Food & Drink

S&M Dining

Why Do Seattle's Hottest Chefs Want to Be the Boss of You?

S&M Dining

Cory Gustason

HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE The giant communal table at Spinasse.

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A re you ready to submit?

Three of Seattle's top chefs—at the Corson Building, Spinasse, and Poppy—want to dominate you.

They want you to give up control, to surrender to their will, in order (they hope) to please you in exponentially greater ways. They get vicarious pleasure (they hope) through what they impose on you: dictating what you're going to put in your mouth, who you're going to do it with, and/or how much you're going to pay for the privilege. In return for your submission (of your will, of the contents of your wallet), they promise things your average vanilla restaurant won't do.

Dinner at the Corson Building is officially known as "Evening at the Corson Building," which is a promise and a warning: You give Matthew Dillon your night, and he has his way with you. There's one seating per evening, no host stand, no menu, no tables for two; for your $90 a person (plus $30 for selected-for-you wine pairings), you sit cheek by jowl with whoever else happens to be there, eating course after course of Dillon and Emily Crawford's choosing. (Wednesdays and Sundays bring fewer courses and reduced prices.) Some of the obvious payoffs: weather permitting, sparkling wine and appetizers in the beautiful garden of the tiny estate, which is marooned in industrial Georgetown; the instant-European-vacation aspect of the elegant but anti-fussy interior of the 1910 Corson Building; the charming ministrations of handsome co-owner Wylie Bush; the food of a nationally renowned chef. The fetishization of the local and the seasonal that Dillon was inured to in his training at the Herbfarm is absolutely in force here, to diners' vast advantage—providing they're sufficiently adventurous eaters to enjoy what the local seasons have to offer. Dillon doesn't pull punches when it comes to meat, either, serving tongue, headcheese, whatever he likes.

One thing you don't get at the Corson is a stare-into-each-other's-eyes date, and unless you bring a crowd, there's no guarantee that the person next to you will be safely into what you're into. One couple who resolutely ignored the rest of their communal table incurred wrath from a commenter on "Stay home or... book a quiet table for two somewhere where your milquetoast personalities won't interfere with the dining enjoyment of others." (One of the accused milquetoasts responded that this electronic dressing-down had "totally ruined the experience and my birthday.") A reviewer in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently described being "sandwiched between" one party getting exercised about politics and another speaking Hebrew ("awkward," she wrote; "How about an icebreaker... introducing yourself and naming your favorite season and your favorite seasoning?"). The same reviewer upbraided Dillon for not providing enough food, as some platters were emptied before making it around the table. And everyone agrees: The seats at the Corson are unusually close together—you're practically in your neighbor's lap—and the benches are rock hard.

Dillon knows he's making people uncomfortable, and he likes it. "It's my social experiment," he says. It is indeed about who's in charge—he's the lord of the manor, and you're his guests, at his feast. "It was a strategic move by me to take control away and to take comfortability away. When people have too much of those two things, their assumptions and preconceived notions come too much into play." He feels entirely justified: "I'm the one who put all the money up, and I'm the one back there working." In the interests of depriving diners of what they're used to, throwing them off balance, he has "stripped it down—the restaurant became very naked. They either run, which is fine, or their senses are heightened." If you want control for your $120, take it elsewhere.

Dillon mentions Zen Buddhist philosophy, saying that the style of service is meant to create awareness of fellow diners, to underscore that the world doesn't revolve around you. "Everybody's different, that's the beauty of it—all these experiences put in one room is one big energy level." The diners are invited to visit the kitchen, too; Dillon sees it as an equalizer. "For us and the customer, we're all in the same boat here, we're all in this together." It's to diners' advantage, he maintains, that they're all getting the same thing, because it gives the kitchen more focus. "We're all working on one thing, which is dinner, not one plate at a time." He hopes that people would join in when it comes to dining-table political discussions, and he says everyone's told to police themselves, to have some self-control—platters have to go all the way around the table. Part of giving up responsibility brings new responsibilities with it, rules that look a lot like those of life in general: Don't be a drag and don't be a hog. The Corson is a luxury experience that seeks to re- define luxury, that refuses to go soft on you.

For the Corson, so far, so good. Online diners' reviews tend toward glowing—e.g., from "Can't stop thinking about it... Matt Dillon's kitchen quietly pockets the Herbfarm torch. Honest and open to everyone, both humble and generous." And the romantic-daters and other-people-haters seem to be self-selecting out. But are there enough deep-pocketed selectors-in to fill the tables at premium prices? Will Dillon's substantial reputation make—and keep—the Corson enough of a destination, like the long-established Herbfarm, to weather the long economic winter that's coming?

Justin Neidermeyer's experiment in family-style communal dining on Capitol Hill, Spinasse, is less expensive than the Corson, less sweeping in scope, and has already been adjusted to better suit your desires. Much has been made of Spinasse's rustic charms: the white lace curtains, the candles picturesquely dripping wax on the long shared tables, both Neidermeyer's pasta-cutting tools and his kitchen on display as portraits in craft. The simple, wonderful Piedmontese cuisine has been the subject of the kind of labyrinthine analysis and elaborate praise that would make actual people in Piedmont laugh uproariously while they poured another glass of wine. (One reviewer compared a bowl of Neidermeyer's pasta to Edith Piaf, later bringing in French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and authenticity versus simulacra.) What is uppermost in all minds right now is value: Is a $20 bowl of pasta, eaten in close quarters with unknown-quantity humans, worth it?

