In Portland, when the under-developed Willamette River waterfront, on the southwest edge of downtown, was starting to undergo gentrification, one of the first occupants of RiverPlace was local stalwart McCormick & Schmick's. A well-funded corporate restaurant, the thinking was, could tough it out until the neighborhood filled in. The assumption was right on the money; they hung on for a good ten years, and now they're doing just fine. RiverPlace and the adjacent South Waterfront are at last dotted with housing clusters and related retail (dry-cleaners), new medical buildings and parking garages. But it's the only game in town: except for a couple of wine bars and coffee shops, there's still not much in the way of new local restaurants. And that's despite easy access from downtown on Portland's spiffy streetcar.
Portland built another neighborhood as well, the Pearl. This was classic urban infill: brick warehouses transformed into offices, print shops into bakeries and bars, sleek new condos, industrial-chic restaurants. No corporate, 800-lb gorilla as anchor, yet the entire district has become a destination, day and night.
In Seattle, Vulcan's South Lake Union development combines the Pearl and RiverPlace models. Our fancy new SLUT leads you from the downtown core into the heart of a rich urban infill. High-tech centers and scientific research buildings abound, purpose-built to include all the piping and wiring necessary in a digital age, and restaurants aplenty, many in place for years to take advantage of the lakefront views. South Lake Union, with easy access from via 520, has the potential to attract Eastsiders looking for a night "downtown." The lake itself is ringed by safe, mid-level corporate restaurants (Daniel's Broiler, Chandler's Crabhouse) with plenty of parking; there's even a Hooters for carousing account execs and visiting salesmen. (So far, SLU hasn't developed into the new Bellevue; old Bellevue--with at least a dozen new high-end bars, restaurants, and plenty of valet parking--has become the new Bellevue.)
Amazon drones, UW medical researchers and startup bio-tech by day, but who's going to keep SLU hopping after dark? You can't count on the captive audience of high-rise condo dwellers, even though "dozens of eclectic restaurants at your doorstep" is a staple of sales brochures, Vulcan's included. Nor should you count on all those the office workers and computer geeks who burn the midnight oil; engineers and researchers don't usually celebrate their latest experiment with Dom Perignon and foie gras.
Instead, if you're the developer, you have target locals who won't go to Belltown because of the low-lifes, or to Capitol Hill because of the riff-raff. (Read crackheads and gays.) The strategy makes sense if the restaurants have familiar local names but not national chains (like Maggiano's Little Italy), or even local chains (like RUI's Palomino, Consolidated's Elliott's) that are site-specific or already ensconced in Bellevue. What you do instead, if you're trying to build the nabe, is reel in celebrity chefs like William Belickis, who just opened Mistral Kitchen in a vast space at 8th and Westlake (technically just outside the boundaries of Vulcan's development), or lasso existing restaurants with a strong local following and a lease that's about to expire.
That's why yesterday's news that Chris Keff is moving her Flying Fish to the 320 Westlake Building (photo, left) makes such good sense. After 15 years in Belltown, she told Seattle Weekly, she was tired of the neighborhood's club-goers and drug dealers. There's a good reason for Vulcan to import an existing restaurant: its local reputation is already established and its popularity isn't based on location alone (Ray's, Salty's, Space Needle); you hope the client base will follow. Keff told the Seattle Times as much: "[Vulcan] has a very specific vision for South Lake Union...four or five restaurants of my caliber: very local, very Seattle restaurants."
(Another part of that vision, unspoken of course: no clubs, no lounges, no drunken frat boys out on the town, no threatening street people.)
John Howie, of Bellevue's SeaStar, was the first such high-profile restaurants in SLU (he's keeping the original SeaStar and has just opened John Howie Steak in Bellevue's new Bravern complex) but he won't be the last. One celebrity chef who's already made the move is Jason Wilson, who normally runs a charming "house restaurant," Crush, on East Madison. Wilson gussied up an anonymous-looking building at the dead-end of Pontius and Mercer, and is using it as a stand-alone, private-dining venue.
Who might be next? The obvious choice is Tom Douglas, who already has half a dozen outlets downtown, all along the axis of Virginia Street. The Vulcan properties are only three blocks away. A new Palace Kitchen isn't that far fetched.
And who else? The speculation game is already underway. Wild Ginger? Le Pichet/Cafe Presse? Zoe/Quinn's? A vegetarian powerhouse (if that's not an oxymoron) like Cafe Flora? A new venture from Mike McConnell of Via Tribunali that doesn't compete with Tutta Bella? A new step from Ethan Stowell? A new steakhouse from El Gaucho?
Vulcan is no doubt dangling the carrot of favorable lease terms in front of more than one restaurateur, though no one's naming names. (All concerned know it's bad manners to talk with your mouth full.) SLU is already home to some four dozen eating establishments, from hot dogs (Slo Joe) to haute cuisine (the Jewel Box at Mistral Kitchen), but there's always room for one more.