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March 9, 2009 at 1:10 PM

Trattoria Mitchelli to close: Dany Mitchell says “Ciao” to Pioneer Square

“Papa” Dany Mitchelli (ne Mitchell), the name and the face behind 32-year-old Mitchelli’s (ne Trattoria Mitchelli, has had enough. Business in Pioneer Square, long on the skids, is down in the dumps. His restaurant, long on the market, isn’t selling. So he’s prepared to give up and get out.

Photo by Barry Wong [Seattle Times, 2001]

“Basically, we’re looking at closing this month,” he said. “I’ve danced with a buyer for five months. Then in October the `Great American Dream’ fell through.” To buy a restaurant, “You either have to have cash, and/or the seller needs to carry an enormous contract.”

Sales elsewhere notwithstanding, cash, once king, has dried-up, along with the credit to take over a turn-key operation like his. And Mitchell’s retirement dream — to sell the Trat and move to the south of France — doesn’t have a provision for contractual obligations.

“There’s not enough business coming through the doors to make it economically viable. My [restaurant] broker has 35 properties for sale. “People are scared,” he said, citing the word on the street, his fellow restaurateurs and, perhaps most tellingly, his purveyors.

“Groceries are up. Restaurants are down. The downtown core, the waterfront, they’re the worst they’ve ever been. I keep hoping there’s a buyer who’s going to step up and say, `OK, here you go,'” he said, dreaming out loud. But a Pioneer Square restaurant? In this economy? Lotsa luck. “The bottom line for Pioneer Square is there’s been an erosion over time,” claims the man who’s seen it all over the past three decades.

“The volume decline at the Trat started in March of 2000,” he explains. “That’s when Pioneer Square businesses were saddled with the new `improved’ rents of the dot.com phenomenon.” Though his rent remains fair, Mitchell said, others are not so fortunate. “We’re still `enjoying’ those rents. I think all the landlords, given the current economic condition, need to look at whether they want to be looking at empty storefronts or consider abating rent — and catch up on it when the economy turns.”

But even before the dot.com bust, the “erosion” was underway. Mitchell’s watched as five live-theater stages went dark, taking with them “the synergy between theater and restaurants. All we were left with were juke joints” — whose numbers are now dwindling. The joint covers in effect turned the Historic District into a bar-hopper’s paradise, he said. Next came the quick-eats food carts, and Pioneer Square partiers no longer stopped into restaurants like his for a bite to eat as they made their way from one entertainment venue to the next.

He watched the razing of the Kingdome, the loss of business that entailed, and the eventual movement of traffic farther south of Pioneer Square. Other development caused a drain as well. “The Historic District has always been supported by the city, the county, and when city hall and the municipal court moved up one block, the steep incline between Fourth and Fifth avenues left them marooned [from the heart of Pioneer Square]. It’s a labor to walk the hill,” he said.

Don’t get Mitchell started about aggressive panhandling, the lack of security and “the money blown and squandered” for surveillance by Pioneer Square community associations. “None addressing what happens in Pioneer Square after 8 p.m.” when, he said, drunks take to the streets and down-and-out residents take up residency (or worse) in storefront doorways. “There’s a fear factor [about] coming into the Square.”

His own fears, of not selling his longtime business, have come true. And by mid-month he expects to shutter the Trat, tie-up lose strings and join his wife in France’s Rhone Valley — where he hopes to use his facility with the French language to secure a “retirement” job as an hourly employee.

As he looks back on years as a Seattle restaurateur, it’s clearly a win-some lose-some proposition. “Some people have called the Trat an icon,” he said. “I don’t know if it qualifies. Seattlites are very loyal customers. I see the same faces, but after 32 years are you really an icon?”

Feel free to weigh in with an answer, Eaters, in my comments box, below. And let me respond to Mitchell’s query by saying for me, at least, Trattoria Mitchelli had its iconic moment:

Twenty summers ago I arrived in Seattle on a warm July day, having moved after a 7-year-stint in snowy Anchorage, Alaska into a darling duplex on Dexter Avenue. I cried at the sight of it: two bedrooms, hardwood floors, a deck , a small backyard (with an Italian plum tree!) and an unobstructed view of Lake Union and Gasworks Park. For those luxuries I paid $420 a month.

My (then) boyfriend, who’d made the move before me, was working as an assistant manager at Gooey’s in the Sheraton (anybody?), and when he finished work, just after 1:30 a.m., I met him downtown. Minutes later we were strolling hand in hand through Pioneer Square, then seated at the counter at Trattoria Mitchelli. If memory serves me as well as the barman did, we ate a simple salad and ravioli with red sauce, and drank cheap chianti out of tumblers.

Romantic? You bet. I was 29 years old. I had a beautiful new home with a view of a stunningly beautiful city. I had friends who’d made the move before me. And I was sitting in a restaurant called Trattoria Mitchelli, convinced that after moving umpteen times to umpteen cities, I’d finally found the place where I would put down roots.

It’s strange to recognize how right I was. And stranger still to chronicle the impending closure of that restaurant. In light of that fond memory alone, I’m obliged to say “Au revoir Papa Mitchelli! May you live long and prosper in France — or where ever your restaurant’s closure leads you. And thanks for the memories.

Anybody care to share theirs?

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