BOWING OUT Kurt Tummermeister is moving on to something new. Victoria Renard
Café Septieme
214 Broadway E
860-8858
9am-midnight every day.

There wasn't much on Second Avenue in Belltown when Septieme opened at its original location in December 1986--no condos, no Crocodile. There was, however, a Catholic convent on the same block.

"The restaurant was empty for weeks," recalls Kurt Timmermeister, Septieme's sole owner over its entire 18-year history. "I paid my first employee to sit in the window all day and look like a customer. There was no business for months."

Not even the neighborhood nuns would come in. There's a photo on the cover of Septieme's current menu of a nun in an old-fashioned habit standing in front of a tiny patisserie that could only be in Paris. It's actually a picture of one of Second Avenue's long-gone nuns, Sister Thomas, standing in front of Timmermeister's empty restaurant. "She didn't come in," says Timmer-meister. "None of the nuns ever set foot in the place."

Timmermeister didn't need the nuns. Within a year of opening his doors, his tiny restaurant was the early-morning gathering spot for Belltown's small community of artists, writers, and blacksmiths. (Cyclops was their late-night gathering spot.) Kurt served them fresh-baked brioche and lattes in large ceramic bowls. "There was a sense in Belltown when Septieme first opened that the neighborhood needed a place like Septieme," says Timmer-meister. "People wanted the place to thrive."

Thanks to those early regulars, Septieme did thrive. By 1990 Timmermeister was able to move his restaurant into slightly larger digs a few doors north (the location is now Marjorie). Soon not only was Septieme thriving but so was Belltown--although not in ways that pleased people who had moved to Belltown for its cheap rents and large industrial spaces. Condos went up, pricier restaurants began to open. Many of Septieme's most loyal customers began to move away. Some went willingly, others were forced out.

Reading real estate listings in early 1994, Timmermeister spotted a restaurant for sale in Capitol Hill. Ready for a new challenge, Timmermeister bought Andy's, a rundown diner on Broadway Avenue between John and Thomas Streets. Septieme's first move had gone so smoothly that Timmermeister was unprepared for how rough the second move would be.

"The most striking thing was the food was essentially the same, [with] a lot of the same waiters. It was just as clean or dirty as downtown," says Timmermeister. "And people downtown loved the place. The regulars were helpful. They were invested in it. I opened up on Broadway and people were vicious. For the first six months there was this unbelievable hostility."

Back in 1994 Septieme was something of a shock to Broadway's system. Broadway was reaching a crescendo of twee self-regard in 1994; it was Seattle's hippest, gayest street, and many of its businesses and restaurants were prettified and self-conscious. Timmermeister brought Belltown's grit to Broadway--and something else too: Timmermeister's authenticity. Unlike many of the businesses on Broadway at the time, Septieme was and always has been a reflection of one man's tastes and aesthetics. If Kurt liked something, he'd serve it. If he liked you, he'd employ you. If he liked your art, he'd hang it. Eating at Septieme has always been less like going to a restaurant and more like going to a friend's house for dinner.

Even Septieme's most famous bowls of coffee are a reflection of Timmer-meister's tastes. Bowls are not, as I've overheard people saying at Septieme, "the way lattes are served in France." Back when his restaurant first opened, Timmer-meister bought some large ceramic bowls at a rummage sale. "I liked the shape," he says. "We drank out of them in the kitchen so we wouldn't have to dirty the dishes we needed for the floor. Customers saw us in the back drinking out of these bowls and started asking if they could get a bowl too."

Timmermeister's authentic approach to the restaurant business could be seen in the way he handled his Broadway space. Unlike most restaurant owners, Timmermeister didn't gut Andy's and build a brand-new box inside an old box. He took down the fake ceiling and painted the 80-year-old walls a dark red with an overwash of black--the much-copied "Septieme Red"--but he kept the counter where it was, the kitchen where it was, and kept the same booths in the same places where they had always been. "I respect that this space has been a restaurant since 1925," says Timmermeister, "and this is where the booths have always been and this is where the counter always was. I wanted to be a part of that lineage."

Eventually Broadway caught on to what Timmermeister was doing and, just as it had in Belltown, Septieme attracted a crowd of devoted regulars who were invested in Septieme. Many of these regulars were shocked to learn last week that Timmermeister is selling Septieme to Victor Santiango, who has owned La Cocina, a Mexican restaurant down the street, for 15 years. Timmermeister says he sold to Santiago "because he respects Septieme and he didn't want to change it." As for Timmermeister, he bought some land on Vashon Island in 1990 with a rotting log cabin on it. Over the years he's restored the log cabin, which he now lives in, and began farming his land. Many of the tomatoes, squash, plums, honey, pears, melons, and eggs served at Septieme over the years have come from Kurt's land. This year Timmermeister and a partner began to farm his land in a more serious way.

Timmermeister will be handing over the keys to Santiago sometime in the next week or two. In the meantime, he's saying his goodbyes to his regulars. When I asked what he's going to miss most, Timmermeister didn't miss a beat: "The employees," he says before he rattles off a long list of people he's employed over the years--Patrick, Sharon, Rodney, Richmond, Tracey, Laura, Mark, Caroline, Stephanie. Like a lot of local artists and writers, I once had a day job at Septieme--I waited tables there from 1992 to 1994--and it was, and remains, a special place. It's hard to imagine Septieme without Kurt at the helm.

savage@thestranger.com