I read with interest the November news that Portland-based McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants had been acquired by Houston-based Landry’s Restaurants and was set to be sold for a $132 million. But what held my interest even more, was the fact that Peter Birk had left his longtime post as executive chef at Ray’s Boathouse & Cafe to take the helm at McCormick & Schmick’s revitalized Harborside restaurant complex on Lake Union.
After 11 years at Ray’s on Shilshole Bay, chef Peter Birk has taken the helm at the revitalized Harborside at 1200 Westlake Avenue N. on Lake Union.
Truth? I had no idea the dual-story McCormick & Schmick’s Harborside, which made its debut in the waterfront AGC Building in 1996, had closed in August for a major makeover. But after I showed up last week for lunch at the new Harborside (now devoid of its McCormick & Schmick’s moniker), I thought, “Now that’s an improvement!”
After poking my nose in the downstairs bistro, a casual bar-and-lounge set-up that offers warm-weather patio seating, I headed up to the handsome dining room, a clean-lined expanse of sunlight and wood with a fresh seafood bar at its far-end. On this level you’ll also find a new wine bar with an extensive Northwest wine list, where the daily happy-hour includes $2 two-ounce tastes.
Seated mid-span in a dining room where I could converse without shouting (yes!), I watched a float-plane land and buttered bread delivered fresh twice daily from Columbia City Bakery. Next, I forked into a canning jar filled with avocado and ling cod-ceviche, then shared a pan-seared Alaska halibut special with risotto (lovely) and an excellent flatbread with house-smoked chicken and locally foraged mushrooms (spicy).
That “local finfish” ceviche (right, foreground), along with Surf n’ Turf Sliders and crisp Monterrey Bay calamari, star on the $5 happy-hour menu downstairs in the Bistro (3-6:30 p.m. and 10 till midnight) and upstairs in the wine bar (3-6:30 p.m.).
So, why leave Ray’s after 11 years, I asked Birk, whose menus upstairs and down source locally and seafood-sustainably — adhering to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list, yet go beyond seafood-centricity to offer beef, pork and chicken as well.
“I used to work for McCormick & Schmick’s in L.A. and opened a store for them in Kansas City [Missouri] before I came to Ray’s,” in 2000, he explained. But when he got a recruitment call from an old friend from his Kansas City stint at McCormick & Schmick’s, a guy who’s “now VP of culinary for the whole company,” it was an offer he chose not to refuse. “He said, `This is what our plan is, this is what we want to do with this restaurant, and you’re the guy we want to do it.'”
Sure, there are similarities between Ray’s and Harborside: each specializes in seafood, has restaurants upstairs and down and private dining options for catered events. “My first concern is that I don’t repeat what I did at Shilshole,” Birk told me, adding, “I’ve been pretty spoiled with the Ray’s view, but I certainly have an appreciation for this one, too.”
“The concept of Northwest-focused, local and sustainable is not a new thing,” the chef admits. “But it is a new focus for this company. To be able to raise the bar at Harborside and eventually extend that to other properties is a huge opportunity, both for me and the company, which has a national identity,” he says, nodding to the 85 McCormick & Schmick’s restaurants nationwide, including four in Greater Seattle.
While Birk is certain his new-found opportunity on Lake Union is a professional step in the right direction, he insists he has utmost respect for the cohort he left behind in Ballard. When he departed from Ray’s in October, “there was no animosity, no funkiness,” and he continues to have close ties there: his wife, Amy, is a senior sales manager employed by Ray’s for a decade.
Why not take his wife, their talents and the opportunity for reinvention and open a restaurant of his own, I wondered?
“I don’t have that dream,” says Birk, who grew up at the Spring River Inn, a 300-seat restaurant housed in an historic building near Joplin, MO. “Once you were tall enough to push the bus-cart, you went to work,” he recalls of the restaurant his parents owned for 25 years. “Seeing the toll it can take on you as an owner, I think I got the desire to own a restaurant out of my system very quickly.”