People say they like big cities for all kinds of incidental reasons, the parks, the plays, the lectures, the museums, and, perhaps most of all, the various activities categorized as nightlife. The lights stay on in cities; that is the point of them.
One measure of the greatness of a city is how easily and how well you can eat at all hours of the day. There are few luxuries that exceed being served food in the middle of the night.
I am not so apt to eat at 3 a.m. very much anymore. It is inconvenient and unnecessary. Twenty years ago, it seemed like my life required it. My workdays as a sportswriter for an afternoon paper often ended at midnight or later. When it came to carousing, I was always much more of an eater than a drinker. The best thing about a night of drinking, for me, was the meal that followed it. Liquor makes philosophers of us all, and having a place to eat and sit and talk far into the night was the most important feature of a city.
Since 1990, Seattle has gained a new art museum, two sports stadiums, more than a few skyscrapers, a train system (albeit a small and highly useless one that seems to have been an exercise in vanity or insecurity rather than practicality), even a Hard Rock Café. But inexplicably, the city seems to have fewer 24-hour restaurants.
Back in the day, you could eat at all hours at a couple different Denny’s restaurants, one on Mercer Street, the other on Market Street. There was Cafe Minnie’s in Belltown and another on Capitol Hill, diner food kicked up a notch. Stella in the University District, sister restaurant to Trattoria Mitchelli, served credible Italian food all night. If you were feeling a touch self-destructive, there was the Dog House, a greasy spoon that tested your grit. You could afford to be choosy back then. As a city, Seattle still felt small and eager for bigger and better things, but as a place to eat all night, it felt like it had already arrived.
Most of those places have since closed. Even Mitchelli, in Pioneer Square, which also served late if not all night, closed last year.
The city still has the relatively swanky 13 Coins (both downtown and near the airport), Beth’s near Green Lake (famous for its giant omelets), the 5 Point and the Hurricane Café, which replaced the Dog House. Chinatown had and still has several places open past midnight, but not 24 hours.
Seattle’s cultural and economic ascension of the past two decades brought in money and talent. It created wealth and diversity of thought and plenty of great new restaurants but not the kind that serve at twilight.
I have always enjoyed eating large meals late at night shortly before going to sleep despite all the medical advice against doing so. I appreciate late nights, or I used to anyway, a time like no other because of its emptiness and solitude. The deep night has few distractions. Time slows down. The feeling everyone has during the day of being rushed goes away, and the resulting calm encourages inspiration, creativity, and candid conversations.
Food also takes on a different meaning in the middle of the night. Standards drop. Good food becomes amazing food. At 3 a.m, even bad food is comforting. So I set out to eat late one night this week, for the purposes of this column, out of a nocturnal curiosity, and because I was hungry as I tend to often get, perhaps because the portions at the fancy restaurant I had eaten at earlier were predictably small.
By now, I have eaten just about everywhere you can eat in the middle of the night in Seattle. College neighborhoods are usually good bets for these kinds of places, but the U-District is unexceptional in this regard. Memo's, a mediocre but inexpensive Mexican restaurant, is open 24 hours. That is about it unless you are willing to settle for a Subway sandwich. The dining room at Memo's is uninviting and harshly lit but the place is open all night and serves Mexican food, a combination no other restaurant in town can claim.
The food at the 13 Coins, next door to my former employer of eight years, The Seattle Times, is rich and filling, a little bit glamorous and indecent, a place you can eat steak and lobster whenever you want it, although I never have. The food is not cheap. An omelet is $14, chicken salad $20.
Eating late at night makes me less inclined to spend a lot on food even though, logically, I should be willing to pay more according to the law of supply and demand. I am desperate enough at that hour to consider a microwave burrito at a gas station; there are very few places that serve all night. Yet when I eat late, I expect to eat cheap.
The 5 Point Café near Belltown is about seven blocks away from the Hurricane Café with its revolving neon sign, not a good omen these days for the future prospects of a business if you consider the Post-Intelligencer’s globe.
“It’s real hit and miss,” said a cook at the Hurricane. “The weekends can be packed late at night. But during the week, it can make you wonder why you’re even open at 5 a.m.”
The Hurricane can count on a certain amount of business from the Cornish College of the Arts whose dormitories share the block with the restaurant. Teenagers with long hair riding Razor scooters hit the Hurricane in the middle of the night.
At the 5 Point, the food is more sophisticated, the patrons older, in other words twenty-somethings with long hair riding Razors. The 5 Point is an idiosyncratic place that serves an impressive variety of hearty diner food but feels as much if not more like a bar than a restaurant, probably because most of the room is the bar.
