When Vinnie’s Raw Bar opened this week in the hallway-like space between Chris and Anu Elford’s spacious, much-acclaimed two-year-old sibling bars Navy Strength and No Anchor, it followed a trend among recent restaurant openings in Seattle: smaller spaces activated by passionate restaurateurs with super personal concepts, thriving on face-to-face interaction.
“We want to meet our neighbors,” says Chris Elford. The bar has about 10 seats, and there are another 20 at the tables—including some all-ages seating, the first time they have had that in any of their establishments. Previously, they’d tried to use the space as a coffee and juice bar, but it has been empty since that closed late last year.
With a menu of “sea-cuterie,” (octopus terrine and salmon pastrami, for example) and what they call “real wines” (a broader, looser look at natural wines), the pair talk about the new concept with the kind of wide-eyed excitement of new parents. While they’ll have a few cocktails and a few beers, the focus lands squarely on the wine list—curated by New York transplant and industry vet Bryn Hagman. “Fun, honest, approachable” is how Elford describes her list, which is short, holds nothing over $75 a bottle, and has plenty that you won’t find elsewhere in town. Because the bar is so small, Hagman and the Elfords are able to ensure they can offer the kind of guidance necessary for such a small and precise list.
It’s the kind of playful niche idea that Seattle has seen a lot less of in the past few years, as real estate prices skyrocketed and the labor market dried up. For a long time, that double whammy seemed to keep restaurateurs playing it safe with proven concepts and well-established spaces. But perhaps with the right spot, the time has come for the city’s culinary professionals to innovate their way into better—but not bigger—restaurants.
That’s how Mutsuko Soma ended up opening her 20-seater restaurant Hannyatou this spring: The right space opened up. When she heard about the vacancy two doors down from her renowned soba shop, Kamonegi, Soma’s ears perked up. Honored by Food & Wine in April as one of the best new chefs of 2019, Soma knew the former Lama G’s Café spot wasn’t big enough for a second full restaurant—but the spacious patio area that came with it was perfect for expanding her vinegar-making, fermentation, and pickling experiments. So she turned it into a sake bar modeled after Edo-period liquor stores.
The food all comes off portable burners and is designed to pair with the drinks: heavy on the seafood, fermented foods, and creativity. She makes miso out of fermented jalapeño cheese bagels (and stuffs it into rice balls), uses local rhubarb to pickle in imitation of Japanese plums, and in the crowning touch, churns ice cream made from sake lees—the byproduct of making the rice wines. And the sake itself—each of the 20 bottles on the list is available by the glass—has nearly as broad a range of flavors, something that will surprise folks used to taking whatever their local sushi bar will pour. Soma and her partner in the bar, Russell King, are able to guide patrons through the different styles and flavors of sake—no matter their level of knowledge about the drink—thanks to the small bar’s intimate nature.
The smaller space trend isn’t limited to just cocktail-focused restaurants. Hideaki Taneda skipped offering a wide array of sushi by the piece at his eponymous spot, instead opening the nine-seat, omakase (set menu) sushi bar earlier this year, where he faces and serves every customer. Not far away, By Tae opened a lunch-only casual eatery with much the same style late last year, but for a much lower budget: a $25 set menu, plus a few takeout-only bento boxes for those not willing to commit to the full meal. And the breakout star of Seattle’s fine-dining scene since last December has been Archipelago, where just eight diners each night get to experience 10 courses of whatever Filipino-inspired dishes Aaron Verzosa has dreamed up that night.
While the real estate and labor shortages in Seattle have been blamed for constricting the city’s exciting dining scene, folks like Verzosa, Taneda, the Elfords, and Soma have managed to seize upon an intersection of their own creativity and turn the traditional limitations on opening restaurants into a format giving them, if anything, a bit more freedom, while offering diners an intimate and incredible experience to boot.
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