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January 22, 2009 at 12:42 PM

History in a railcar: My lunch at the old Andy’s Diner

Back before Barack Obama took the oath of office, I made a few suggestions about where he might have a meal next time he’s in Seattle. But after having lunch with Andy Yurkanin — longtime owner of that iconic restaurant, Andy’s Diner — at the newly christened restaurant and lounge the Orient Express, I must insist the 44th president of these United States head straight to SODO. Why?

Because he can eat surprisingly good Chinese food and lift a martini (lord knows, he deserves one). But he’ll also get a taste of Seattle history and have a chance to bask in the glory of a meal taken in his Depression-era predecessor’s personal railcar. That Smithsonian worthy museum-piece, bought for $18,000 about 25 years ago, was the very car that Franklin D. Roosevelt used to make his way across the country, spreading hope and encouragement during a time of war and despair:

“Smithsonian worthy?” you ask? “That absurdly colored relic?” (Note: that’s Orient Express, spelled backwards). Damn straight, my friends — as Obama’s former rival might have said. But I’m getting ahead of my story. Let’s begin at the beginning:

Last March, I broke the news that Andy’s Diner (sold by Yurkanin years earlier and closed since January 2008) was slated for renewed life, thanks to SODO developer Henry Liebman. Then, in October, I wrote about its “Grand Opening” as the Orient Express:

I interviewed Andy at the time, and he promised to take me to lunch at the new restaurant. Last week he made good on that promise. When I arrived, Andy, 76, was dressed in a Husky sweatshirt and sitting in the “bar car” — which once carried workers from Mount Vernon to build the dam on the Skagit River. Before I ordered a cup of coffee he was telling me tales about the good old days when he hung out with the city’s hottest restaurateurs — guys like Victor Rosellini and El Gaucho’s Jimmy Ward, among others.

Andy ran the diner from 1955 till the early ’90s. “I loved to come to work,” he said, and as friends and associates filed by with warm hellos, it soon became clear to me why he enjoyed every second of it. “I worked hard, but I played hard.” Back in its heyday, said Andy, he’d be there to glad-hand every customer who walked through the door (“I knew half their names, too!”).

Those were heady times: when the diner regularly sold 750 prime steaks — its signature dish — in a day. “We’d seat 380 people and turn it two-and-a-half times. We had a standing line by noon, and once we got them in, we’d turn the tables in a half-hour.” Many of his customers worked in industrial jobs, and proximity to Boeing brought a steady stream of business. Cops loved the place, too. “Thirty years ago, a policeman would come in here you’d pour him a drink. Now you can’t buy him a cup of coffee!” Ah, how times have changed.

When I suggested he must have seen his share of economic ups and downs over the years, times that were not unlike today’s, Andy laughed. “Remember in the ’70s when they said, `Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights’? — I had pencils made that said, `We’re not turning out the lights!’ We were busy before then, and after.”

Having never before eaten at Andy’s (a fact of which I am not proud), I have to tell you: I was smitten with the place. It’s an absolute gem now, as then, and many old-timers have reclaimed it as their own. People like Judy and her friend, seen here rubbing elbows at the bar with Byron the bartender (in black), who does a great job taking care of everybody. And everybody, it seems, knows one another by name:

Andy promised to take me on a tour, but first we had to eat. But before we did, his pal John showed up, sat down beside the storied restaurateur (“who’s not only my friend, but my landlord!” John later told me) and introduced himself: John ate his first prime steak at Andy’s back when he was a young Philly-expat working at Walt’s Radiator. Today he owns A.C. Automotive, next door to Andy’s — oops! — I mean the Orient Express, where he’s now a regular:

“Don’t order off the lunch menu,” he said — not that there’s anything wrong with that. “Hey Byron,” shouted John, “grab us some dinner menus.” We ordered some pretty impressive stuff, sharing it around. John insisted we try the the House Crispy Scallops, and though he suggested we have the Seven Flavor Beef, Andy opted for the Seafood Triple Delight, instead:

Because there are also some Thai dishes on the menu — and because John and Andy had never tried it — I suggested the Thai beef salad:

Shortly thereafter, their old friend Ken walked in and sat down next to us. “Don’t they have any haole-food on this menu?” he asked after noticing that the American-food items previously offered had been ’86’d.

“Kenny” (as his buddies call him) opted for a big bowl of soup, the idea of which didn’t exactly thrill him as you can see. But not before confiding, “Don’t order the Henry Liebman Noodle Soup” — a dish named for the developer responsible for resurrecting the old Andy’s. “Why not?” I asked. “Because Henry hates it,” Kenny said. The soup, which features noodles and pickled cabbage, sounded pretty good to me, so I ordered a bowl. It looked good, too. And before I had a chance to dig in, Henry himself strode through the bar car, on his way to have lunch with a business partner. I made him pose with “his” soup, which he “hates” because, he explained, “it has too many noodles, it’s not spicy enough and it needs more pickled cabbage.”

A while later, I went to find Henry to tell him he’s right about the soup, though I wasn’t offended by the delicious noodles. I never found him, but I did find these guys — Michael Folks (owner of nearby Michael Folks Showroom) and Wendell Hall (a retired C.P.A.), seen here enjoying a martini-lunch:

This was Michael’s fourth visit to the Orient Express, and Wendell’s first. Longtime customers of Andy’s, they said they’re truly impressed with the place in its present incarnation. Despite Michael’s initial reservations (he was turned off by what he calls “the color scheme” and who can blame him?). But once inside, “the waitress was great, the food was much, much better than I expected,” and he’s again become a regular. He’s especially fond of the new tall private booths and describes the restaurant and its warren of railcars rightfully when he says, “It has a badger-hole quality. You can come in and snuggle down.” Adds Wendell, “This Thai rama” — a lunch special served with pad Thai and steamed rice for $7.50 — “is as good as any I’ve ever had.”

After lunch, Andy proudly showed me around. Here’s the Caboose car:

And here’s a look at one of the cars whose comfy 13 Coins-ish booths so impressed Michael Folks:

Andy’s proudest, though, of the Presidential car — the multi-room beaut I’m convinced belongs in the Smithsonian:

He pointed out the original fixtures, like this lamp, the button where F.D.R. could summon his staff, and the glamorous dining car Andy’s seen posing in here:

You’ve got to see it to believe it, though I think you might have to ask someone for a private tour because I don’t think the new owners have been traipsing the public through F.D.R.’s old hangout:

I can’t recall the last time I had such an enjoyable lunch. Sure, there are younger, hipper restaurateurs whose company I enjoy. But few of them can provide the kind of history — of our city and a national-era past — as Andy Yurkanin:

Andy offered to take me for a ride in his 1931 Model A coupe, but I decided I had had enough excitement for one afternoon. I’ll save that for next time:

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