A week ago, on the day the death toll locally reached 15, I was talking to some colleagues in the newsroom about what restaurants are up against now that people are being encouraged to stay home. The margin in the restaurant business is about 3 percent, which is much lower than most people realize. ("Then why would anyone do it?" someone once asked, incredulously, of a friend who owns restaurants, and who sometimes wonders the same thing.)
Small businesses on average pay $9k a month in rent, my colleague Nathalie Graham pointed out, citing a number from the Office of Economic Development. Labor costs are higher here than in other places in the country. Tax deferrals, which have been announced both locally and federally, don't help significantly, because those taxes are still due soon. And Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's small-business grants of "up to $10,000" hardly seem like they could help any restaurant bigger than a taco truck.
A month or two without customers could change everything for a restaurant, I said to my colleagues. Imagine if your 10 favorite restaurants closed for a month or two. Imagine them losing so much money during the time (rent is still due, after all) that they are not able to reopen when this is over. That's the whole life of the city changing overnight, permanently.
During that conversation, I didn't think that would actually happen. I hoped it wouldn't happen. A week later, not only is it happening, but the number of restaurants closing not just temporarily but in some cases permanently is up to 40.
"The hemorrhaging is so deep and so fast, that’s what’s truly terrifying," said Terra Plata owner Tamara Murphy this week. She oversaw the opening of Cafe Campagne in 1993, and in 1995 won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific Northwest. "I’ve seen the dot-com crash, I’ve seen 9/11, I’ve been through two recessions; I have not ever seen anything quite like this," Murphy said in an interview with Kiro's Rachel Belle.
Restaurants that have already closed permanently include The Brooklyn steakhouse and oyster bar downtown, Local 360 in Belltown, Arriba Cantina in Wallingford, and Drive Thru Boba in Bellevue, according to Eater.
The list of restaurants temporarily closing is much longer, and it includes little sandwich spots like HoneyHole, one of my go-to lunch spots on Capitol Hill, and bigger restaurants like Palace Kitchen, which is my favorite restaurant in the city.
Everyone who's been to Palace Kitchen knows how great it is. A golden glow pervades the place, emanating from the kitchen. The bar is in the center of the room, with seating on either side. The whole idea of Palace Kitchen is that this is where palace servants gather to feast and play, which explains that giant oil painting of a palace kitchen. The cooks all wear mechanics' jumpsuits—and they include, sometimes, Tom Douglas himself, the man with three James Beard awards.
Often late at night downtown, it's the only place open. You can walk in at midnight and eat like a king. They serve their full menu until 1 am. The servers include poets and other bohemian eccentrics, and the clientele often overlaps with the clientele at nearby Jazz Alley. Celebrity sightings at Palace Kitchen over the years have included Tracy Morgan, Martha Stewart (weeks before her incarceration), and Isabella Rossellini.
We develop ties with our favorite places for personal reasons, and sometimes the allegiance happens accidentally, the way so many things in a big city happen accidentally. My 21st birthday just so happened to be September 11, 2001. For obvious reasons, I will never forget that day. I had a pretty wonderful boyfriend at the time, who not only made dinner reservations for Queen City Grill, but also hired a limousine to take us and our friends there. When we showed up, a cluster of balloons tied around my wrist, they told us that, unfortunately, because of the terrorist attacks, they were closing, and were not going to be able to host us for my birthday dinner.
We didn't know what to do, so we walked over to Palace Kitchen. When we got there, a host told us that, unfortunately, they were also closing because of the terrorist attacks. Then she asked about the balloons tied to my wrist, and after I told her, she asked us to hold on a second, and disappeared into the depths of that big open kitchen, and came back moments later to tell us that they had changed their minds. Because it was my birthday, they wanted to stay open for us. I could have died of gratitude—and so could have all the other customers who wandered in that night, seeking refuge from a scary world.
We paid them back by spending as much money as we could. We got the goat cheese fondue with the apples and bread, we got the romaine salad with the one huge crouton, we got the (stuffed, breaded) olive poppers, we got the perfect "plin" pasta (made by the same woman, Martha, who worked for Douglas for 24 years), we got the Palace Burger (it used to come out on three tiered plates, looking less like a burger and more like a work of art), we got the whole trout (which the servers filleted table-side). And for dessert, obviously, we got the famous coconut cream pie.
I tried to focus on my friends, on the food, on the soothing feeling of being in a restaurant that's just unbelievably good, in the middle of a city that's unbelievably good, while the world darkened around us. All I could really think about was the feeling of free fall, the unforeseeability of the future, the evil of religious extremism, and the quickness with which things change. That was the biggest lesson of that birthday, other than my general luck to be alive: Things can change very, very quickly. Life can end in an instant. The world can change just like that.
Businesses have lives of their own, too. And everyone who owns a restaurant, everyone who works at a restaurant, and everyone who goes to that restaurant, is part of the story of that life. Years and years of work, years and years of success, can end without warning. "Sales at Douglas’ restaurants have declined up to 90 percent since the coronavirus outbreak," the Seattle Times reported on Wednesday. "I am sad for our city," Douglas told the paper, adding that he hopes to reopen his businesses in eight to 12 weeks.
The decision to stay open on my birthday—that one on-the-spot gesture from the staff at Palace Kitchen—won me over for all time. They didn't have to do that. I'm sure that kitchen, those servers, that host, wanted to go home and be with their loved ones. What they did was generous and human and warm, and it is the reason Palace Kitchen became my favorite restaurant, and it is the thing I think of when I think about the spirit of that place. "Palace Kitchen is open," I always think when I'm downtown and it's late. Just knowing it's open makes me happy, even when I'm not there. I'm gutted to see it closed, and I hope it makes it through this.
Has one of your favorite restaurants closed? Tell me about it and I may use your story in a future post.