Spinasse served exclusively family-style set menus when it opened, requiring each party to reach consensus on what dishes to order: two courses for $32 per person, four for $47, or everything for $75. But people walked in wanting to have—expecting to be able to have—pasta and a glass of wine. The pushback was strong enough that Neidermeyer immediately and seriously reconsidered the value of his concept versus the value of giving people what they want. After only four days, he gave up: Spinasse began also offering everything on the menu à la carte. He had envisioned a quiet little place with customers obediently enjoying his European vision of service, but, he says, "The reality is we had to adjust really quickly. We don't live in a place where that's normal, and I don't want to be the cowboy that tries to make it normal.... It's how the culture eats.... In a perfect world, I'd love for all of us to be able to do these ideas and have it work. But in America, people are used to getting whatever they fucking want all the time."

But Neidermeyer is not giving up on communal seating, nor is he doing it because it's in vogue; with him, it's not a pretension. "I just like big giant tables," he says. "I think it's cool, and it's the best way to maximize the space, and it fits the style well. I'm not trying to push politics on people." When you can see and smell what other people are eating, he says, "You get more dinner out of it." He reckons that approximately 50 percent of customers agree. Spinasse is crowded and loud for a pricier place—Neidermeyer says he hears a fair number of complaints along the lines of "I'm from Madrona, and I pay a lot of money to eat here, and I can't have a conversation with my husband." But again, it's 50-50. "Half the people are like, 'You should do something about the noise,' and the other half love it." He's with the other half: "It's healthy, it's packed and smelly and loud, like a real trattoria." (Seats at the bar, with the prime view of the pasta counter and kitchen, fill up at 5:00 p.m., even on Sunday.)

Half is apparently enough. Spinasse is crazy-busy, and its praises are sung online with very few exceptions. Even those for whom it's a splurge happily sit next to strangers to eat Neidermeyer's food. The noise and turnover make the big tables feel natural—you're not lodged next to the same people all night, and the bustle can create bubbles of privacy. No one's focused on their neighbors.

It's true that all of this is nothing new in culinary culture. Prix fixe or tasting menus are as old as eating out itself, and no novelty locally: The Herbfarm, with its single seating nightly, has been doing it (and charging an arm and a leg for it) forever. After more than a decade as the only world-famous chef in these parts, Jerry Traunfeld left the Herbfarm's rarified Eastside confines to open his own restaurant, Poppy, at the north end of Broadway. (During Matthew Dillon's formative years cooking at the Herbfarm, Traunfeld was his mentor. And Dillon and Neidermeyer run with the same avant-garde young-chef crowd, making parties out of slaughterings, sharing purveyors, and pushing one another in new directions, including questioning the most basic assumptions about the restaurant as an institution.)

Traunfeld did not go the controversial communal-table route at Poppy, but long before the first dinner was served, speculation commenced about the viability of its menu concept: dinner served on a thali, a tray with many small-sized dishes meant for one person. In the Indian tradition, a thali is an all-you-can-eat affair, a sort of mini–Indian buffet with free refills; at Poppy, it's $30-plus per person, and you get what Traunfeld wants to give you, in amounts as he sees fit.

On food message boards prior to Poppy's opening, gourmands and restaurant insiders wondered many, many things—like how much of the contents of a thali would be premade each day and how much cooked to order, how the kitchen would deal with the challenge of not only putting the thalis out but making them pretty. Other concerns came from the gut: "What if there are really only one or two things on the Poppy menu that I like? At best I'm going to have to plod through eight or nine other things to get a couple bites of them." A couple months in, the master Traunfeld says it's about trust, flipping this equation around: "It's this idea that you're trusting that we're cooking what's best that day. And there are 10 things on there, so if you don't like one, you're still going to have a lot of things to enjoy."

Traunfeld says the thalis are, in fact, more labor-intensive than a conventional menu, as is making significant changes to the offerings every week (a goal of his, for customers who might come in that often). "We're trying to provide a great value, and I think it is," he says. "The amount of work we're doing in the kitchen...." His voice trails off. "And we're still using the ingredients we were using at the Herbfarm," meaning local and organic. (The most local of it all comes from the garden he created in back, quite a change from the rear exit of the former tenant, the gay bar the Elite.) "Some people expect Indian food, and that's not what I'm doing. It's Northwest food, with a little more spices."

