Check, Please! originated a decade ago on WTTW, Chicago's public television station, It was the brainchild of a TV producer named David Manilow, who has since replicated the concept in San Francisco, Phoenix, Kansas City, and Miami. A host and three food-loving, amateur guest reviewers visit and discuss three local restaurants. Lots of laughter, clinking of glasses, and good humor; very little in the way of snarky comments. It's all in the execution,: how the restaurant scenes are filmed and edited (nothing's shot undercover), and how the host interacts with the non-professional guests.
Seattle, with an increasingly self-aware culture of food, was a logical expansion city for the program, Manilow told me last week. KCTS was interested, but — because it's not a cheap show to produce — it required an underwriter. Enter Ron Sevart, who had fallen in love with the program when he lived in Chicago. At the time, Sevart was president of three of the country's top amusement parks, Six Flags properties in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois. Before that, he'd run $600 million worth of indoor water parks. “I was in the fun business,” is how he explains it.
In the summer of 2008, Sevart moved to Seattle as the CEO of the Space Needle, the city's biggest tourist attraction (2 million visitors a year) and home to its highest-grossing restaurant ($14 million in 2010), the revolving 250-seat Sky City. In addition to preparing for the Needle's 50th anniversary next month, and opening a new Chihuly glass museum adjacent to its Seattle Center grounds later this spring, Sevart began nudging the Needle's owners, the Wright family, gently in the direction of the “fun business.”
Sevart had been in touch with Manilow for the past three years, trying to bring Check, Please! to the Pacific Northwest, and to have the Space Needle and Sky City underwrite its costs. Although they'd never sponsored a show on KCTS, the Wright family responded favorably to the opportunity — as the city's most visible icon — to support Seattle's thriving culinary community.
Says Knute Berger, Crosscut's Mossback and the author of an upcoming history of the Space Needle, “They clearly have a history of local involvement and understand that they are both a public icon and a private, family business. I thought it was fascinating that they see a big advantage in promoting smaller restaurants, many of them family owned.”
The on-camera host, Amy Pennington, certainly deserves her position. Born on Long Island, she's a longtime resident of Seattle, author of several books about food and gardening. She learned the restaurant biz as a host at Palace Kitchen, moving on to becoming Tom Douglas's personal assistant, and produced KIRO radio's weekly foodie talk show, "In the Kitchen with Tom and Thierry," Thierry being Chef in the Hat Rautureau of Rovers and Luc. She also found time to start a business (GoGo Green Garden), write a series of cookbooks (Urban Pantry, Apartment Gardening), contribute regular articles to Crosscut and Edible Seattle, and run a website, urbangardenshare.org, that matches backyard space and city gardeners.
Pennington, 37, was one of several dozen applicants to host Check, Please! Northwest, and one of 16 to be called in for an audition. Her outgoing personality and natural ability to deal cheerfully with strangers helped her to nail the job. Says Pennington, “It takes my favorite things — eating good food and entertaining people — and wraps them up in an awesome show.”
The restaurants in the first couple of episodes (sushi, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Mediterranean small plates, Caribbean soul food) and the guest panelists (white, black, Asian, young, old) all reflect diversity. Typical menu: a relatively mainstream restaurant, a trendy spot with a celebrity chef, and an ethnic hole-in-the-wall. One spot that will never be reviewed, according to Sevart: Sky City itself.