Death and resurrection in the restaurant business

Even in this dreary economy, one restaurateur's failure is another's opportunity. For evidence, look no further than this list of newly opened eateries.
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Chef Chris Keff of Flying Fish

Even in this dreary economy, one restaurateur's failure is another's opportunity. For evidence, look no further than this list of newly opened eateries.

Real estate agents are telling would-be restaurant sellers that they have to drop asking prices even further to attract interest; it's a buyer's market, they all say.

(A tip for buyers: To see what kind of joint you're buying, check out the dumpsters in back. If they're empty, the restaurant isn't doing any business. If they're full of cardboard boxes or styrofoam, the restaurant is cooking out of cans and freezer bags. The recycle bin will tell you if the customers are buying top-shelf liquor or grand cru wines.)

The scavengers are out there prowling, making shamefully low offers to underwater owners. Most restaurants are bought on contract; the new owner makes a down payment, agrees to pay the balance over two or three years, pays upfront for all the remodeling, and assumes the lease.

The first six months are easy, if not euphoric, as friends and family beat down the door. It's the next couple of years that are toughest. If there's no deep-pocket investor, all that startup overhead has to come out of cashflow. When customers don't come in, or when they spend less (because of ill-conceived promotions like happy hours), cash flow can't cover the payments. Family-owned restaurants keep tightening their belts, stop paying suppliers, start cutting payroll. (And that's a shame; the restaurant industry is the largest private-sector employer in Washington State.)

But a few of the old pros (and many eager neophytes) have confidence that the corner has been turned, the economy's on the upswing, the time to strike is before the iron gets too hot. The point of this exercise isn't to dazzle you with insider knowledge or to drop the names of celeb chefs. Rather, it's a commentary on the state of the restaurant biz. What are these people thinking, you wonder? Don't they know we're still in a recession?

And yet, and yet. The last time we saw such a surge was, what, two years ago? So perhaps there's a cycle after all: The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la, etc. Hope springs eternal.

Opened within the past week or so:

D'Ambrosio Gelateria Artigianale at 5339 Ballard Ave. N.W.

Heartwarming story here of a young man who leaves his native village in Italy and finds work (and success) as a wine rep for a big outfit in Seattle. That would be Marco d'Ambrosio. He doesn't forget his roots, though, and when he saves a few bucks he sends for his dad, Enzo D'Ambrosio, who's an accomplished gelato maker, and puts him in charge of production for the new gelateria. (He told that the neighborhood reminded him of his hometown, Sulmona, in Abruzzo.) The gelato is remarkably flavorful (we especially liked the nocciolo, hazelnut), smooth and creamy. It's not ice cream, remember: Gelato has a lower fat content and is served several degrees warmer than your basic Baskin-Robbins, so it tastes more intense.

The Noble Fir,at 5316 Ballard Ave. N.W.

Rick Kelly worked for a decade at REI; his wife, Ellen, had a career as a lawyer. Now they've launched the concept of a neighborhood tavern that also serves as a community center for outdoorsy types; a tavern featuring trail guides, hiking maps and atlases for that next wilderness adventure. The food will be small plates (meats, cheeses, sandwiches, chocolates) to complement the beer, wine, and hard cider.

Chloé, in Laurelhurst at 3515 N.E. 45th St.

Lauren Gambrel, quintessential French restaurateur (who retains his Bistrot Voilà! in Madison Valley) opened his newest spot where Enotria once gurgled (and Union Bay Cafe before that). He has named the new bistrot (with a "t," an optional spelling in France) for his daughter; it has chestnut-dark walls, deep-red upholstery, and a menu that would be at home in any Parisian neighborhood: onion soup, escargots, mussels, bouillabaisse, steak-frites, a brief but welcome nod toward Italy (crab ravioli), and that staple of French desserts, Café Liègeois.

The decor is by francophile Pam Robinson, whose Red Ticking (vintage interior design) has long been a tastemaking influence in the tony households along Lake Washington. Blaise Bouchand of Bellevue's Maison de France sourced the fabrics (Collection Boussac from Pierre Frey). Robinson also found a battered, paint-spattered contractor's table at a construction site in France and installed it at the hostess stand, where it contrasts perfectly with Chloé's polished wood tabletops. But it's that cherry-red fabric, on the banquettes and in the thick drapes at the entrance, that brings Chloé to life.

Luc, 2800 E. Madison St.

Thierry Rautureau's homage to his parents and to the tradition of neighborhood cafés.There's a simple à la carte menu, along with a rotating list of specials to be shared: a whole roast chicken, a Dungeness crab, braised beef tongue, a leg of lamb, a pork shoulder, portions large enough to serve three or four, for a perfectly reasonable $30.

June, in Madrona where Cremant went flat, 1423 34th Ave.

Owners are Vuong Loc and his wife Tricia, who also run Portage on Queen Anne. They also ran the Pig 'n' Whistle in Greenwood for a while, to mixed reviews; they sold it last year.

Reopened within the past week:

Flying Fish, 300 Westlake Ave. N.

Chef Chris Keff closed her long-running operation in Belltown at the beginning of May and moved swiftly into new quarters in South Lake Union with a simplified menu and a takeout window, "On the Fly," scheduled to open this summer (assuming summer ever comes). Zack Foster heads up the kitchen crew, which turns out familiar items like Sister-in-Law Mussels alongside small plates like pecorino-topped cauliflower fritters.

Sitka & Spruce, 1531 Melrose Ave. E.

Matt Dillon left Eastlake a couple of years ago to start The Corson Building. (Nettletown's in that space now.) But the Sitka & Spruce concept takes root once again, on Capitol Hill this time in the Melrose Project, an ambitious mix of high-quality, butcher-baker-sandwich-maker shops at the bottom of the Pike-Pine corridor.

Marjorie, 1412 E. Union St.

Donna Moodie built a strong following in Belltown with the original Marjorie (named for her mom). When the building was sold, she went into a sort of hibernation, promising to open a new spot on Capitol Hill as soon as she found a space. Now she's made good on her pledge. The new Marjorie is in the Chloe, a newly opened apartment building, and the foodies couldn't be happier. Running the kitchen is Kylen McCarthy, whose most recent kitchen was at Harvest Vine, just over the hill in Madison Valley.

And that doesn't count the newly remodeled Bisato, Scott Carsberg's reinvention of Lampreia as a cicchetti bar. Old news by now. Is it any good? Yup! You still get Carsberg's meticulous attention to every (tiny) dish.

And still to come

Sullivan's, the third attempt to create a lasting steak house relationship with Two Union Square, takes over the space that began as Union Square Grill and morphed fleetingly into American Cantina. It's a chain, as are virtually all steak houses (Metropolitan Grill's the exception).

By late June, PaneVino at the site of the former Cafe Zhivago on Capitol Hill, 416 Broadway E. A venture of former Via Tribunali operations director Francesco Angiuli and a longtime friend from the Bay Area (where he owns several restaurants), Gianni Chiloiro. The menu will be Italian comfort food (panini at lunch, pasta at dinner), and a full bar.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).