The Night Kitchen, which opened less than a year ago next to the Bergman Luggage store at Stewart Street and Third Avenue, is the most unique late-night option to come around lately. It is not a 24-hour operation, but is open during the strange hours of 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. (except Monday night). At night the small restaurant competes with all other normal restaurants with a competent dinner menu of slightly upscale comfort food (steam clams, goat-cheese ravioli, chicken pot pie, and elk burger); in the morning it serves breakfast like a lot of other places; in the middle of the night it combines most of its breakfast items with burgers and bar food — the Night Kitchen is the only place to get poutine (that Canadian abomination of French fries, covered in cheese curds and gravy) in the middle of the night. Weeknights are typically slow although the barkeep said the place was slammed one random Tuesday.
“This is the most hit-and-miss place I’ve worked,” he said.
The phrase “hit and miss” came up a lot. The night is difficult to predict.
The majority of places open 24 hours tend to be self-conscious. They know they are special, maybe a little weird, and if the subconscious of an eating establishment can be psycho-analyzed, they are perhaps a bit embarrassed about it. So they flaunt their quirkiness, much like the people who patronize these places.
For the sake of sport, I kept on the hunt and passed up downtown Seattle, seeking a deeper depth of plainness, a real working joint. I drove six miles south, past the stadium that was supposed to bring outdoor baseball and a winning team to Seattle (we got one out of the two), past the giant mermaid sign that has come to represent corporate, world domination. Beyond downtown are rail yards and concrete recycling plants which, late at night, give the traveler a feeling of being excreted out of a city. Here, along Marginal Way, the scale of the surrounding structures change. The giant buildings of Boeing Field signify that Randy's Restaurant is nearby.
Randy's is that weird kind of place that does not know it is weird. The "d" in its giant sign is clipped so that it appears to read "Ranay's." The place is a diner in the most basic sense, burgers, breakfasts, steaks, meatloaf. The most fancy thing on the menu is veal parmigiana. I order chicken fried steak with sausage gravy, eggs, and hash browns, the kind of thing you would order in no other place. It is in its own way disgusting; it is in its own way incredibly delicious and I wolf it down. I also get a side order of pancakes and coffee, which by the way, was just plain old diner coffee and tasted great. The bill is $11.
Randy’s is located next to the Museum of Flight and is its own kind of aviation folk museum, filled with model planes (one that the owner took four years to build), and aviation memorabilia like patches, photographs, flight instruments, a parachute. The vinyl seats are colored orange and fuchsia. The building itself could have been a Denny's in a former life, similar in design and vintage to the landmarked, former Denny's building in Ballard. Whether Randy's qualifies as Googie architecture is debatable but its exposed beams, steeply pitched roof, and vaulted ceiling make it unique and conspicuous.
Linda Bonus works most of the night shifts (7 p.m. to 5 a.m.). She prefers the slower pace.
"There are advantages and disadvantages," she said.
Hit and miss.
Most nights are quiet. The painting crews at Boeing sometimes give the dining room new life at 3 a.m., she said. There is a high correlation between 24-hour dining and blue-collar work. Such diners were originally created to feed workers coming off the swing shift or the graveyard shift. Lawyers and engineers do not work at night; welders do.
The more a culture works, the more likely it eats in the middle of the night. Perhaps that is why most of the Korean restaurants in Manhattan's Koreatown (on West 32nd Street) are open 24 hours a day. Working in post-war Korea in the 1960s through the 1980s meant working all day, all week. That work ethic was bred into an entire generation of Koreans.
During Seattle's renaissance, its professional class grew while its working class shrank; perhaps that explains what happened to 24-hour dining here.
While small towns thrive on like-mindedness, cities thrive on chaos, things like unregulated capital and immigration and lots of people with disparate interests and competing priorities. All the things that make life more difficult in a large city, like traffic and high property values, are often symptoms of what make a city great. Density and scarcity of resources leads to great public amenities.
Where private yards are small and few, there are usually great public parks, for instance. Where there is discord and disagreement there is also creativity. People who hate condos love restaurants as if you could have one without the other. Traffic means lots of people; lots of people means museums and theaters.
The thing you most hate is, probably, also what you most love. So when I am stuck in traffic, when I witness petty crime, when people are rude, I try to remember that is the price to pay for diversity and density. That if those things went away, so would those Korean taco trucks and that art gallery that doubles as a coffee shop. Those are a city's gifts. So is being able to eat all night.
If you go: Randy's Restaurant, 10016 East Marginal Way, 206-763-9333. Open 24-7.