The $300,000 question

Some of Seattle's leading chefs convene to discuss the local restaurant scene.

WHEN SEATTLE'S CITYCLUB recently convened at the Rainier Club with four premier Seattle chefs, moderator John Curley posed the question to them, "What kind of restaurant would you open if you had $300,000 at your disposal?" The chefs—Barbara Figueroa (Ivar's), Tim Kelley (The Painted Table), Bill Morris (The Rainier Club), and Thierry Rautureau (Rover's) served up their insights—lightly sprinkled with a few pinches of shameless advertising—in four courses: concept, location, customer service, and presentation.

Concept: The four agreed that Seattleites will dine foremost for taste rather than trendiness or ambiance. Bill Morris suggested that it is best to open a restaurant that will cater to the tastes of the neighborhood—downtown for more adventurous eats, suburbs for simpler tastes. Tim Kelley preferred classics for their universal appeal. Over the years, changes in Seattle dining have forced restaurants to be more "food friendly," as opposed to the trend in such metropolises as New York City, which is full of exotic treats. "Seattle folk tend to be less adventurous, which is part of the culture," Kelley explained. Then he was quick to cite Rover's—a Seattle restaurant that is both exotic and popular—as an obvious exception to that rule.

Location: A restaurant should be easily accessible by foot, public transportation, and/or car. While the lack of parking may deter some diners, many downtown eateries have a high customer rate—proof that parking isn't necessarily essential to winning customers. Some audience members suggested opening a dream restaurant in Belltown, but the chefs unanimously rejected it due to "the high saturation" of new places there in the last year or so. Kelley earnestly tried to persuade the other chefs to choose Ballard, but . . . well, let's just say he didn't find any takers.

Customer service: Good help is hard to keep. However, Thierry Rautureau claimed that he pays his help too well for them to leave. He also pointed out that Seattle diners will forgive poor service only if the food is spectacular.

Presentation: No matter how expensive or affordable the entr饳, the food should always be presentable and, for Seattleites, "non-threatening." Barbara Figueroa favors the "simple fresh look," while Kelley's opinion was more intangible: "Food," he says, "needs to come from the inside." To him, cooking is an interpretation of life, mixed with past recipes and present variations.

"What is Northwest cuisine?" asked someone in the audience. Rautureau, the most outspoken of the four, jumped in with "It's using local ingredients, which is the definition of all cuisine. Northwest cuisine has always been there, but now it has an official title. Every region has its 'goodies' and has been famous for using them." Morris added, "Chefs define Northwest cuisine by what they use; over a span of time, it does become the regional cuisine."

And what about Seattle? "There is such an abundance of seafood here," Rautureau gently complained, "and all I see are three kinds of fish. Seattle definitely needs more diversity with [its use of] seafood."

Things wound on in this fashion until Curley returned to the first question of the agenda: What kind of restaurant would the chefs open with $300,000? For some reason—perhaps too many misadventures in their past, or too many successes in their present—no one answered, until finally Kelley broke the silence with "a downtown bistro which is friendly to all people." Then the assembled audience broke ranks and headed for the hors d'oeuvre tables.

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