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November 25, 2008 at 9:50 AM

A decade of “Dining Out” — Seattle restaurants in retrospective

Each year, for the past 10, I’ve written a cover story for Pacific Northwest magazine’s annual “Dining Out” issue. This year brought something new to the mix: video. Reporting the story was especially exciting for me this time, because my recent job change — from “anonymous” restaurant critic to the visual voice of All You Can Eat — allowed me to step out of my critic’s shoes and directly into the kitchen with the people I wrote about. But back in September, before I began to report and write for 2008 “Dining Out”, I sat down with a stack of Pacific Northwest magazines past, and read them:

A decade of “Dining Out” — been there, ate that, lived to write about it.

What I found was not only a retrospective of my work, but an overview of Seattle’s restaurant scenery during the last decade. It was surprising to see what’s changed since I first started chronicling restaurants for the Dining Out issue, but even more so to note what hasn’t.

Back in 1999, readers were just getting to know me and my taste in food, explored in “Secret Loves of a Restaurant Critic” — which, in this critic’s case, meant a tour of the city’s many ethnic restaurants. Something I’ve expounded upon again and again and again in the years since. Among the 25 or so mentioned in my first Pacific cover story, I was delighted to note that only a handful had closed in the years since. One of them, sadly, was the Russian restaurant Kaleenka. But I wasn’t sad about it for too long, because that darling cafe had morphed into something even better: Le Pichet.

Le Pichet was included in the 2000 issue, in which I offered strategies for “Making the Most of Your Dining Dollars” — Dot-com bubble-bursting ideas that would be more than useful in today’s free-falling economy. I suggested readers “Belly up to the Bargains” by dining at wine bars or taking advantage of early-bird and other discounts, encouraged them to “Eat the World” (see: 1999 cover-story) and published a list of great restaurants (from cheap eats to ‘spensive) that I felt were an excellent value for your devalued buck.

A year later we were still reeling from the Dot-com debacle and 9/11 when I honored longstanding restaurants — and the people affiliated with them — in “Enduring Quality” (2001), tipping my hat to the many great restaurants that had been with us for a decade or more. I wrote, “In this most precarious of businesses, whose failure rate is one-in-five annually, a five-year run is commendable, 10 years is cause for celebration and 20 years in business should be counted in the restaurant equivalent of `dog-years’ — making 50-year-old Canlis an astounding 350.” (Mea culpa: I’m still personally and professionally mortified that I failed to mention Maneki, which has since celebrated its 100th birthday.)

Leson’s List” (2002) was great fun because it allowed me to answer the oft-asked question, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” In it, I listed my “Top Ten” as well as 25 others — from fancy to not-so. It’s a snapshot in time for sure, and I’d make a few tweaks if I had it to do over today (switching out Lynnwood’s Matsu Sushi for Taka Sushi, for one). Funnily enough, out of those 35 restaurants, only one has closed, so I’m clearly not the only diner who considered those restaurants “tops” — then, or now.

The cover of the 2003 issue says “Time to Eat” and in it I took readers out to breakfast, lunch and dinner with plenty of snacking — on ice cream, hot dogs, pizza, bar-nibbles — between times. Looking through that one, I yearned for the rye bread and rugalach at Magnolia’s short-lived Sweet Lorraine’s Bakery; the old Roxy’s Deli counter inside CasCioppo Brothers retail shop and the view (as well as the warm crab sandwich) at the Baithouse Cafe. And I love the fact that the cover shot (of the tapas bar at Harvest Vine) shows Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez working with his (then) right-hand-man, Jerry Corso — who this year can be seen lending a hand making pasta with his pal Justin Neidermeyer in the Spinasse video:

Chef John Sundstrom, of Lark, posed with a cheese plate for the 2004 guide. That year I could barely stay on top of the growing number of neighborhood bistros, so I figured, if I can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and took an in-depth look at our bistro culture, traveling from East (lake, side) to West (Seattle, Bainbridge) and points in between, eating more than my fair share of roast chicken and creme caramel — among other delicious dishes — for a story we called “Good Neighbors.”

Bon Appetit magazine recently named Tom Douglas Culinary Entrepreneur of the Year and I said as much in 2005. Which explains why he’s seen hoisting a martini on the Dining Out cover as the poster-boy for “By Popular Demand” — my tale of the many entrepreneurial locals who once owned a single restaurant and have since taken off with their successful business models.

Mark Fuller, late of Tom’s Dahlia Lounge, is now running his own show in West Seattle, and discusses Tom’s entrepreneurial spirit (among other things) in the video accompaniment to my profile of Mark and his new restaurant Spring Hill:

In the 2005 issue I gave a shout out to many successful entrepreneurs, including the folks at Than Brothers (one of the first Vietnamese pho houses to venture beyond the confines of the International District) and restaurateurs Peter Levy and Jeremy Hardy of Chow Foods restaurants, who started with the gone-but-not-forgotten Beeliner Diner and now own six happening joints. Today I’d have to add several others to that list, including Ethan Stowell (his fourth restaurant, Anchovies & Olives, is set to open any minute) and the the guys from Blue C Sushi (who’ve since opened Boom Noodle and recently debuted their fourth Blue C at Westfield Southcenter Mall).

The rotating wares at Blue C made for a colorful cover-shot in 2006, when I wrote “From Homey to Haute,” featuring “50 Finds for Food Lovers.” I swear: I think I’m still full from that summer. Over the course of six weeks, I ate everything from mulitas in White Center to khoresh bademjan in Redmond. I slurped oysters, downed dim sum, bent my elbow at joints as disparate as Licorous and Hattie’s Hat and dragged my kid out to ice cream joints and sandwich shops until he begged to eat at home “like normal people.”

I think the 2007 Dining Out cover-story was my favorite, though, because it let me weave a bit of Seattle restaurant history into the kind of narrative tale I too infrequently get the opportunity to tell. I told it in “The Godfathers of Gourmet.” (I absolutely hated that cover-header, since I’d hardly call Peter Lewis, who founded Campagne, a “Godfather.” A “young zayda” maybe. And “Gourmet”? Don’t get me started.)

Speaking of getting started, the genesis of that story regarding those six degrees of separation of Seattle restaurants, for me at least, goes back 15 years to 1993 when I annotated a “family tree” of Italian restaurants for Seattle Weekly. It continued as I watched — and wrote about — the many chefs launched by Tom Douglas. During the 30-plus hours of phone interviews I did to report that story, I was impressed by how many of the teller’s tales overlapped, with each one filling in color the others had forgotten — or purposely left out. Those conversations brought a slice of Seattle-restaurant life home for me in a very intimate way.

It’s the intimacy of the restaurant experience that I find fascinating, on every level. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe I’ve been writing about restaurants for almost as long as I spent waiting tables. But these days I can look back on a career that spans more than 30 years — one that can be balanced between the “before” (waitressing) and the “after” (writing). And having spent so much time late this summer in the kitchens of some of our city’s most talented chefs (I even waited tables at The Corson Building the night Genevieve Alvarez filmed this video), I was reminded that no matter what “lens” I might be looking through in order to capture it, I love the ever-changing dynamics of the restaurant business.

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