Poppy's prototypically urban-contemporary space—exposed brick walls, simple furnishings, close-set tables, poppy-orange dots as whimsical woodwork and menu accents—is full every night, Traunfeld says. He's getting "lots of great feedback in the dining room" and seeing repeat customers there. "If I never read any of the online stuff..." he says, chagrined; diners' reviews online are decidedly mixed. "Obviously, some people want a menu with full choices—we're trying to accommodate them," he says. The two meat items on the thalis can be swapped out for vegetarian options, and there's also a list of bar snacks and a few more plates. But it's not the concept that the negative reviewers seem to have a problem with—it's that they're not loving very much of what they're getting on their thalis. An early review in the P-I recounted two positive experiences and one "completely underwhelming one," citing underseasoning and problems with cooking, and suggesting Traunfeld reapply himself to his tasting spoon—a serious call-out, especially for a chef of his stature.

The buzz around Poppy is prodigious, but for some customers, the concept isn't deconstructing expectations as much confounding them. Would the kitchen fare better executing a regular-style menu—one that would also give diners a better chance of selecting dishes they'll like? Traunfeld discounts naysayers: "It seems to be working for us." Poppy is still in its honeymoon phase, however—everyone wants to see what Traunfeld is up to. Is he concerned about a risk-taking concept—one that a significant proportion of online reviewers so far have failed to fall in love with—staying popular in a faltering consumer climate? He says, "Every restaurant owner has a concern about the economy now, so again, you just have to see how business is doing. And it's doing fine right now." But Traunfeld recently asked Neidermeyer how his switch to à la carte is working for him.

My father, a notably liberal man in almost every regard, reacted nearly violently when I told him about the restaurants in this piece: "NO," he said, then amended that with a curse. He's not alone. Many people are loath to relinquish control of their eating experience. You know them (and you may even be one): They hate shared plates, large or small; they do not think it's interesting or forward-thinking to eat with strangers; and when it's suppertime, they want it on their terms as much as possible. If it comes with a bill, there's no room for negotiation.

Then there are those who like being dominated at the table, who actively want it, who can't get enough. A woman I know (a very opinionated woman, a champion of critical thinking, of argument, of choice in all areas of life) loves it. She's happy to be released from decision-making at dinner, and the attendant helplessness—the idea that someone is going to anticipate and provide for her needs without her even having to select a seat or look at a menu—is a balm, an ecstasy. Elemental@Gasworks—where owner/waitperson/sommelier Phred Westfall has made domineering an art form—is her all-time favorite restaurant. "I want to be told what to do," she said. She's not yet been to the Corson or Spinasse or Poppy, but she's thrilled at the idea of more places that carry out her fantasy.

Most people, as usual, occupy the middle ground—they might like something other than eating out vanilla-style, but it's going to have to be really, really good (and not too scary) to lure them away from their familiar position. If you're going to take control away from people and require them to pay for the privilege, you've got to make them like it—you've got to shock them with how intensely good it can be. Even then, some will only want to try it once, especially when their dining dollars are fewer and farther between. Between the rock of people's natural resistance to change and the hard place the economy is going, Poppy and the Corson may well be doing some Spinasse-style reevaluation in the not too distant future. recommended

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Comments (65) RSS

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The phrase is "cheek to jowl."
Correct it and then delete this comment.
Posted by Editor on December 17, 2008 at 2:12 PM · Report this
In my experience, Spinasse has it about right.
Posted by jackseattle on December 17, 2008 at 2:44 PM · Report this
when will the matt dillon circle-jerk end? i read somewhere that he hopes the corson will be a "community" type place. i'm not sure i want to build community with people who can afford a $120 dinner on a regular basis.
Posted by newradio on December 17, 2008 at 3:17 PM · Report this
I think it's absolutely true that there are plenty of people in the world who want to be told what to eat and drink. I have worked as a server for years and am constantly asked "what's good? what should I get?" I'm thinking "It's all good, and after after you turn 25 shouldn't you have figured out what you like to eat? or at least be willing to take a leap of faith?"
I like Dillon's concept and it is definitely quite the social experiment. And your writer is correct, dining communaly draws attention to good manners and we should all spend a little more time thinking about the well-being of others and less about ourselves. There are too many jerks in restaurants demanding that, for instance, the temperature of the dining room be adjusted to THEIR particular comfort level (ditto background music volume). If you want things exactly the way you like them then learn to cook and eat at home.
I live on the east coast but will be visiting Seattle in 2009, Corson's and Spinasse are now on my to-do list. Of course, so is Dan Savage.
Posted by VAGuy on December 17, 2008 at 4:41 PM · Report this
Dillon can go fuck himself. Communal dining just doesn't work in Seattle. Save the social experimenting and try to remember that you're nothing without the people who are paying you to feed them. True foodies know the Herb Farm is the over-hyped, over-rated poster child for the famous Seattle undeserved standing ovation, suited to the boorish, aspirational middle class who don't know any better. So I reckon the Corson Building is just a watered down version of something that wasn't very good in the first place.
Posted by Aidan Hadley on December 17, 2008 at 4:41 PM · Report this
lets not forget Dinettes sunday supper... if you want a true communal meal sans pretentious and overpriced!
Posted by stupidsexyflanders on December 17, 2008 at 5:43 PM · Report this
probably the most interesting restaurant review you've written - congratulations on raising some very good questions pertaining to subjects not often addressed in food writing (sitting near loudmouthed blowhards, civility, etc.). communal tables definitely have their place: dinner parties (where we get to choose the company) and cheap eats, peasant-y places - but @ $150+ ??? I think I'd be pretty pissed if an empty platter arrived at my place at that price...
Posted by musicslug on December 17, 2008 at 7:09 PM · Report this
Where are all the bold-face words ? I'm not going to read the whole article Bethany-Jean.
Posted by biff on December 17, 2008 at 7:09 PM · Report this
FUCK YOU !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Posted by biff on December 17, 2008 at 7:15 PM · Report this
sorry about that last one...My elbow must have hit the keyboard.
Posted by biff on December 17, 2008 at 7:19 PM · Report this
I've always thought that the foodie obsession with communal tables and pricey prix fixe meals (which have to be reserved weeks in advance, menu unseen) had overtones of a D/s thing. Trend-chasing nits with too much money and privilege pay big bucks to play peón for an evening, ordered around and told what they'll eat and with whom. No thanks! There are many talented chefs I admire and respect, but that doesn't mean I want to hand them total control of my evening out. Offer me some appealing choices, and let me decide which I'll order, and who I'll enjoy them with.

