Was It Something I Said?

At Hi-Life, just getting fed can be a challenge.

AT A PLACE LIKE Hi-Life in Ballard—the newest link in Chow Food's local restaurant chain—you get a lot of, "Hey, how's it going? I'm Brad. Tammy's super slammed right now, so I'm gonna get you guys going and then she'll be by later to take your order." I imagine that the front-of-the-house staff are attempting to create an environment whereby we're all on a first-name basis (this being—or at least trying to be—one of those neighborly neighborhood joints, after all), but are they also trying to establish that, since they're absolutely awash with activity and way behind, we shouldn't be expecting too much tonight? If so, at least we were prepared. After "Brad" explained how to use the menus ("This is your wine menu. We've got reds listed here, followed by . . . ") and "Tammy" found a few minutes to convey our antipasti plate order to the kitchen—and, to their collective credit, get it out to us in prompt fashion—we were given a full, ungodly 45 minutes to mull over the stuffed tomatoes (really very good), the cured meats-and-cheese selection (quite decent), the grilled figs (wonderful), and the attendant bread slices (not so much—unless you're a fan of yesterday's version of fresh). Where the hell was "Tammy"? And where the hell was "Brad," and how come he wasn't picking up "Tammy's" slack now? Finally, I did something I never do: I blurted the otherwise inexcusable "Excuse me!" in order to get "Tammy's" attention. Her reply was equally unforgivable. "Oh, are you guys ready to order now?" WHEN THE FIRST of our side dishes—ordered from the Emilia Romagna section of the menu (Hi-Life, like all of Chow's outposts, devotes half of its menu space to a regionally themed rotating selection)—was delivered wordlessly to the table, it sat solo for about 10 minutes. Eventually the second side dish came out and kept it company for another 10. Out of desperation, we finally began sticking our forks into the rich, cheesy indulgence of the creamy mascarpone polenta and the relatively less interesting "smashed" potatoes with olive oil. We enjoyed them just fine, but we didn't enjoy having our side dishes as appetizers, and we didn't enjoy the mysterious breach in service. Where our first five minutes at Hi-Life were a flurry of overexplanation, the following hour and a half provided an absolute dearth of service. One of my friends, a young mom and marketing whiz who lives nearby, enjoys Hi-Life for its kid-friendly atmosphere and, up until then, had nothing but nice things to say about her experiences there, gazed around the room and said quietly, "Everybody who's here got here after us, but they're all eating already. Every last one of them." When we finally got them, our entrées were, for the most part, OK. The wood-fired pizzas, the zesty ziti Americana, and the marinated Greek-themed chicken were acceptable; generally, we approved of them. However, my pappardelle alla zucca was terrible. My optimism had gotten the best of me; on my first visit, about two months prior, almost everything that could go wrong did, and the pasta was procured to make up for a foul piece of fish. I was betting that that entire first visit had been a fluke (really, I don't even want to remember it), but the dish, on both occasions, was an explosion of dull. When I bit into the porcini mushrooms, my mouth was painted gray. While my friends were eating, I gently pushed the bowl away. I could have used that creamy polenta right around then. I ALMOST HAD to wonder: Was it was just me? All of the restaurants in the Chow Foods family—Endolyne Joe's in Fauntleroy, Coastal Kitchen on Capitol Hill, Atlas in the U District, Jitterbug in Wallingford, and the 5-Spot on Queen Anne—are mainstays of their neighborhoods: uneven at dinnertime (once again, based on my experience) but beloved even then by families with kids, and uniformly great at breakfast and brunch. And yet everything on both my visits to Hi-Life was either mediocre, misguided, or miserable. The place seems to be running on momentum alone. lcassidy@seattleweekly.com

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