If I lived in Paris or in Venice, I'd still long for happy hour at the old Cascadia in Belltown. But "two miniburgers and an Alpine, please," Seattle's best Happy Hour treat for a grand total of $5.50 six or seven years ago, is no more. Nostalgia just ain't what it used to be.
Where some restaurants might have bewailed the popularity of a time-consuming, how-can-we-possibly-make-money-on-this, we've-created-a-monster menu item, Cascadia's response was to turn lemonade into nectar: keep the basic burger, add options, and upsell like crazy. If you say "mini," a lot of people will think of the Mini Cooper. In fact, Cascadia's owner, Kerry Sear, bought one, had it shipped to Seattle, painted it bright yellow and parked it on First Avenue in front of the restaurant.
And he made the mini — not his award-winning, soul-gratifying, ego-satisfying gourmet cuisine, but his $1 burger — the focus of his catering business. That took confidence and imagination. A yellow "Mini-van" would show up at your parties with a portable grill and a kitchen crew in starched whites dispensing burgers topped with Oregon blue cheese and bites of barbecued lobster drizzled with black truffle butter ...
Oh, how people loved them, those bite-size, one-buck burgers! And they're not exactly gone, as in g-gone (sniff!) for good; they've just (sniff!) grown up and left home.
It's been a year and a half since Sear closed Cascadia, parked the Mini Cooper in his garage on Queen Anne, and returned to the hand-laundered and crisply-folded fold of the upscale Four Seasons hotel chain. He took along the miniburgers, however, and a majority of the staff (notably chef de cuisine James Dimeling). The burgers are on the bar menu at ART, the hotel's restaurant, 3 for $5 between 5 and 7 Sunday through Thursday (days when there are happy hours), $3 apiece from 2 to midnight daily.
The Four Seasons is across the street from the Seattle Art Museum, which has its own restaurant (called Taste, which makes all this rather confusing.) But the view from ART is westward, across Elliott Bay to the Olympics. In the foreground, on Western Avenue, is the very industrial Seattle Steam plant (so far so good, it has an intrinsic beauty, like Gasworks Park), and a very ugly Public Storage warehouse. Why not put a (tasteful) mural on that blank grey wall? Now, that would be public ART.
Meantime, miniburgers have gone mainstream: Jack (3 for $3.89), BK (burger shots, $1.39 apiece), Johnny Rocket (3-pack "sliders" with mayo and a pickle). MickeyD tested a tortilla "Snack Mac Wrap" to mixed reviews, while upscale eateries like Belltown's Spur and Bellevue's John Howie Steak substitute pork belly for ground beef.
Now, truth be told, the miniburgers at ART might be threatened by two more Sears innovations: an all-you-can-eat tapas bar ($14) and a 10-foot cheese bar ($12). But burgers are America's comfort food, and there's nothing as comforting as returning to visit an old friend, as lovely as ever despite the passage of years: homemade, lightly toasted bun, 2.5-ounce hanger steak patty, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and pickles, ramekin of tomato ketchup. The mouthfeel is different if you build it up (condiments on the bottom) or dress it down (pickle on top), but either way, it's three or four bursts of intense, beefy flavor.
At dinner, ART's original "paintbrush" concept has given way to basics, Seattle-style: salmon, halibut, branzino, duck confit, and lamb steaks. At lunch the kitchen struts its stuff with several "TV Tray" (for très vite) options: a soup, a salad, a sandwich and a dessert served all at once, based on what's fresh at the Pike Place market, a block away: a salad of sweet little tomatoes, all peeled (yes!), dressed with basil microgeens and accompanied by burrata mozzarella. The braised beef cheek (red wine, root vegetables, cooled, shredded, served with a classic beef stock reduction) is sublime. There are 22 folks in the kitchen (Cascadia had 7), doing breakfast, lunch, dinner, banquets, and an employee café for the hotel's 220-member staff.
In his 10-plus years at Cascadia, Sear wound up hiring over 600 employees. Now there's an HR department to do that for him. The Four Seasons chain — co-owned by Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, in case you'd forgotten — is not immune from economic pressures, but for Kerry Sear, the best part of not being your own boss anymore: "I don't miss pouring money into the restaurant." And for the rest of us, we've still got the miniburgers.
If you go: ART, in the Four Seasons Hotel, 99 Union Street, 206-749-7070. Lounge serves miniburgers 2 pm to midnight.
One Dish is a series of culinary profiles focusing on a single dish to tell the story of a restaurant. We welcome suggestions from our readers for future installments; please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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