At least we haven't seen much hereabouts of another ridiculous manifestation of the submissive-diner fetish: restaurants where you eat in total darkness, attended by servers wearing night-vision goggles. I thought that one had to be a joke when I first heard about it--only the second or third time did I finally have to conclude it was for real.
Posted by not THAT kinky on December 17, 2008 at 8:40 PM · Report this
Actually, he retorted pompously, the expression IS "cheek by jowl".……
Posted by Jason on December 18, 2008 at 12:06 AM · Report this
"Editor", I don't know where you're from, but "cheek by jowl" is the usual rendering. As a crude metric, that phrase has 212,000 results in Google. Your version has 29,400 results. People in glass houses, eh?

As for these restaurants, other than the thali place, they sound like a horrorshow. It's fine going to a big banquet with friends or family - and with all those disingenuous remarks about how they do it in Italy, it is with family, or your village of 500 people (whom you all know, at least by sight).

But why would I pay all that cash for complete mayhem and no choice, with complete strangers? Perhaps they should say "introverts need not apply" at the door. But so long as it's clear what the deal is before I walk in the door, or god forbid, order, if other people want to put themselves through it, that's their prerogative. I personally think that social experiments are best kept to therapy rooms, with people who have more relevant qualifications than chefs.
Posted by Trix on December 18, 2008 at 2:31 AM · Report this
BJC - one of the best reviews you've written. Nice work.
Posted by libbertine on December 18, 2008 at 5:07 AM · Report this
I've had great experiences with communal dining, but only when I can order my own damn food. The last time I sat at a group table with family-style platters was at a fundraising event. A woman at our table served herself and her two elementary-school-aged granddaughters half of the salad (one of the girls picked out all the cherries in what was left - "she just loves cherries!" grandma exclaimed) while the other SIX people at the table looked aghast. Luckily, we intercepted all the other platters so we did end up getting something to eat.

There was a dessert auction after the dinner, and my group of three bought a small torte and shared it with the other six at our table. Grandma took a quarter of it and traded that piece with another table for part of their dessert, which she didn't share. Then she and the kids ate another 1/4 piece for themselves.
Posted by Luckier on December 18, 2008 at 8:27 AM · Report this

I know that the world doesn’t revolve around me, but do these chefs? Yes, Matt Dillon put his money and labor into Corson but he forgets the fact that without people willing to pay to eat his food, he would have no kitchen of his own. And where does Justin Neidermeyer get the idea that it is part of the trattoria experience to dine wedged between strangers at a communal table? During the many years I lived in Italy, where I ate at all kinds of restaurants from Bolzano to Naples, I only saw communal seating once, at a piadina place in Ravenna. His comment that we don’t live in a “normal place” and that people are too used to having their own way is really a veiled complaint; if he makes changes requested by customers, he’s not getting what he wants! Behind all of the denigration of their less “cool” patrons and the allusions to Zen philosophy, I smell a business model designed to pack the maximum number of diners into a small space and to make planning and cooking easier. Surely some will like (or pretend to like) eating with strangers, for others the food will trump a less than perfect atmosphere, but there will always be many who will continue to prefer places where good food and gracious service(which always includes attention to customer’s preferences) are balanced with good business.
Posted by luigia on December 18, 2008 at 9:02 AM · Report this
Are you sure that: "The fetishization of the local and the seasonal that Dillon was inured to in his training at the Herbfarm is absolutely in force here..." is what you want to say? See definition of inure, below.

