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October 1, 2009 at 5:39 PM

Tamara Murphy to open Terra Plata: new Pike/Pine restaurant

Tamara Murphy’s at it again. It’s been a decade since she opened Belltown’s Brasa and nearly a year since the celebrated chef breathed new life into Pioneer Square’s Elliott Bay Cafe. Now she’s back for another helping of the Seattle restaurant pie — with Terra Plata.

Tamara, hanging out at Brasa with sculptor Carla Grahn’s fine artwork (Seattle Times/Mike Siegel 2007).

Her restaurant-to-be stands in a prime Capitol Hill location: 2,200-square feet of space at the Melrose Project, a merger of two historic buildings presently undergoing redevelopment between Pike and Pine streets.

Murphy gets the point (seen in this architectural rendering, courtesy Melrose Project LLC).

Terra Plata will stand at the apex of the triangular building, and Murphy’s jazzed to count as her new Melrose Project-neighbor another culinary icon, Matt Dillon — whose Sitka & Spruce will relocate from its unlikely little Eastlake location.

Sitka & Spruce’s Dillon, tied up with a trio of chicks at his other joint, The Corson Building.

“I’m so excited to be in the same building with Matt on one end and me on the other,” says Murphy. In addition to the two major restaurant tenants and several retailers, “there will be an open market with five or six vendors going in — a butcher, a wine shop, a greengrocer, a flower shop.” She hopes to open the restaurant in February or March. Building renovations are underway and the landlord’s working on it at breakneck speed, she says. “As long as we get in the building sometime in November” — after the renovation’s complete — “the build-out shouldn’t take more than 60-90 days.”

What’s old is new again (courtesy of Melrose Project LLC).

Terra Plata (loose translation, earth to plate) will be a casual place open daily for lunch and dinner. Weekend brunch is likely to be part of the mix. It’s set to seat 70 to 80, with an additional 30 spots up on the roof in warm weather. Yesterday, Murphy hit the roof for a consult with Seattle Urban Farm Co.: she’s planning an herb and vegetable garden a la Bastille, and a menu that reflects her conviction that knowing where your food comes from is an imperative. “This is Tamara Murphy’s next platform to promote sustainablity and farmers, and it’s a quaint space where that formula works today,” she says. The menu will be all about keeping things local while dishing up foods with strong Mediterranean and Latin influences.

Murphy and her business partner Linda Morton have been looking for the right spot to open a new restaurant for a year. This location — one that bridges the gap between Capitol Hill and downtown — was an enormous draw, she says. “You can almost spit at the Convention Center, it’s a 15-minute walk from Pike Place Market and a 10-minute walk from 12th Avenue.”

What’s more, her landlords Liz Dunn and Scott Shapiro have an outstanding track record redeveloping old buildings whose restaurants straddle the line between neighborhood hangouts and destination restaurants. Dunn redeveloped the Piston & Ring Building — home to La Spiga, Boom Noodle and Plum. Shapiro’s the guy behind the 12th Avenue home of Cafe Presse and next-door-neighboring Stumptown Coffee.

Murphy’s excitement at the prospect of being part of this new venture is palpable, though she admits it’s a far different world — economically speaking — than the one she faced when Brasa made its 1999 debut.

“I don’t have any visions of grandeur here, that we’re going to kick ass and make tons of money. I opened Brasa in a very strong economy — one that was at its peak. Everything was booming, but then with the bust it was very painful.” She and her Brasa business partner Bryan Hill were stunned to find that after a year in which 170 seats weren’t enough to handle the number of guests clamoring for a table, business went from boom to gloom. “Talk about a learning curve,” she says.

“People like me who are opening restaurants now, we’re opening in a very real scenario. We know business is not good. We don’t have any high expectations. You’re coming in with a very realistic point of view. But, she says, “if you can make it work in an economy like this — and that’s an `if’ — the chances of becoming financially successful are greater.”

Taking a look at who’s opening what, who’s succeeding and how things have changed since she came to town, the seasoned restaurateur says, “I don’t think you can open up too many places like Canlis today. They have a reputation, great service, great food, and it’s really hard to do that now. You’ve got to have some serious longevity behind you to support that. There are a few high-end restaurants that still get $35-$40 for a plate of food, but they’re few and far between.”

With the rise in utilities, food costs, liquor costs, labor costs, “you have to keep your portions under control because you need to keep your prices under control.” It’s a cash-flow business, she says: especially these days. “You’re looking for volume. There’s more emphasis on alcohol. In a down economy people drink more, and everybody’s looking for a value. Why do you think `small plates’ happened?”

So, where does this movement toward value, drinks and a casual menu leave her flagship, Brasa — whose bar has long hosted one of Seattle’s best happy hours? “There’s nothing to report there,” she said. “This summer has been tough, as it’s been for everyone else — even places that are small and in high-traffic areas.”

She laughs when she explains,she and her many friends-in-the-biz have a new phrase they’ve been bandying about: “Holding our own is the new `up.'” Looking forward to holding her own in Belltown, keeping things moving along in Pioneer Square and putting her plata on new terra on Capitol Hill, she opines, “You do restaurants because you love them. Nobody can make money off of one.”

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