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January 12, 2010 at 11:04 PM

Keff takes flight: Flying Fish moving to South Lake Union

In 1995, chef Chris Keff opened Flying Fish in what was then a burgeoning business district in the heart of Belltown. Fifteen years later she’s flying out of there, setting her sights elsewhere and readying “The Fish” — as we’ve come to know and love it — for a big move to another up-and-coming neighborhood: South Lake Union.

Christine Keff, at Seattle’s Flying Fish in Belltown. (photo: Mark Bauschke).

Flying Fish is slated to make the move this spring to the Westlake/Terry Building at Westlake Avenue N. and Thomas Street — also home to neighboring Portage Bay Cafe.

See that corner? Now envision it with a neon sign that says: F-L-Y-I-N-G F-I-S-H.

If all goes well, the move will be completed by May. Until then, you can still slurp oysters at the bar in Belltown and get your fix of Whole Fried Rockfish, Sister-in-Law Mussels and other Flying Fish classics that have blown my mind over the last decade and a half. “We hope not to be down more than a week,” says Keff, who hasn’t yet nailed down the interior design of her new restaurant. “Even though the finishes will be more contemporary in the furnishings, we’ve designed the floorplan so it’s feel like the old floorplan.”

That plan includes approximately the same square footage and seats (110). Rather than a mezzanine level and a small private dining venue in the rear, the new Fish will encompass a single floor with a bar and two private dining areas opening onto the main salon — allowing for busy-day overflow and a more flexible arrangement for large parties. As in Belltown, there will be sidewalk seating, but unlike the very visible cafe tables along crazy-busy First Avenue, the 30-seat patio at South Lake Union is “slightly below the sidewalk and bordered by plants, a much more protected space,” Keff says.

In addition, the Fish will birth an adjacent retail shop, On the Fly (allow me to stop right here and offer a toast to the genius who came up with that name: clink!), a 700-square-foot space with a few seats and outdoor tables in warm weather. “We’ll offer takeout for lunch, dinners to-go, retail wine and some groceries,” Keff says. “We’ll do some seafood — I’m sure we’ll sell our crabcakes — but we’re also yearning to cook meats after all these years.”

Keff salutes the folks at Vulcan development for helping make the move possible. With her lease up in Belltown, she went in search of new real estate, landing at the South Lake Union Discovery Center where, lickety-split, she found herself in negotiations with the Allentown team. Sounds like she was looking for love in all the right places. “I needed some residential area and a decent lunch business, plus parking — a different kind of neighborhood [than bar-happy Belltown].” Amazon is moving their headquarters to South Lake Union and 10,000 people are moving with them. PATH, another large employer, is two blocks from us and Amazon’s a half a block away. It’s a built-in lunch and after-work crowd.”

Vulcan, she says, has a very specific vision for South Lake Union. That vision includes “four or five restaurants of my caliber: very local, very Seattle restaurants. It’s really `hometown’ to them. They have a clear idea of who they want in there, and the wherewithal to make it happen.”

That’s a far cry from what’s been happening in Belltown, Keff insists, where the bar scene has overtaken the dining scene and movement and closures continue unabated. (Recent deaths include Belltown Bistro and Cucina De-Ra, and several high-profile restaurant spaces remain on the market.) In Belltown, Keff says, “You’ve got a lot of small landlords who never get together to have any say in what happens around them. And before you know it, things have gone to hell.

Keff has seen some professional ups and downs during the Belltown years, and she’s proud to say her stalwart staff is capable of running the show even in her absence, as they did when she took a lengthy hiatus from the day-to-day operations, living bicoastally for a time. “My management staff has been with me for eight to 12 years. They really know what they’re doing and I don’t have to question them. They do what I’d do, and a lot of times they do it a lot better.” With renewed vigor, she’s back in-house overseeing her staff, the menu and special events. Best of all, she’s “having fun.”

Looking forward to the move, the 56-year-old James Beard award-winning chef notes, “I’m just thrilled. When you have a restaurant for 15 years, things can sort of flatten out a little. This is a huge spike for us. It’s energizing. It’s the best kind of Geritol!”

Looking back, she says, “Things I never would imagine happened: the notoriety, the celebrity, I didn’t plan on that. When you open a restaurant, you have an idea of what it’s supposed to be, but the minute you open the doors it becomes not just yours anymore, it becomes the public’s.

“I never imagined the Fish would become the community it’s become, and that’s what’s kept us going. I’ve got 45 people working here, with 45 families — plus customers who get emotionally involved. It’s the real value of it: you become the shepherd of the thing. And I thought it was going to be all about the food.”

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