in·ure also en·ure:
tr.v. in·ured also en·ured, in·ur·ing also en·ur·ing, in·ures also en·ures
To habituate to something undesirable, especially by prolonged subjection; accustom: "Though the food became no more palatable, he soon became sufficiently inured to it" (John Barth).
Posted by wurd_luvver on December 18, 2008 at 9:16 AM · Report this
I know that the world doesn't revolve around me, but do these chefs? Yes, Matt Dillon put his money and labor into Corson but he forgets the fact that without people willing to pay to eat his food, he would have no kitchen of his own. And where does Justin Neidermeyer get the idea that it is part of the trattoria experience to dine wedged between strangers at a communal table? During the many years I lived in Italy, where I ate at all kinds of restaurants from Bolzano to Naples, I only saw communal seating once, at a piadina place in Ravenna. His comment that we don't live in a "normal place" and that people are too used to having their own way is really a veiled complaint; if he makes changes requested by customers, he's not getting what he wants! Behind all of the denigration of their less "cool" patrons and the allusions to Zen philosophy, I smell a business model designed to pack the maximum number of diners into a small space and to make planning and cooking easier. Surely some will like (or pretend to like) eating with strangers, for others the food will trump a less than perfect atmosphere, but there will always be many who will continue to prefer places where good food and gracious service (which always includes attention to customer's preferences) are balanced with good business.
Posted by luigia on December 18, 2008 at 10:25 AM · Report this
To an introvert, these places sound exhausting and a big headache. I don't know why a business would want to dissuade roughly 25% of the population from going there.
Posted by jim on December 18, 2008 at 10:50 AM · Report this
Poppy fucking sucks. Overpriced and tastes like shit.
Posted by Mr. Poe on December 18, 2008 at 11:29 AM · Report this
I think these restaurants are fine for people who seek out this kind of entertainment. Your review helps inform people what they can expect when they go. I say buyer beware.

I think if I were younger and not so grumpy (and not so poor) I might enjoy this kind of setting. In some ways it's not that different than going over to someone's house to eat (except when you eat at a friends you know many of the people and you don't spend $150 a person).
Posted by elswinger on December 18, 2008 at 11:55 AM · Report this
I went to Spinasse last week. The $75 "everything" seemed worth it to me. Especially as we enjoyed almost everything, were definitely satiated, and we had leftovers good for another meal.

Yes, it was loud. Okay by me, but my older companions were not as tolerant of the noise level. That might not be for everyone. Our neighbors were pleasant and we enjoyed the communal experience--talking with them a bit, but each having our own conversations.

Regarding giving the control over to the chef, that's something that is nice to do, especially if you trust the kitchen. For example, when I go to Rover's it's nice to just say how hungry you are and let them bring food until you are full. I know that whatever they make is going to be tasty, so having each wonderful dish be a surprise is just an added bonus.

Posted by slugbiker on December 18, 2008 at 12:19 PM · Report this
wow, you're really getting you money's worth out of that dinner at the corson building. what is this the tenth article about them?
Posted by d on December 18, 2008 at 12:52 PM · Report this
The phrase is "cheek by jowl", and somebody calling themselves 'Editor' needs to find another job or learn to do it better.
Posted by malixe on December 18, 2008 at 1:07 PM · Report this
I have been to these places - more yuk than wow

you fail to mention the fare number of people who just quietly leave, ask the help

the is the new face of snob, has little to do with the food, sorry, Seattle is still a town not a world class city

sounds like cooking school - you pay to eat the output

I thought the food at Poppy was almost horrible, granny does better Asian/Ethnic/Thai, much better

Course she is a retired chef ... good read
Posted by Eric on December 18, 2008 at 1:08 PM · Report this
I usually have a great time at communal tables and like forcing shy Seattle into making conversation. But you kind of have to be up for it, and making it intentionally physically uncomfortable on top of the social effort is mean and stupid. Dillon's "I put up all the money" doesn't work any better for food than it does for self-published poetry. If your art involves an audience, maybe you should try not to hate them.
This was useful, too: I now know that I shouldn't bother going to Corson, that Spinasse will be great but I'll think it's too expensive and full of assholes, and that Poppy is a bargain even if I only really love a few of the things. Gold star on BJC's forehead.
Posted by alight on December 18, 2008 at 1:52 PM · Report this
@newradio what's so wrong about starting a community of people who are willing to pay so much for an amazing meal? It's not like these people have that kind of crazy extravagant meal every night. What about the people who buy 4 or 5 video games a month? that's about the same price, and you aren't getting on the gaming community's case. Some people (myself included) find the enjoyment of food just as fulfilling as buying expensive concert tickets, or buying a new pair of shoes.
Posted by chrisfurniss on December 18, 2008 at 2:29 PM · Report this
Isn't this how Rome ended????
Posted by Steve on December 18, 2008 at 4:37 PM · Report this
Steve - yes

common folk left out

the rick and lazy and greedy talking to each other, showing only their wealth
Posted by Alec on December 18, 2008 at 6:11 PM · Report this
glad to see someone is addressing these 'bold' new dining trends. the chef's 'we'll tell you what you want' attitude seems in line with much recent psychological research of happiness: we think choice will make us happier, but we are so foiled by our inability to predict our own happiness that usually choice works against us. so, kudos to the chefs who get the dining experience right. as for communual tables: it all seems inexorably driven by the economics of floor space and abetted by the eater's social alienation and their commensurate desire for a no-strings-attached psuedo-intimate interaction. can't these socially starved eaters just get on plane and chat up their neighbors? must they ruin the demand curve for private seating in new restaurants? sitting elbow to elbow at a shared table, screaming at my companion across the table to be heard, "SO, HOW DID YOUR ABORTION GO?" hmmmm, is it a vision of dining in Hell, or just another night at Spinasse?
Posted by herodosaurus rex on December 19, 2008 at 10:45 AM · Report this
Actually Editor, "cheek by jowl" is every bit as common and proper as "cheek to jowl". Why would you make a comment like that for everyone to see, just to make the author feel small? Editing FAIL.

