Little known as a corporate entity, Chow Foods has been, for the last two decades, one of the most influential, locally owned chains in Seattle, essentially defining the concept of the neighborhood restaurant — even though it’s been five years since its partners broke up and split the company.
Driven by food (menus changed every three months) rather than by celebrity chefs, the restaurants are small enough, individually, to feel intimate, yet big enough, collectively, to centralize back-office and administrative functions.
The eight (at the time) Chow Foods stores predated the Tom Douglas and Ethan Stowell empires. They never made a big deal about being under the same ownership; their names weren’t always known citywide: Edolyne Joe’s, Atlas Foods, Jitterbug, The Hi-Life, Coastal Kitchen, 5-Spot, Mioposto, Lunchbox.
It all started in Portland, Ore., where Peter Levy learned the restaurant business in the McCormick & Schmick organization, working his way up to general manager. Returning to Seattle in the late 1980s, Levy found an underutilized spot on North 45th Street, an ahead-of-its-time espresso bar and gelateria named Dominic’s. He added a restaurant kitchen with a regulation hood and opened it as the Beeliner, a diner with East Coast attitude (a sign said “Eat It & Beat It”).
Early on, John Hinterberger of The Seattle Times showed up and wrote a favorable review. The rest, as they say, is history.
Levy added the 5-Spot (1502 Queen Anne Ave. N.) atop Queen Anne a couple of years later and took on a partner, Jeremy Hardy, who’d also been a general manager for McCormick. In 1993, they opened Coastal Kitchen (429 15th Ave. E.) on Capitol Hill, then they tilted at the windmill of downtown sandwich shops with a concept that sounded much better on paper than in practice: Luncheonette No. 1.
“But it turned out that Downtown Seattle just isn’t a breakfast spot,” Levy explained in a recent interview. “We lost our shirts — over a million bucks. It took 18 years, but we paid back every dime.”
The Beeliner had also run out of gas and was sold, only to see the buyer default. Levy and Hardy reopened it as Jitterbug, but that didn’t help much. It’s now back in Levy’s hands, renamed TNT Taqueria (2114 N. 45th St.).
There was also a foray into University Village with Atlas Foods.
“I thought it was like any other neighborhood, but it’s not,” Levy said of U-Village. “We kept it open for 10 years, though, until the lease ran out.”
In 2003, they added Endolyne Joe’s in West Seattle; in 2004, The Hi-Life (5425 Russell Ave. N.W.); in 2006, Mioposto (3601 S. McClellan St.); and, in 2009, the breakup. Hardy kept Mioposto (which he’s planning to clone in other neighborhoods) and Coastal Kitchen; his part of the company is now called Seattle Eats.
Levy has kept the Chow Foods name and is always looking for new opportunities, new neighborhoods. He does his own design and interiors, writes his own menu copy and private placement offerings.
“I don’t have any hobbies,” he said.
What he does have, on the other hand, are four restaurants — all open for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and almost 200 employees.
What’s going to happen if the $15 minimum wages passes? “We’ll figure out how to live with it,” Levy says, with an optimism you don’t see in many places these days, “because that’s what we do in the restaurant industry. It’s downtown retail that I’d be worried about if they have to pay $15 [per hour]. How will anyone be able to compete with Amazon?”
Breakfast at the Chow Foods neighborhood restaurants (not downtown) is the most popular meal of the day, with a line out the door on weekends.
And one item that’s on the menu at all of Levy’s stores: a “Grand Slam” combo (pancakes, eggs, bacon) named for a restaurant critic who complained it was “just like Denny’s.”
Not a complaint, Levy says, but a compliment.
Other restaurant news
Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, the couple behind Joule and Revel, are planning four new restaurants inside a 4,000-square-foot space in the restored Greenus building on Capitol Hill (at East Pike Street and Summit Avenue). One will be a Korean barbecue, one a noddle stand, one a bar and a “dessert window.”
I confess that the Ampersand fad is driving me slightly nuts — you know, Brimmer & Heeltap (425 N.W. Market St.) and its rival, Brunswick & Hunt (1470 N.W. 70th St.). Which one’s which, again? Both are in Ballard: One’s in the former Le Gourmand space; the other’s next to Delancey. One’s named for a pub glass full of beer; the other’s named for a painting.
It comes on the heels of Cone & Steiner (426 19th Ave. E.) on Capitol Hill, which is more of a neighborhood market that just happens to have a half-dozen craft beers on tap.
New on the menu at Mondello Ristorante (2425 33rd Ave. W.) in Magnolia is a Sicilian Fisherman’s Dinner direct from Mamma Enza Sorrentino’s native province of Trapani, on the island’s west coast: half a lobster and clams in a rich broth, with “broken” spaghetti. The first order was served to an adventurous and enterprising guest named Jeff Bezos.
RONALD HOLDEN is a restaurant writer and consultant who blogs at Cornichon.org and Crosscut.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.