725 E Pine St, 323-7200
Mon-Thurs 11:30 am- midnight, Fri 11:30 am-2 am, Sat noon-2 am, Sun 1-10 pm. Pizza until 2 am.
It's been around forever (24 years, that is), but Bill's Off Broadway isn't quite an institution so much as an instinct, a place to get a friendly drink or a bite without making a statement. (I guess you could call it a non-statement statement, but I don't want to get into that). Inside the restaurant all those years show--massive rubber plants and banana bushes have grown improbably leggy, the wine- colored paint is dulled by a layer of kitchen schmutz, and the cheesy whiff of a 10,000 pizzas hangs in the air.
As unpromising as it seems, Bill's has been, at least for the past couple of years, a place where you could pick up a surprisingly good lunch. At night, the lazy Italian menu hasn't changed much since 1980--it's mostly pan pizzas and predictable pastas. But day-chef Bryant Bader made lunch into his own little duchy, dishing up soups, brawny sandwiches, and blue-plate specials, most of which maxed out around $6.95. Too bad then, that like so many good things, it's already too late to enjoy them. Friday was Bader's last day at Bill's. He's off homesteading, or actually cafe-steading, to Eastern Washington, where he and his wife, pastry chef Valerie Muder are going to open their own restaurant.
With his neat, thick mustache and his long tumble of graying curls, Bryant looks like he just might be a magician or a prog rocker, and he speaks in a hyper-animated patter that shows he's got a lot on his mind. When I talked with him last week he was finishing up liquor licensing for the new place, packing to move, and tying up loose ends at Bill's. "I never knew the stress diet before. I've lost 30 pounds." He's a true restaurant vet, having worked all around Seattle since 1979--his particular specialty has been brunch-heavy neighborhood cafes including Julia's, the Limelight, and the Swingside Cafe. All those years on busy kitchen lines have given him a certain easy confidence. "I'm one of the best soup makers in Seattle." Indeed his soups are something: In an era dominated by puréed soups, his are the chunky, thick kind of soup you always hope will greet you in the lodge after a few hours of skiing. (Instead you'll almost always get a gluey clam chowder or chili with topped with a greasy orange layer of scum). His chicken gumbo has the unmistakable, bewitching backbone of a dark flour roux coupled with a plump pinch of hot pepper. The creamy paprika base and button mushrooms of his Hungarian mushroom soup are gussied up with fruity chanterelles. For specials, he improvised on a whim like chefs at swankier restaurants--whether you got fried catfish, roast pork, or chili verde for lunch on any given day depended on the market and his mood.
Out east, Baden is joining a little klatch of former Campagne employees, including his talented wife (whose desserts, more recently, were the highlight of my meals at the Fish Club), working in and around Walla Walla--most famous is Jamie Guerin, chef of the much-touted Whitehouse Crawford restaurant. The promise of Napa-like wine tourism, combined with an enviable low cost of living has drawn good cooks and waiters east to the region. Baden and Muder's cafe, the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe, will open in May, in Waitsburg, a bricks and mortar town of some 1,200 souls (120 Main Street, Waitsburg, WA, 509-337-9000). He's hoping to earn a spot on wine tourist routes, but also to build a local clientele with decent prices and a comfortable, Southern-accented menu. Acknowledging his fondness for the flavors of New Orleans and the South, the Minnesota native said, "I grew up on the Mississippi," he says. "Just the other end."
And while Baden is getting ready to say goodbye to Seattle's fine sushi options, he's hoping to bring a little of the big city east--piggybacking fish orders from Mutual Fish with the Crawford Whitehouse and getting FedExed shipments of good cheese and chocolate from Seattle distributors.
Bader feels like he's leaving his lunch gig in good hands, but certainly, for many SIFF passholes, mechanics from the nearby garages, and Stranger editors, it's the end of lunch as they know it.