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All You Can Eat

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January 20, 2009 at 8:05 PM

There are three sides to every story — Cremant’s is no exception

As my grandfather used to say, “There are three sides to every story: his, hers, and the truth.” No lie. As the Seattle Times food and restaurant columnist I’ve heard many sides of many stories. And whoa and behold! Did I ever hear them last week — after I reported news about the sale of Cremant.

Anyone who writes about this business will tell you: every restaurant owner wants to trumpet the grand opening, important chef changes or menu tweaks at their restaurant. Some are so excited about it, they call a press conference! Few restaurant owners, however, are willing to go on record as saying, “Hey, my business is bombing and I’m hanging on for dear life!” — though more have been up-front about that lately. Fewer still make a phone call or send a news release saying, “Much to our personal and financial distress, we’ve been forced to close our beloved joint! Please tell your readers to come in for a refund on their unused gift certificates!”

Here’s the kicker: It’s a tough business, even in the best of times. Not making it, especially in this economy, is nothing to be ashamed of. The sale or closure of a restaurant is a fact of life. It can be an ugly, depressing, expensive, heart-rending and sometimes painfully swift decision that leaves many people — owners, employees, investors, landlords, friends and devoted patrons — wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth. Or worse.

Trust me. I hear all the gossipy bits about the restaurant business. The managerial in-fighting and subsequent personnel changes. The ex-spouse-who-got-my-restaurant sagas (these are legion). The my-paycheck-bounced-at-the-bank complaints (many times over). The boss-keeps-our-tips tales. The my business-partner-done-me-wrong wrangles. The bank-put-a-lock-on-the-door woes. The bartender-boinking-the-owner’s-wife stories.The employees-are-stealing-from-me-right-and-left issues.

While waiting tables in this city and elsewhere across the nation for half my working-life (33 years and counting), I’ve seen and heard plenty fun-and-ugly. Did I ever tell you the one about the furious sous-chef, now owner of an Eastside restaurant and catering business, who marched out of one of Seattle’s best restaurant kitchen’s during service on Valentine’s Day? In that turbulent tale, the sous grabbed his knives (and fortunately kept them to himself) then headed out the door. But not before telling his soon-to-be-former boss where he might go as he bid a not-so-fond farewell.

I’ve got a million of ’em. And you would, too if you’ve covered the local restaurant scene since 1994 — when I got paid $5-an-hour at Seattle Weekly to write a column called “As the Tables Turn” (during my tenure as a waitress, no less). Believe me, I could write a book. In fact, I’ve always said I could turn my restaurant stories into a bestselling novel without having to make up a single word. Truth or rumor: the stories are endless, and keeping up with the rumor mill is a full-time job, especially these days.

Speaking of which, last week I heard the unsubstantiated and quite shocking rumor that the Metropolitan Grill was for sale. Only to find out the next day that it wasn’t the Met but its sister restaurant, the Union Square Grill that had been sold. (That, by the way, came as no great surprise.) And of course I’ve heard, a million times during the past decade, that Brasa was going under. And every time I’d talk to Tamara Murphy and mention it, she’d laugh and say, “Yeah. I hear that every day.”

Sometimes I learn the glorious details about an exciting new restaurant — like the ones Jerry Traunfeld divulged about Poppy long before the ink was dry on the lease: after which he gave me the go-ahead to write about them. Then there are those tantalizing tidbits supplied by trusted sources: things I’d love to write about but choose to sit on, like the imminent closure of a restaurant. Juicy? Yes, but if the staff doesn’t know about it yet, I figure it’s not my job to tell them. Sure, I’m a journalist who loves to get a scoop. But I’m also a nice gal (if I should say so myself) who takes no joy whatsoever in the sad news about job loss that’s breaking hearts on both sides of my business every day.

So, back to the Cremant post, which garnered much comment and conjecture after the print version ran on Wednesday. The one that had chefs, restaurateurs, industry insiders and bystanders (innocent and otherwise) weighing in on my reportage as well as the he said/she said of the takeover — then duking it out over whether or not Mike McConnell is Cremant’s “patron saint” or the devil’s spawn.

I stand by what I wrote. And until my byline reads “Gossip Girl,” I suggest the intimate details about the financial affairs between the parties involved best be gossipped about over drinks at a nice bar.

Meantime, as ever, you’re invited to chime in via my comments box with your own two-cents regarding anything I write about. I love it when you do, but can we keep it civil? Reputations are at stake. And I’ll continue to stake mine on doing my best to chronicle what’s happening on the local food and restaurant scene. If you know something I don’t, e-mail me. Tell me the other side. Cite your sources. Offer names and numbers for confirmation — most importantly, your own.

The sky is falling in the restaurant business, and I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that the fall soon comes to an end without too many more people being burned in the process.

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