Great article and perspectives, I am in Oakland/Berkeley CA and will probably never visit these places but I really enjoyed hearing about this concept outside of the bay area.
Posted by yasodhara on December 19, 2008 at 11:18 AM · Report this
I have wanted to make it to Corson - but now - not so much. With an attitude like that, I have zero interest in spending my money there.

I'll spread that $300 (for 2) around to the places that are in this HOSPITALITY business for the right and authentic reasons.

(fyi - Laura Miller handles all the failed restaurant real estate.)
Posted by tired of pomposity on December 19, 2008 at 11:22 AM · Report this

Dancing cheek to jowl, maybe. If one of you is Richard Nixon.
Posted by peel slowly on December 19, 2008 at 12:41 PM · Report this
Another sort of dining where the chef has control: omakase. The best chefs check in with you about your level of comfort and experience with various items, then push the boundary a little. It's expensive, but in the hands of somebody who really knows what he's doing, a revelation.
Posted by wren on December 19, 2008 at 8:15 PM · Report this
For another type of chef-controlled experience, try omakase. The best chefs ask about your likes and comfort level with various foods, then push the boundary. It can be a revelation!
Posted by wren on December 19, 2008 at 8:24 PM · Report this
Before these pretentious creeps came along, I didn't yet know my best restaurant experiences were "vanilla-style". Thanks to Bethany-Jean, now I know. Thanks.
Posted by lemonslice on December 19, 2008 at 11:41 PM · Report this
Poppy rocks. Recently ate there for the first time. I have pretty annoying dietary restrictions and usually at nice restaurants the staff will take the time to tell me what I can and can't eat on the menu. The Poppy staff and kitchen went a leap further, and made us a custom thali that not only accommodated all my weirdness, but was frickin fabulous. And our server could not have been more gracious and nice about it. Now THAT is what I call fine dining.
Posted by Shantih108 on December 20, 2008 at 9:28 AM · Report this
my cake has pie on it.
Posted by pointy on December 20, 2008 at 9:34 PM · Report this
I love good food and have a great respect for chefs who love what they do.

But no way would I pay to be treated that way. Sounds like nothing more then the chef stroking his obnoxiously huge ego - what an ass.

Posted by avictor on December 21, 2008 at 2:31 PM · Report this
Although Poppys has a limited selection,each and every item was amazing! My friend and I shared the vegatarian plate at $32 and walked away full, so it does not have to brake the bank
Posted by c on December 21, 2008 at 4:50 PM · Report this
Firstly: Communal dining is not a new concept. It's private dining that is relatively fresh to our human experience.

Secondly: It sounds like Dillon's comment about 'putting all the money up' was taken out of context. It sounds like he meant that he takes full responsibility for the restaurant and the experience. I don't think he meant it as a 'fuck you' to his customers, more as a way of owning his concept.

Thirdly: Anyone who goes to these restaurants and then complains about some aspect of communal dining *should* be barred from making decisions for themselves because they are obviously total morons. Don't want to eat with strangers? Don't go.

And finally: Anyone who lets an (obviously slanted) review dictate where they will and won't eat probably isn't ready for any of these places anyway.
Posted by Fed Up on December 22, 2008 at 12:16 AM · Report this
I'll read this later (god knows I have the time with this stupid snow storm), but dayum! that photo looks hot. It's like a painting.
Posted by coggie on December 22, 2008 at 1:18 AM · Report this
I've got to agree with Fed Up on this one about taking Dillon's comments out of context and then take it one step further.

I personally didn't read anything into this review that made the chefs come across as narcissistic or assholes in any way. Rather, I thought that the review's main thrust was to simply distinguish these three restaurants from (most of) the rest of the crowd.

The problem with this sort of thing is that there are people out there who project their own prejudices and biases onto the faceless names mentioned in the article. Then, with the unfortunate power of the internet, these people can jump to conclusions and post their unconsidered and uninformed opinions for the world to see.

I have eaten at Spinasse and Poppy but not yet at Corson. At neither of those dining experiences did I feel that I was treated badly. Interestingly, if anything, I'd say that neither of those experiences were even that far outside the norm, as this review would have you believe.

I agree that the communal dining experience is not for everyone, and that many people may not like the lack of choice at these places, but to call the chefs assholes just because they are doing something different (and something you haven't even experienced, yet) is plain stupidity. To waste time and space posting these insulting and uninformed opinions is, I suspect, where the real narcissism lies.

