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March 10, 2009 at 11:06 AM

Collins Pub owner goes Public: next stop, Hudson Public House

Seth Howard’s Collins Pub remains a beacon of light in Pioneer Square. And as his stepfather Dany Mitchell prepares to close his own Pioneer Square restaurant — 32-year-old Trattoria Mitchelli — he’s opening a second pub in Maple Leaf. “I’m dumb enough to grow in a recession,” says Howard, who leased the former Anita’s Bistro off the busy intersection of 15th Ave N.E. and Lake City Way in late December:

Dumb? I don’t think so. Those familiar with Anita’s or its short-lived predecessor, Sakura Japanese Bistro, can go have a peek through the storefront windows, as I did yesterday. You’ll find a smart-looking interior design:

Howard has done a Presto-change-o, turning the former Indian restaurant into something warmer and decidedly more pub-like. He reduced the size of the original kitchen, built a large central L-shaped bar, ditched the dropped ceilings and added attractive wood-accents. During demolition, says Howard, they discovered boarded-up storefront windows and a plaster-covered brick wall — now exposed.

If all goes well with the Liquor Control Board they should be open sometime in the next few weeks. Howard says he hopes the neighbors will appreciate what he plans to do here — create a kind of Collins Pub for the North End, “a place that pays attention to the food and has good beer and wine by the glass.

“At the Collins, we’re constrained by the fact that 80 percent of our sales are during the lunch hour,” when they offer “lighter stuff.” Collins Pub chef Erik Wood will be cooking in Maple Leaf, where he’ll have an opportunity to expand his repertoire for an evening crowd. Tentative hours are 4 p.m. till midnight — plus weekend brunch.

Riffing on the same subject Dany Mitchell discussed with me regarding doing business in Pioneer Square, Howard (who’s lived in Northeast Seattle most of his life) sounds as if he’ll be more than happy to have an alternative neighborhood to embrace: his own.

Speaking from the Collins Pub, he notes, “Back in the late 80s, there was a better residential base of artists living in these buildings, and there were theaters in Pioneer Square. That kind of cultural neighborhood-y vibe is gone. The last quote I heard was that there are between 600 and 800 residents in Pioneer Square and 25,000 or more in Belltown. “Anybody who starts a business in Pioneer Square takes on that you’re in a neighborhood that provides the area’s social services,” he says. Echoing his stepdad’s sentiment, he notes the growth in unoccupied storefronts mean “someone is more likely to urinate or sleep in a doorway.”

Feeling bereft as a businessman, and not a little bit angry, he adds, “There’s nothing we can do about the homeless. The economy has inflated the need for social services, so there’s basically more people down here.” Among those calling the streets their own are an unwelcome welcoming-committee. “It seems like once a month or so I get a call from someone canceling a reservation [at Collins Pub] because they’ve been accosted on the street, or been intimidated trying to get down here,” Howard says.

Couple that with the “tweener period, sportswise,” with no Seahawks or Mariners games bringing traffic to Pioneer Square, and “ultra low” office-occupancy, things are getting worse every day, he insists. “Smith Tower, the lovely high rise that is essentially the Collins Pub’s bread and butter is 75% vacant. Same for the retail space in the base of the building. It’s the same story for other office and retail buildings.”

Small wonder, then — given all the restaurant spaces available for lease — he’s found one elsewhere to grow his business.

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