Shall We Dance?

You don't have to choose between prancing and pasta at the Century Ballroom Restaurant.

It's easy to forget the difference between eating and dining. Eating you can do at a bus stop or a street corner, in front of an open refrigerator, or on a plane. And while exhaust fumes, fridge glow, or ear-popping cabin pressure might be your ideas of ambiance, they aren't mine. On rainy, cool autumn nights, like the ones we've had recently, the Century Ballroom Restaurant in Capitol Hill's Oddfellows Building provides a helpful reminder of what makes true dining superior to everyday eating. Opened nearly eight years ago by local swing-dance enthusiast Hallie Kuperman, the Century started out as a lunch place catering to busy theater types—not the patrons who came at night so much as the actors and dancers who rehearsed in the building, which still houses Velocity Dance Company, Freehold Theatre Lab, and the Chamber Theater (formerly the Seattle Mime Collective). After parting ways with her original partner, Kuperman hired a chef named Rip to start dinner service; after his departure, she went through a few replacements before finding Melissa Nyffeler, who put in kitchen time with Tom Douglas and opened the Ugly Mug Café in the University District before coming to the Century. According to Kuperman, Nyffeler has "full rein" over the menu, which sports some Douglas-esque touches: seasonal dishes made with local ingredients, gourmet riffs on traditional Mediterranean plates—e.g., Spanish tortilla served with saffron aïoli ($12)—and unusual meats in unexpected places, like the restaurant's ever-changing gnocchi (potato dumplings), currently served with a sauce of braised oxtail, red wine, and tomatoes ($12 large/$6.50 small) or with brown butter, sage, and Parmesan cheese ($11/$5.50). The optional half-portion orders of gnocchi support one of Kuperman's central goals: "a menu that you don't get really full on." She says the dancers who drop by the ballroom preceding its four or five weekly dance nights enjoy sharing light, high-protein small plates before they hit the floor. Oregon County skirt steak "fatoush" ($13), for example, folds the hearty meat into a Middle Eastern-influenced salad of cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, and herbs. A recent Century dinner, on the other hand, was full of rich autumnal flavors: herb-roasted pork chop with sautéed kale, corn hash, and chanterelle mushrooms ($15) and gnocchi with a sauce that used corn and sage and tasted a lot like Thanksgiving stuffing. But to dwell on the food would be to neglect the Century's versatility. A Swiss Army knife of a restaurant, it seems to do a little of everything, enhancing upscale comfort food with experiential oomph. If you sit at the leftmost table in the larger dining room—the one mere inches from the open kitchen—you can watch tennis players run and grunt at the courts across the street while keeping an eye on the ballroom next door. Drinking red wine with dinner is always advisable, but there's something about sipping to the sound of tango music that really ups your bliss index. And you don't have to simply catch occasional glimpses of the dancing: You can sit at a table in the ballroom—though things can get hairy on salsa night, so you might want reservations. Kuperman started the Century to fill a citywide void. "There was no club where you could eat, drink, [and] socialize in a nonsmoking environment with a huge dance floor," she says. There are still precious few places in town that offer an all-ages swing night, as the Century does; perhaps that's because it calls for a lot of logistical work. "Until the dance starts," Kuperman explains, "we serve food and beer and wine in the cafe, and we don't do a full bar on those nights. And then at 9 o'clock, once the dance starts, there's no more alcohol served, period." Isn't cutting out the booze a financial gamble? "I don't make my money off the bar," Kuperman admits. "And if you ask any bartender in Seattle, they will look at me like I'm out of my fucking mind for doing this. I sell 20 cases of water a week!" Now that Seattleites under and over 21 are swinging in alcohol-free harmony, what's next for the city's busiest supper club? A six-month-old project that's already paying mighty dividends is the restaurant's monthly gospel brunch. This Halloween, you can start your day—in costume, please—with cornbread pudding, hoppin' John, honey-baked ham, and the Total Experience Gospel Choir, all for a mere $15. September's brunch was packed, and Kuperman has high hopes for October. She has even higher hopes for the Century's first dinner theater show in years, a spectacle co-penned by David Koch of Cabaret Productions (the company in residence at downtown's Crepe de Paris) and David Scully, a local actor. Kuperman describes Musica Vitae Cabaret, which opens Oct. 23, as "a story about finding eternal youth through dance. It takes place in lots of different clubs around the world" and will involve hula dancing as well as tango, salsa, and swing. And in case that's not your bag, the Century quadruples as a live-music venue: Tracy Chapman made a recent appearance, and Sam Phillips is expected in December. Hallie Kuperman wasn't the first in Seattle to think of combining a well-crafted meal with primo entertainment: Pike Place Market's Pink Door, with its trapeze artists, live music, and magicians, was almost two decades ahead of her, and Teatro ZinZanni became the biggest three-ring culinary circus in town when it opened in 1998. But the beauty of the Century is that it gives you a Sensurround dining experience for much less than ZinZanni and without the pesky Pike Place crowds that swarm around the Door. Best of all, like the recently arrived fall weather, the Century is always in flux. Not wild about tonight's act? Wait a day or two and go back. Pork chops go surprisingly well with tango lessons. Century Ballroom Restaurant, 915 E. Pine St. (Second Floor), 206-324-7263, CAPITOL HILL. Dinner 6–10 p.m. Weds. and Sun., 6–11 p.m. Thurs. and Sat. Also open some Fridays: Call to confirm.

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