I love diners.
There are few things dearer to me in this world than lingering over a late-night plate of greasy-crisp hash browns and a cup of coffee in the liminal haze after a concert, huddled in a booth with people I love because none of us want to go home yet. Diners function as a gathering space and offer a heady blend of nostalgia and consistency that's only become more appealing in an increasingly unstable climate, as we all wake up to a daily deluge of fresh horrors on our fresh-horrors devices.
But what place does the humble diner have in a Seattle chockablock with aPodments and "mixed-use developments"? In August, the reliable downtown relic Ludi's, a Filipino diner known for its brilliant purple ube pancakes and "combo silog" (a hangover-slaying meal of garlic rice, eggs, pork chop, lumpia, and longaniza), was unexpectedly ousted from its location after 30 years of business due to rising rent costs and losing its lease. (The family who owns it is searching for a new location, but so far has had no luck nailing one down.) And the 24-hour greasy-spoon legend Beth's Cafe faces an uncertain future, as it was recently put up for sale.
Still, the diner is a trope that we turn to for comfort and warmth again and again, a love affair as endless as bottomless coffee refills poured by sass-mouthed waitresses. Lately, a crop of updated diners has started to surface. In New York City, the trendy MeMe's Diner recasts the eatery as a queer millennial brunch hangout with bowlfuls of sugary cereal, and at his new Golden Diner, Momofuku Ko alum Sam Yoo plays with classic comfort dishes like pancakes, matzo-ball soup, and grilled cheese.
In Seattle, Champagne Diner is the latest to join the elevated-diner trend. The Interbay restaurant (945 Elliott Ave W) in the former space of Citizen Six is the brainchild of Bryn Lumsden, a veteran barkeep and former Fleet Foxes member who founded the impeccable Pioneer Square cocktail den Damn the Weather.
With details like aluminum-edged tables and vinyl upholstery, Champagne Diner evokes a cool teen TV hangout by way of a 1980s new-wave music video, a romantic vision in jewel-like turquoise and faded mauve.
On a rainy night, freight cars raced past the window as "Genius of Love" by Tom Tom Club pulsed gently on the sound system. Votive candles flickered and illuminated the bubbles drifting upward in a glass of brut cava, catching the light and making golden flecks dance on the tabletop. Burgers sizzled on the grill, and the lighting cast a soft glamour-filter glow on diners chatting in tall booths, a flock of metallic seagulls mounted on the wall behind them.
Lumsden, who frequented Beth's Cafe as a teen, wanted to create a space that riffed on perceptions of highbrow and lowbrow and paid respects to the diner tradition with local and seasonal ingredients.
"I was always trying to think of a restaurant model that allowed me to do that, to use fresh ingredients but in a way that's familiar and affable to the guests, because I never could stomach trying to sell them on something that's fancier than it needed to be," he says.
The name is an obscure Seinfeld reference, from the "Champagne Video" store that made a cameo in multiple episodes. He was tickled by the unexpected juxtaposition of luxury and mundanity: "You could have a Champagne Hardware store, for instance."
Lumsden adds, "I think everybody wants a little something more than you would cook at home. Otherwise, why leave, other than the fact that you don't have to do dishes? But I don't think anyone in Seattle wants to be caught in a place that's stuffy. We want nice things, but we don't want them to be superfluously opulent, unless it's a special occasion/birthday/anniversary kind of thing."
While doing research, Lumsden found that diners are a "symbol of optimism" in American art and literature. He drew inspiration for the diner's aesthetic and color palette from the photographs of William Eggleston, a pioneer of color photography who documented the beauty of the banal in images like Coca-Cola signs, motels, and bouffanted women in diner booths.
Chef Bryan Miyamoto—who has previously spent time at L'Oursin, Restaurant Zoe, and Art of the Table—developed the food menu, which sources ingredients from local producers like Present Tense Farm, Local Roots Farm, and Foraged and Found.
A seasonal vegetable potpie arrives in its own little foil tin with a flaky, bronzed lid fringed with lacy frisée, like Marie Callender's dressed up in lingerie. The tuna melt, ramped up with Alaskan cod, aioli, cornichons, Gruyère, and sourdough, tasted at once luxe and totally familiar—nothing new, just a really solid tuna melt. For dessert, there's an Ovaltine pie with fluffy malted whipped cream, ideal with a cup of strong coffee from the local micro-roastery Dorothea Coffee.
And of course, with a name like Champagne Diner, wines play a key role in the festive and celebratory atmosphere. Though Lumsden hesitates to throw around the buzzword "natural wine" because of its faddishness, the thoughtfully curated wine list is indeed all natural, "because that's where our values are."
Lumsden's bartending bona fides show up in the cocktail selection, with drinks like the Golden Old-Fashioned—Calvados, gin, the French herbal liqueur Benedictine, and bitters. On the nonalcoholic side of things, there's a fizzy egg cream (in chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla) crowned with a foamy cap.
A mobile at the center of the restaurant is made out of fluorescent light tubes—essentially office lighting fashioned into a chandelier. The gemstone terrazzo tables, handmade by Portland artist Sasha Burchuk of New Age Design Studio, are a nod toward classic Formica while providing a touch of glitz. They're embedded with real gems, a hodgepodge of hard-to-find precious stones and more common varieties.
That's what Champagne Diner is all about—the ordinary commingling with the rarefied. It takes simple, everyday pleasures we know and love (the crunchy crust on a grilled sandwich, a damn fine cup of coffee) and makes them worthy of popping open a bottle.