Food & Drink Dec 18, 2008 at 4:00 am

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

The giant communal table at Spinasse. Cory Gustason

Comments

1
The phrase is "cheek to jowl."
Correct it and then delete this comment.
2
In my experience, Spinasse has it about right.
3
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.
4
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.
5
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.
6
lets not forget Dinettes sunday supper... if you want a true communal meal sans pretentious and overpriced!
7
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...
8
Where are all the bold-face words ? I'm not going to read the whole article Bethany-Jean.
9
FUCK YOU !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
10
sorry about that last one...My elbow must have hit the keyboard.
11
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.
12
Actually, he retorted pompously, the expression IS "cheek by jowl".

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionar…

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/j…
13
"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.
14
BJC - one of the best reviews you've written. Nice work.
15
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.
16


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.
17
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).
18
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.
19
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.
20
Poppy fucking sucks. Overpriced and tastes like shit.
21
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).
22
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.

23
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?
24
The phrase is "cheek by jowl", and somebody calling themselves 'Editor' needs to find another job or learn to do it better.
25
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
26
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.
27
@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.
28
Isn't this how Rome ended????
29
Steve - yes

common folk left out

the rick and lazy and greedy talking to each other, showing only their wealth
30
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?
31
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.
32
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.)
33
Pardon?

http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/chee…

Dancing cheek to jowl, maybe. If one of you is Richard Nixon.
34
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.
35
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!
36
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.
37
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.
38
my cake has pie on it.
39
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.


40
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
41
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.
42
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.
43
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."
44
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.
45
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.

SK
46
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 cornichon.org)
47
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.
48
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.
49
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.
50
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.
51
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.
52
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...
53
TK
54
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.
55
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...
56
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.
57
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.
58
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.
59
I like to be dominated in the bedroom not a restaurant
60
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!
61
...country 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!
62
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.
63
In many ways, this is dinner at my in-laws. Eat what you're served and be nice to their other guests.
64
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...
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).

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