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October 20, 2008 at 9:01 AM

Seattle’s Historic Restaurants: a visual history

In 2003 I spent time at the Seattle Public Library, researching a column about its little-known Northwest Menu Collection. I could have spent days there lost in the past, thanks to the menus that inspired me to write the following:

Every menu tells a story, and the scores of them comprising the Northwest Menu Collection — a small but significant treasure trove of Seattle restaurant history — tell ours. Three flat gray boxes, stored in the depths of the Seattle Public Library’s main branch and retrieved for perusal, afford hours spent lost in the luxury of time travel.

I had a blast doing that research, and with menus in hand was able to easily envision those once-popular restaurants — places that may have vanished physically, yet live on in our collective memories. And then, last week, I got my hands on a book that brought that same sense of history to my living room:

Seattle’s Historic Restaurants” offers more than 200 vintage images and is available in local bookstores (and via the publisher’s website) beginning today. This pictorial history includes restaurants like the Merchant’s Cafe in Pioneer Square — serving Seattle almost continuously since 1890. And others that opened after the horse-and-buggy era was long past (check out those fancy gas-guzzlers in front of Canlis!):

Among the photos, postcards and menus in “Seattle’s Historic Restaurants” are familiar names like Ivar’s and El Gaucho — reincarnated and/or replicated between then and now:

The book features photos of late restaurateurs I’ve heard a million stories about but, unfortunately, never met. Like Victor Rosellini, seen here at Rosellini’s Four-10:

And Peter Canlis, whose grandsons Mark and Brian are doing an impressive job of carrying on the family tradition today:

I first heard about “Seattle’s Historic Restaurants” when I was contacted by the author — whose book was still in the research stages. Robin Shannon is a Duvall resident and former waitress who spent seven months gathering the visuals. She pored over photos from the Seattle municipal archives, spent time in local libraries and garnered considerable assistance from the folks at the Museum of History and Industry. Restaurants like Canlis and the Salish Lodge (where she once worked) were generous with their time and archives, she told me, and she amassed a vintage menu collection of her own — courtesy of eBay and a credit card. This is Shannon’s second book, which has a companion-set of vintage postcards. Her first, “Cemeteries of Seattle,” is also part of Arcadia Publishing’s popular series, “Images of America.”

You may be familiar with the series, but perhaps you were unaware of its national reach. Locally, the books chronicle everything from the histories of Fort Lewis, Boeing and Foss Maritime to our communities of Swedish, Norweigian and Irish immigrants. There are books about Beacon Hill, Belltown and Ballard, Camano Island, Anderson Island and Orcas Island — and everywhere in between.

Funnily enough, I’d become intimately familiar with the series before I was contacted by Shannon — at which point I offered to lend her a handful of vintage menus, since replicated in the book. When my dad died two years ago, I inherited his copy of “The Jewish Community of South Philadelphia” — among the earliest titles in the “Images of America” series. In it, was a photograph of Dr. Glick, the Leson family physician who lived and practiced up the street from my grandparents’ home in South Philly. Dr. Glick had known my dad since he was a boy. There was also a vintage photo of the original Lipkin’s Bakery, owned by the family of my sister’s bosom buddy, Mitch Lipkin — who today makes the best knishes in Northeast Philadelphia, where I grew up. And then there was this photo, whose caption reads “Tulchiner Ladies Auxiliary”:

My father circled the face in that photo, and his penciled-in notation reads, “Rena’s maternal grandmother.” Rena is my mother. The woman is my great-grandmother, Pauline. I got an extra-special kick out of finding that little slice-of-life after dad’s death — and here’s why: My parents divorced when I was five and were not, shall we say, on friendly terms. In fact, while I’m absolutely convinced they were separated-at-birth and should have spent their dotage together, they hadn’t laid eyes on each other since I was 13.

My father resided in Northern California for nearly 40 years, and I get great joy imagining him sitting in his big blue chair with that book on his lap, reliving his South Philly childhood — to say nothing of the shotgun wedding that produced yours truly!

By the way, that 1947 photo of my bubbie Pauline? It’s the same vintage as the one on the cover of “Seattle’s Historic Restaurants” — which was taken in 1948 at the Georgian Room in the Olympic Hotel. Recognize anybody?

Comments | More in Restaurants | Topics: Reading about eating


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