An axe, a logging saw, and a hard hat: The Shantys Cafes past hangs on its walls.
  • The Stranger
  • An axe, a logging saw, and a hard hat: The Shanty Cafe's past hangs on its walls.

“Because we’re idiots. Crazy, too.” Ginger Crowley is sitting at the counter of the Shanty Cafe—the little diner that sits at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, just across the street from Elliott Bay—explaining why she and her best friend Theresa Schmetzer bought the place in 1998. If you’ve ever driven to Ballard, you’ve no doubt noticed the Shanty: cute and shingled, occupying its own tiny triangular lot off Elliott Avenue, its jaunty sign promising the comfort that only oily hash browns can provide.

Since 1914, the Shanty has been serving up burgers, hash browns, scrambles, biscuits, waffles, and chicken fried steaks (the restaurant's number-one best seller) to hungry Seattleites—initially to mostly blue-collar workers from what were once the nearby lumber yard, Darigold factory, and glass company. But these days, says Crowley, “I get everybody: cops, firemen, Amazon [employees], and—well, I call them ‘the nerds,’ but in a good way.” She motions across the street to the new buildings housing, Big Fish Games, and “CTI, whatever that stands for—you know, something biotech-y.”

Crowley (who also doubles as Shanty’s pie maker) calls the restaurant’s offerings “classic American food” and proudly notes that everything is made from the freshest stuff possible and cooked to order—no doubt what has helped the Shanty stay in business for so long. (As Crowley and I talk, longtime employee Leslie Sumita updates the cafe’s two whiteboards with the next day’s specials: Bacon Pecan Waffle and Fresh Spinach Scramble.)

Longtime Shanty employee Leslie Sumita and co-owner Ginger Crowley
  • The Stranger
  • Longtime Shanty employee Leslie Sumita and co-owner Ginger Crowley.

Sipping on what is probably one of many mugs of coffee she consumes each day, Crowley delves into what she knows of the Shanty’s history. The two friends bought the Shanty from Jackie Philbrick, who owned and operated the place for 23 years. (Crowley, who waited tables for Philbrick when she was in high school, fondly remembers her as “a crazy lady,” “a second mom,” “not that nice,” and “a gambler with a beehive hairdo.”) Turns out the Shanty has had a long line of women owners—before Philbrick, the restaurant was owned for decades by Violet Horman. Back then it was known as Violet’s Hamburger Shanty.

“Of course, we didn’t know the first thing about running a restaurant when we bought this place,” Crowley continues. “It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had.” Either Crowley or Schmetzer are on-site every day, and to save money during hard times, they’ve played the roles of electrician, roofer, and plumber. (“I’ve done lots of things I’m nowhere near qualified to do,” said Crowley.) But the duo’s hands-on approach has also led them to an even deeper understanding of the Shanty’s past.

About seven years ago, Crowley and Schmetzer needed to redo the building’s distinctive siding. They removed the old siding, revealing layers of history. What they thought were two windows turned out to actually be two door frames, confirming that the building had once been a pay station for dock workers, who came in one door, picked up their wages, and walked out the other. (“Some guys must’ve been drinking on the job,” Crowley says with a smile, “because I also found a bunch of tiny alcohol bottles stuffed in between the wall boards.”) Also discovered: old advertising murals, newspapers, and jukebox tabs.

A couple of years ago, the plumbing in the men’s bathroom started acting up, necessitating some digging. Less than two feet into the ground, below the Shanty’s crawl space, Crowley came upon a pile of clam shells. “Not too long ago, this was the beach. It got filled in as they built the city. We’re all just sitting on sand.”

It’s a good reminder of how far the Shanty has come. Business was hard for a few years, says Crowley, but the Shanty still has regular customers, and things are picking back up. “We’re lucky,” she says. “We own our own city block. Who can say that anymore?”