On concert nights, Union, the handsome, seven-year-old restaurant two blocks down from Benaroya, fills up quickly, then empties out five minutes before curtain. A short feast followed by a long famine, and Ethan Stowell, Union's energetic owner and chef, isn't waiting around any longer; he has finally done what everyone has expected and closed Union. He's already got three other restaurants (Tavolata, in Belltown; Anchovies & Olives, on Capitol Hill; How to Cook a Wolf, on Queen Anne) and is well into opening yet another, Staple & Fancy Mercantile in Ballard. So why suffer through the winter of downtown discontent?
Granted, his immediate neighbors seem to be doing okay. That would be Kerry Sear's grandly conceived Art (an elegantly decorated dining room and a three-meal kitchen, plus banquets and room service, that will survive regardless of the economy if only because it's part of the Four Seasons hotel), and Taste, in the Seattle Art Museum (a decent enough foodservice operation run by Bon Appetit Catering). There's also Wild Ginger, Rick Yoder's 300-seat, all-things-to-all-visitors pan-Asian restaurant, perched above the Triple Door a block away, doing well, we're told. But most high-end fine dining downtown is still reeling from the lousy economy, which boosts profit margins at local grocery chains but slashes paychecks for restaurant workers and owners.
Stowell tried valiantly. He tore up the high-priced menu and swallowed hard when the average check dropped below $50. Wanting to remain a focal point for the industry, he ran quarterly comfort food contests, inviting chefs and amateurs alike to cook meatloaf, chili, mac-and-cheese, lasagna at Union. His wife, Angela, joined him full-time to help. At one point, his dad, choreographer Kent Stowell, even acted as doorman up at Wolf.
But what about all those new bars and cafes opening? Well, hope springs eternal. As it still does with Stowell. He expects to open another spot, all of 43 seats, called Staple & Fancy Mercantile in south Ballard by mid-summer. The location is the Kolstrand Building, a refurbished industrial space at 4742 Ballard Avenue, just off Leary Way. He'll have company there: Renee Erickson's new oyster place, The Walrus and the Carpenter, is next door.
The plan is to serve dinner at Staple & Fancy Mercantile seven nights a week from a limited a la carte menu changing daily. that is printed daily. Stowell will also offer a four-course, chef's choice menu for $45.
In a press release, Stowell sounds upbeat: "I've spent the last few years bouncing around and cooking in all my restaurants, and I'm really looking forward to having my own kitchen again." Stowell says he plans to cook five or six nights a week at the new spot. "I can't wait."