Otis Cafe

Succeeding despite itself, a place thrown together with love is embraced by Pill Hill.

Naming a cafe after a dead dog might seem like a strange decision, but at Otis Cafe, decisions seem to somehow make themselves. The owners' dog Otis met his maker while the cafe was under construction, so, you know, the name just suggested itself. Revo, their other dog, is still around; she's named after an expensive pair of sunglasses she ate on her first day with her new family, and you, in turn, may eat the sandwich named after her at the cafe (bad dog, good sandwich: thinly sliced turkey breast, fresh spinach, tomato, red onion, and Havarti on perfectly grilled panini).

Otis Cafe has a pleasantly random feel to it, nothing formal—church pews make up some of the seating; a bucket of branches, ostensibly for decoration, has a length of PVC pipe stuck in it. But the lighting is just right, the music's nice, and it smells really, really good (more grilled sandwiches, from a small but very tasty menu that, well, just kind of made itself one day). The vibe, too, is really, really good, in a way that's hard to pinpoint at first.

Even in this Starbucks/Tully's/etc. day and age, a little cafe can still just arise, almost of its own volition, and kind of stagger forward, born of the hard, if haphazard, work of two people and supported by a neighborhood happy to have it. Once you meet owners Celestine (she goes by Teena) North and Richard McDonald, it all crystallizes: They are the nicest people in the world. Teena is a font of cheer, though that sounds annoying and she is definitely not; Richard will remember your name, after one introduction, weeks later. But how did this whole cafe thing come about? They don't really seem that sure themselves.

Seattle Weekly: I hope this isn't too morbid, but how did Otis die?

Teena North: We had been over on Bainbridge Island all day; he had a good day, and on the ferry back. . . .

Richard McDonald: Boom! But he had a really good day—he ran around, he had a blast.

How did you two meet?

Richard: We're both from Florida, but we met here.

Teena: He lived in my apartment building, and I'm like, "Hey, nice dog." You know, every dog person knows every other dog person.

Richard: Then she broke her foot, and we used to go to the doctor right over here. We used to look down from the doctor's office, and she said, "We should open a cafe right there."

Did you have experience?

Teena: No, nothing. Not a shred.

How's this location working out?

Teena: Awesome. We get a lot of the locals from the buildings around here. And it's small, tiny; that way we get to know all of our customers personally. We know our clients' names, I know what they eat. That keeps it simple. And when we screw up, they don't yell at us because they know us.

The interior—how did that come together?

Richard: We had these grand ideas of everything we were going to do, and then right after the plumbers got done putting in the drains, we had no money left. So we wound up doing everything but the drains ourselves.

Teena: The people at Home Depot know our names.

Richard: I do floor work, so I tried to put everything in context of a floor: "We'll just turn the floor sideways, then we'll have a bar!"

And the menu?

Teena: In the beginning we wanted to just be a wine and espresso bar—because that's what I like drinking. But the first week, people were like, we're hungry and there's no food here! So we decided on the fifth day, OK, we need food. We ran out to the grocery store and came out with a menu in an hour.

Do you have bands play here?

Teena: Yeah, we've actually had a bunch of bands—whoever shows up. We need to be more consistent with entertainment, but once again, we're kind of flaky.

Have you noticed any weirdness because of the bad economy?

Richard: We did notice a big impact; I think most places from about September to Christmas were doing really bad. We went from Bill Clinton to attacking countries and blowing shit up overnight.

Teena: We were coasting with no signage, having a good time, making money, then after that we were like, "Where did all our customers go?"

Where do you guys like to eat when you go out?

Richard: We like Siam up on Broadway— the food's really good there. There's this Indian place over in Bellevue; I can get there, but I couldn't tell you how to. We eat at quirky little places like Bimbo's.

What else can you tell me about Otis the cafe?

Teena: It's kind of like a big living room, that's all. We have fun.


Otis Cafe

1005 Boren (at Madison), 342-9866

open 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays

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