909 NE Boat St (U-District), 632-4602, www.boatstreetcafe.com. Closing Thurs June 26.
After months of tense negotiations with new landlords, it was announced last week that the Boat Street Cafe had lost its lease, and will be closing its doors after nine years of business. The restaurant's last meal will be served on June 26, and the building itself--a low-ceilinged, cottage-like structure under the University Bridge, right on the edge of Portage Bay--will be torn down on July 1. An office building will replace the Boat Street, and chef-owner Renee Erickson is currently looking for a new space.
At this point, the facts are still new, and rather bleak: When Erickson took over the Boat Street in 1998 (after working there off and on since 1994, when original owner Susan Kaplan opened the cafe), she signed a five-year lease with a renewable option. Since the restaurant continued to do well, Erickson had every intention of renewing her lease. After last year's sale of the Boat Street property from the previous owner to Northwest Building LLC (a downtown real-estate investment, development, and management company), Erickson was assured by her former landlord that she had nothing to worry about.
Apparently she did: Reps from Northwest Building claim they were not informed about Erickson's lease option, and had already planned on redeveloping the lakefrontboatyard property. (A two-story, 17,600-square-foot administrative building will be built.) After a frustrating series of discussions and misunderstandings, and a near-lawsuit, Erickson finally reached a settlement last month with Northwest Building, which will at least help with moving costs and transitioning employees.
"They did offer me a [restaurant] space in the new building," says Erickson, "but what's sad is that they think I can go just anywhere. This is a site-specific place--and this street, this type of building, is what makes the Boat Street quirky and unique. This place was a shack when Susan [Kaplan] first started. There was no kitchen, no ventilation or plumbing. The stove was electric back then, and only a couple burners worked. The oven had to be bungeed to something else to keep it open. You couldn't use more than a few appliances or you'd blow out the electricity for the entire place. After I took over, I put more work into it--the wine bar, planted the garden.... My dad built this patio. I've employed my friends. This has been more like home to me than any other place for the past nine years."
For those who understand the heartaches and risks of the restaurant business, the Boat Street Cafe represents the most satisfying kind of underdog success. Meals here are delicious, unpretentious, unhurried. The waitstaff is relaxed and unassuming. This is where you go when you want to dine in your hometown, yet somehow feel far from home--as if you're in on some sort of lovely secret. This is where you go for proof that cement floors, a commercial heater, and exposed rafters can be elegant when framed with a string of lights, pop-out windows, and rustic white paint. Add bowls of fragrant lemons, fresh-cut flowers, and travel photos that Erickson took herself, and you'll hardly believe the space used to be a boat-machine shop.
The Boat Street Cafe is also where you go if you believe that good cooking means quality ingredients brought together with simple methods. Erickson's decidedly Southern French menu--nothing is overseasoned, overgarnished, or over the top--reflects her time spent all over Europe: roasted figs, homemade pâté, and Umbrian white-bean crostini share menu space with lamb sausage and polenta, oyster gratin, pork tenderloin with blackberry sauce, fish specials, and signature crab cakes. Lunches are downright Parisian--baguette sandwiches, saffron-fennel soup, niçoise salad; weekend brunches offer treats such as scalloped eggs, smoked trout, scratch pastries, and poached-egg comforts.
Show up before the restaurant's last night, and kick yourself for not knowing about the place sooner. If you're early, you'll see Erickson and her staff bustling around in the tiny kitchen--cluttered and filled with good, buttery smells--bracing for the dinner rush. In a corner by the patio door, near the wine racks and under the table where desserts are cooling, you'll also see Jeffrey, Erickson's big yellow dog, lying down in his spot, patiently waiting for Erickson. His eyes never leave her, and he looks like he'd follow her anywhere.