"All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions."
Posted by Jason on December 22, 2008 at 10:11 AM · Report this
Im not sure what everyone is so up in arms about. If you don't like the set up or dining style, or price for gods sake don't go. Unless you go to one of these places and the food is so horrible that you just can't force it down your pie hole then you get to bitch. Do any of you whinners realize how hard it is to put this all together, for financing the place to finding suppliers that wil actually get what they say they can to finding staff, to the years of working in the most pressure packed work environment anyone could choose? Do any of you really have a clue what a life time of kitchen work is worth to put out perfect glorious food, I think not! Not every thing is fucking Rachel Ray and 30 fucking minutes.
Posted by chef214 on December 22, 2008 at 10:23 AM · Report this
My wife and I have been to the Corson Building. We found the chef personable and the food interesting.

The crux of our issue with this type of restaurant is that our version of hospitality is just completely different.

When we host a dinner or party our primary goal is the comfort and pleasure of our guests. We want them to enjoy themselves and hopefully try a wine or dish unknown to them.

If other people like to be uncomfortable while dining, then more power to them, have a good time.

When we go out we will still value the chef who values the comfort of his clients. There are plenty in Seattle. Just go to Le Gourmand in Ballard and you'll see what I mean.

Posted by SK on December 22, 2008 at 11:08 AM · Report this
Two comments. First, communal seating is nothing new, nor is Seattle's reluctance to throw caution to the winds. The communal table at Tavolata, to name but one, is the last spot in the dining room to fill up.

Second, the heavy hand doesn't always belong to the chef. Check out the decor at Barrio, if you will: you might think you're in an S&M dungeon or medieval torture chamber! (Review at
Posted by Cornichon on December 22, 2008 at 11:41 AM · Report this
I think SK makes the mistake of assuming that just because a person is stripped of the crutch of expectation means they cannot also receive comfort and pleasure out of the experience.

Haven't you ever slept with someone for the first time and found it both uncomfortable and gratifying?

Is Seattle really full of so many insecure people who simply cannot bear the thought of experiencing something outside themselves for the purposes of excitement and eventual payoff?

It's not like these chefs are inviting you in, taking your money and punching you in the face. They are bringing you in and asking you to trust that they will take care of you.

It's the people who cannot succumb to that level of trust that are experiencing the highest levels of insecurity and hatred here.
Posted by Fed Up on December 22, 2008 at 12:17 PM · Report this
I think SK makes the mistake of assuming that just because a person is stripped of the crutch of expectation means they cannot also receive comfort and pleasure out of the experience.

Haven't you ever slept with someone for the first time and found it both uncomfortable and gratifying?

Is Seattle really full of so many insecure people who simply cannot bear the thought of experiencing something outside themselves for the purposes of excitement and eventual payoff?

It's not like these chefs are inviting you in, taking your money and punching you in the face. They are bringing you in and asking you to trust that they will take care of you.

It's the people who cannot succumb to that level of trust that are experiencing the highest levels of insecurity and hatred here.
Posted by Fed Up on December 22, 2008 at 12:57 PM · Report this
I was wondering when I saw the headline whether Elemental would garner an honorable mention. Phred turned my dining companion into an unwilling submissive during our one (and probably only) visit to Elemental. I loved it, that is, up until I stumbled outside and threw up all over Wallingford after way too much expensive wine and eccentric but amazing food. Sorry, Wallingford.
Posted by s on December 22, 2008 at 2:16 PM · Report this
Coming from a large family eating in a big group comes natural. What the problem I had w/ Elemental was the server had a very much holier than you approach and how dare you ask what you were being served. Have being in the restaurant industry (in a place that would put Phred's place to shame as far as preparation and creativity) there is only so much assholeitis a paying customer can put up with. Seeing that I was being served by a control freak I did the only sensible thing, I gave my bone from my serving of marrow to his poodle and he freaked out. A customer acted in a way that he could not control and he was not able to roll w/ the punches. Restaurants come and go, not long till this one packs it in and rolls away.
Posted by chuck on December 22, 2008 at 2:36 PM · Report this
Corson Building should be a delightful experience and Lord knows, I really have wanted it to be but unless you go with a group who shares your love of food, has tiny shoulders and long strong arms and with whom you've shared a small tent on a rainy camping trip, I'm afraid the experience is just a bit too much give on the part of the visitor (I'll not use guest as it seems somehow inappropriate). I'm all for giving up control and submitting to the whims of the kitchen and the happy accident of meeting a lovely stranger but in return I'd like just 2 inches more on either side of me and a chef who feels honored that we trust him rather than one who feels he is teaching us a life lesson. Love given and then returned typically makes all parties involved much more content .. I wish Matt Dillon the best and hope that what might be a rough winter softens his outlook just a bit, we might all benefit from that as he has much to offer and plenty of time to mellow.
Posted by oliveoyl on December 22, 2008 at 5:08 PM · Report this
Maybe the idea of communal eating DOES work better cheaper, or at least at a meal that for some reason people here take less seriously- lunch. I love the tiny table at Salumi- the table wine, the raucous conversations, the mixed bag of folks...
Posted by re_80 on December 22, 2008 at 10:30 PM · Report this
Posted by TK on December 23, 2008 at 9:07 AM · Report this
Pity the poor journalist. With so many articles to write, fresh new ideas just don't come fast enough. But sometimes they do, and the danger is in falling too much in love with one's "conceit." In this case, the conceit is DOMINATION, which fits so nicely with the Stranger's S&M fetish. Oh so clever, but unfortunately so transparent. You can see every quote plucked selectively from long transcripts just to fit this theme. And every reasonable statement (like Traunfeld's on trusting the chef to know which ingredients are freshest, which dishes go best together, and how best to prepare them--to trust in the chef's talent in fact) gets twisted to support the artificial conceit of domination. The only thing more transparent than the insecure rage of some of the comments here is the unfortunate abandonment of context and perspective in the author's drive to support her conceit. A poor piece of writing. Much too in love with itself. Your readers and the chefs you make your subject deserve better.
Posted by The P on December 23, 2008 at 10:23 AM · Report this
If I'm going to pay $150 for a night of great dining... I just go w/ a date to Triple door... get great food, strong drinks AND a good show...

