The disheartening maxim has been proven false: There is such a thing as a free lunch. Free lunch in Seattle happens more toward dinnertime, and it is not very good. It is, however, absolutely free—and In This Day and Age, as a slightly misguided person once said, you should not kick a gift horse in the mouth.
Unless you live blissfully under a rock, weaving your own clothing and using gourds as dishware and drawing in the dirt for entertainment, you are aware that downtown is home to a little mall I like to call Specific Place, located at the corner of Conformity and Credit Card Debt. Here people purchase/view/ingest exactly the same things as other people all around the country and even the (civilized!) world. Within Specific Place is Seattle's Il Fornaio, one of 21 "full-service restaurants serving creatively prepared, premium-quality Italian cuisine based on authentic regional Italian recipes" in five states (NASDAQ: ILFO). And within Il Fornaio, on its second level—connected to the first by an impressive spiral staircase permitting the ascension of business-attired regulars and hurrying kitchen workers—is found the proverbial free lunch.
From 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Monday–Friday, Il Fornaio serves 100-percent-complimentary all-you-can-eat antipasti in its lounge. I've been assured via e-mail by a public-relations officer that you can really, actually only have water and still partake of freedom food. In truth, however, the normative pressure of a kind server in a natty striped vest asking for your order while you sit at a marble-topped table in a grand dining room (sweeping sightlines, deco-style light fixtures, Renaissancey murals of people on horses with hawks in front of enviable hillsides) is too great to withstand. Also, beer is only $3; a glass of wine poured at the table from a small decanter, $4.
At 6:00 p.m. on a recent Thursday, a manager (thin, older, handsome, suited) roamed watchfully, while staff bustled like bustling was going out of style. The capacious dining room was nearly full: Il Fornaio is clearly doing many things right. But here is a page to add to the corporate handbook, ILFO: Ensure that your loss leader is premium quality. Specifically, do not house (soggy) pizza and (indifferent) chicken wings in the same covered steam tray. Do not let the two kinds of bruschetta be brutally salty (olive tapenade) and overly sweet (eggplant and marmalade?). Have the dutiful replenisher look not just for volume, but for whether the trays appear to have been ravaged by a wild dog. Put those half-yard-long Parmesan twigs on all the tables, not just on the bar: They are great. Put out dinner menus, too—your prices are surprisingly reasonable—and inspire would-be freeloaders to order from them. Beggars can, in fact, be choosers.