going to do a cake?"
Bidding farewell to Borracchini's hurts, but I'm also grieving the loss of so many other establishments., one-of-a-kind places like Tilth, the trailblazing organic restaurant in Wallingford. Or Bavarian Meats, the German delicatessen at the Pike Place Market. Also gone is Il Corvo, the downtown pasta restaurant where we often ate when I was at City Hall. Or the Brooklyn, the steak and oyster house across from the Seattle Symphony, as well as Fado Irish Pub on First Avenue, sadly shuttered weeks before celebrating another St. Patrick's Day.
With so many restaurants closing, where will couples go to become engaged? Or when they decide, after all, that it's time to split up? Where will we go to celebrate significant birthdays and career changes?
As a one-time restaurant critic at the Seattle P-I, I know only too well the hazards that restaurateurs face in even good times. The average life of a new restaurant is a single year. I repeat: One year. Running a restaurant is not just about creative cooking; it requires real talent and hard work. One must manage staff, monitor expenses and gauge the ever-changing tastes of customers. One week customers want small plates on the menu; the next they're ordering platter-sized "sharables."
If there is anything to be hopeful about in the midst of so many restaurant closures it is that a few of the city's old favorites have weathered the pandemic to this point, places like West Seattle's Phoenicia, Salty's on Alki Beach and Spud Fish & Chips. I remember awarding well-deserved four stars to Phoenicia back in the days when it relocated briefly to the Seattle Center. Salty's also won top honors and Spud is as Seattle as they come. Ballard too has its share of survivors, places like Ray's Boathouse, the Walrus and the Carpenter, Copine and Delancey.
Word is that some restaurateurs who have shutdown have plans to some day open again. Also on the horizon are the brave souls who have opened new places during the pandemic. As a good friend told me: As patrons we have a duty to support those courageous enough to stick around as well the newbies offering us a seat at the table.