Restaurant Review: Brass Tacks Relives the Past, Serves Up the Future

Brass Tacks’ decor is a parody of the present, but its menu signals a bright future for the Georgetown restaurant’s chef.

Of all the weird restaurants that have popped up in Pioneer Square since Doc Maynard built his cabin there, The Breadline may have been the very weirdest. From October 29, 1974, until 1978, the basement restaurant coaxed eaters into reliving the Depression, an era that typically ranks somewhere between the Mongol Invasion and the Boston Smallpox Epidemic on the list of fun-loving themes.

“It’ll be the first Skidroad restaurant to really fit the area,” owner Jack Fecker promised the Post-Intelligencer’s Emmett Watson. “And here’s one more touch—we’re going to hire senior citizens as waiters and waitresses.”

The oldsters were supposed to entertain customers with their recollections of darned socks and flour-sack dresses, but Seattle bookseller John Polley—who briefly worked part-time at The Breadline alongside his father, George—says the restaurant owners got a good deal when they hired 75 retirees. “They were people who were used to working hard,” Polley recalls. “I used to get tired, but my dad never complained.”

Fecker outfitted his hostesses and waitresses in the flowery housecoats that signified frumpiness in the mid-1970s, when Vicki Lawrence was waddling around on CBS as the matriarch of The Carol Burnett Show’s “Family.” At the bar, Fecker’s 90-year-old father wore a vest and bow tie when he poured wine from gallon jugs into thin-necked milk bottles and Mason jars.

The room was done up in period costume, too, with Hoosier pie safes, wood cookstoves, and washtubs lining its walls. While the restaurant’s prized object was a 1931 Ford truck, its centerpiece was a 36-foot-long communal table that a reviewer cited as evidence that “there has been little done to romanticize the terrible ’30s.”

On most nights, Polley says, every mismatched wooden chair at the table was taken. “Oh yeah, you bet, it was quite popular,” he says. Folks liked the vittles, which were as purposely dated as the decor: The menu listed sourdough rolls, four stews, 14 soups (the house specialty was bean), and chicken-and-dumplings as a Sunday special. Fecker joked that if stagflation spiraled into something worse, the restaurant was ready to do its charitable duty.

“They had a great split-pea soup, actually,” Polley says.

The demise of The Breadline came in two waves. First it was sold to Rob Karlen, who pink-slipped the septuagenarian pie baker, modernized the decor, and rechristened the restaurant Johanna’s. But customers wanted their hard times back, so Fecker returned in 1980 to varnish the fading Depression vibe. The following year, the Seattle City Directory listed the venue as vacant.

With theme restaurants on the wane, it seemed unlikely Seattleites would ever again have the chance to dine in a restaurant that so precisely evoked such a specific moment in time. But then, in January, Brass Tacks opened in Georgetown.

Unlike The Breadline, Brass Tacks doesn’t purport to be anything but a serious restaurant and neighborhood drinking den. But its calculated scruffy-chic aesthetic is so peculiar to the Pacific Northwest in 2013 (or perhaps Brooklyn in 2011) that it’s a shame future historians can’t see it. The room’s begging for a few interpretive wall labels and a tour guide to parse early-21st-century faux-artisan culture.

Of course, culinary quirks wouldn’t become clichés if there weren’t plenty of restaurants practicing them. What vaults Brass Tacks into the realm of parody is the sheer number of trendy elements packed into a single space, starting with the punched metal tags mounted on a block of wood secured in an oldfangled vice. “Please seat yourself,” the tags instruct.

In au courant fashion, service is highly lackadaisical. Asked to identify the cured meats on a housemade charcuterie plate, a server drifted her finger around the plate: “You have the coppa, the saucisson, and the something,” she said confidently. Sorry? She skittered away for the correct name, but had forgotten it by the time she returned. On another visit, we didn’t see much of the server, but she did show up to competently explain exactly how the bar had screwed up a glass of iced tea (pouring scorching hot tea over too much ice did the trick).

Servers appear to fawn more readily over guests who sign up for the $400 whole-hog supper. Surely the syllable count wasn’t intentional, but the menu description of the feast is an actual haiku, one I’d nominate for dining poem of the decade: “Whole locally raised/Suckling pig, slow-roasted and/Served family style.” Ladies and gentlemen, the voice of our food generation.

The birthday party of eight gathered around the pig on a recent Saturday night was dressed much as The Breadline’s Fecker might have costumed them: The men wore hoodies, woollen caps, and short-sleeve plaid shirts that looked as though they’d spent time on a secondhand-store rack. The women wore scarves. But even after the celebrants left, the dining room was rife with visual references to right now, from the bar well, stocked with Fernet Branca and Old Overholt rye, to the Mason jars of housemade booze infusions resting on shelves overhead.

Brass Tacks is sparsely furnished with metal-legged wooden tables, which leaves room for a shuffleboard table, a foosball table, and an upright piano. There’s also seating at the open kitchen, which is decorated with a potted tree, and in a short row of theater seats pushed up against a vintage trunk. As expected, the ceiling rafters are exposed and most of the lightbulbs are bare.

The menu is also extraordinarily predictable: Small plates include poutine and candied bacon, and you can add an over-easy duck egg to your Painted Hills burger. Before spring arrived, there were roasted Brussels sprouts. But the food doesn’t feel anywhere near as derivative as the room. The cured meats which our server couldn’t properly introduce? They were great. The coppa was especially excellent: Tender and porky, the thin slices of pork bustled with clean white fat. The accompanying pickled vegetables, which offered a prism of sweet, briny, and bitter flavors, were just as impressive.

Not every dish from chef Chris Opsata, late of Urban Enoteca, is a winner. Glazed chicken wings, which have since been replaced by jerk thighs, were floppy and sweet. French onion soup had a dreggy tar, and a tough hanger steak was underseasoned. Still, if you order anything which could be the punch line of a Portlandia sketch, you’re probably in fine shape.

The lamb sliders, perched on grilled brioche buns and smeared with a tart horseradish aioli, are wonderfully juicy, and a salad of split roasted artichoke stalks, thin radish discs, white beans, and a smattering of roasted garlic slivers is a disciplined homage to the season. Campanelle noodles and white cheese, studded with patches of house-smoked brisket and grained with cumin breadcrumbs, is far better than its menu mac-’n’-cheese designation lets on.

As The Breadline proved, restaurants tied too closely to a particular moment are doomed to quickly become history. But the food at the otherwise ridiculous Brass Tacks suggests Opsata has a very bright future.

BRASS TACKS 6031 Airport Way S., 397-3821, 11 a.m.–2 a.m. Tues.–Sun.

PRICE GUIDE Pickles $5/Poutine $9/Lamb slider $12/Roasted artichoke $9/Steak frites $19

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