Went to Poppy and couldn't even swallow some of the food... spit the muscles into my napkin to avoid gagging... However, their sweet potato fries are very good...
Posted by AB on December 23, 2008 at 10:25 AM · Report this
I agree with AB, Poppy was one of the worst food experiences I've had in Seattle. It had nothing to do with the dining concept but the fact that it was inedible. I too had to spit food into my napkin to avoid from gagging.
Posted by soxforgoats on December 23, 2008 at 12:51 PM · Report this
When I go out to eat in public, I'm there for the food, not the public. Not that I could afford these places but I wouldn't go if I could. I LOVE really good foodie food but I really don't like being around foodies very much.
Posted by ms seattle on December 23, 2008 at 4:35 PM · Report this
Hmmm. Hmm hmm hmm.

I'm not sure what to say. On the one hand, I do love the idea of a communal experience. Luckily, I have had such experiences a number of times - at Crush and also at one or more of the enjoyable 'One Pot' dinners and each time I had a great experience, partly due to the communal nature of the meal.

Really, the discussion is about two separate issues. The first - How great is the food? The second - How great is the company. I can only imagine that one major factor of the latter is how enjoyable are the people sitting to your left, right and across from you? For instance, if the two fellows wo are directly next to me right now were sitting next to me at one of these nice dinners? Well, I'd not have a great experience (trust me...), no matter how great the food may have been.

If the food is great, then this special experience remains far more memorable than another great dinner under normal conditions, where there is no group seating experience. So, for those true foodies, they will forever love the communal experience, and for those stodgy squares - they don't like anything anyway, so fuck 'em.
Posted by Sawadee on December 24, 2008 at 10:12 PM · Report this
I like to be dominated in the bedroom not a restaurant
Posted by sunkissed on December 25, 2008 at 12:22 PM · Report this
What a bunch of pretentious bullshit. No thanks. Seattle has so many affordable and varied places to get great chow. This is just as much a sign of where this sorry country as its banks filled with ill liquid assets. What a load of crap!
Posted by get over yourself on December 27, 2008 at 5:19 PM · Report this
61 IS HEADED....Rich Fucks are going down! in the Decline of 09. The time to riot is now..."Squares?" What? Poor people, naw fuck you!
Posted by get over yourself on December 27, 2008 at 5:24 PM · Report this
What Bethany never seems to mention when she fawns again-and-again over Matt Dillon is that she's good friends with him. And she knows Neidermeyer too. The fact that she couldn't find space in this 1400 word missive to mention those facts (Journalism 101?) means that the Stranger, while doing much better than they ever have before, still has an awfully long way to go to be considered trustable and respectable in food writing circles.
Posted by suspicious on December 30, 2008 at 2:40 PM · Report this
In many ways, this is dinner at my in-laws. Eat what you're served and be nice to their other guests.
Posted by sharonc on January 20, 2009 at 10:42 AM · Report this
You don't have to spend too much at Spinasse - get a plate of pasta and a salad - and you get PLENTY for the money. Every time I go there I get STUFFED full, and if you want a little more elbow room for yourself, sit at the bar instead of being "wedged" by strangers at a table (which I actually find fun). Also, there is a 4-top table in one of the front windows...if you're lucky enough to reserve it! Plus, if you sit with other people at the communal style tables, you really DO get more food than you ordered for yourself - trade pasta! trade the goat for the rabbit!
Anyhow, I love the real food and real people at Spinasse. Nothing pretensious (sp?) about it. just good.simple.fresh. The flavors are so complex, even if its just a few ingredients. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it...
Posted by nadamucho on February 4, 2009 at 4:49 PM · Report this
Fnarf 65
S, you're not the only person who's vomited after an evening of force-feeding at Elemental. I absolutely LOVED the place, and the approach was perfect for me -- "try this", "now try this", "some of this, eh?", but my dining companion, who shall remain nameless, couldn't handle it, and couldn't say no, and got too drunk and too full and spewed vigorously for only the second time in his/her life to my knowledge. It's amazing food, but it's definitely an experience for the addictive or OCD personality (like me).
Posted by Fnarf on June 23, 2009 at 3:44 PM · Report this

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