Start the countdown to say goodbye to another longtime Seattle restaurant, and the “famous” aglio e olio and memories that went with it.
Brad Inserra, owner of the 24-year-old Brad’s Swingside Cafe in Fremont, said he is in the final stages of selling the building. He plans to close his cozy Italian hangout in February, though he’ll have an option to open a restaurant in the new project that will eventually replace the modest cafe.
He’s easing up on his reservations policy, taking them for parties of four or more until the closing day, and said “I’ll be doing all kinds of different specials on different nights, and having people come in to do live performances, just like in the good old days when I first opened the place.”
The Swingside has been a fixture in the neighborhood, originally as “a counter-cultural gathering place and coffee shop,” then briefly a fine dining restaurant before Inserra took it over for his own self-taught blend of Italian “with Sicilian-Greco-North African overtones.”
A Times critic called the place “one of the best of its genre” in 1992, and more recently noted that diners are uncommonly attached to it “because of its quirky style and homegrown Italian fare.”
As Nancy Leson once put it, “Maybe I frequent the Swingside because Brad is a guy who doesn’t know from artifice and, knowing how much I love his gumbo, is not above calling me when he’s hooked up with some fresh-off-the-boat Dungeness crab to add to his rustic, Louisiana-style seafood stew. Maybe it’s because his is one of the few restaurants I don’t have to beg my spouse to join me at, particularly when the aforementioned gumbo is involved. Or maybe I’m a fan because whatever is cooking here at “Seattle’s Best Little Italian Restaurant,” it’s cooked with heart, and when you’re cooking with heart, few other ingredients are necessary.”
Inserra is fondly known for the aglio e olio, which he told Eater he dubbed as famous when he wrote the original menu, for his connections with ace musicians, and for his original, ever-shifting menu specials.
“In Seattle, the way the weather changes day to day, you never know exactly what people are going to want,” he said.
The chef-owner, now 58, knows diners will miss the funky Swingside, in spite of — or partly because of — all the changes around it.
“I’m an anomaly at this point,” he said, living upstairs and running “an old-school neighborhood place” downstairs.
“You think about the difference in the last 24 years, Ballard and Fremont, it’s a different world entirely,” he said.
Ideally, he would have kept “slugging it out” at least until his 11-year-old daughter was grown. But he said he faced too many financial pressures to keep resisting offers to buy the property, between aftereffects of the recession, a near-fatal case of H1N1 a few years ago that left him hospitalized for a month, and a divorce. Even the sale won’t create a financial windfall, he said; after his debts are settled he doesn’t expect to clear enough to buy a new place to live in modern-day Fremont.
Inserra came to the business after working in various restaurant-related jobs. “I was in management for Red Hook and doing marketing for those guys with (Tom Douglas Restaurants CEO) Pamela Hinckley and all that. She knew somebody and I knew somebody and before I knew it they made me this offer.”
The restaurant will be closed July 3-6, and after that Inserra plans to make a lot of food and music through February. What will he do after that? He’s considering a job offer from a prestigious cooking school in Sicily, where he inherited part of a triplex with some cousins. Or, after the grueling years of daily line cooking along with business management, he wouldn’t mind cooking at someone else’s restaurant for a while.
Eventually, he thinks now, he’d like to wind up right back where he started, in the new gProjects building that he expects will replace the Swingside with a handful of apartments or condos and one retail area.
“There’s a chance, a couple years down the road if I choose to, I can come back with another new business, with a spiffy new space.”