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Real Estate Editor
May 3, 2018
A beloved Pioneer Square institution for 32 years, Danny Mitchell's Trattoria Mitchelli closed in 2009, just as the recession hit. The space at 84 Yesler Way, in the old Travelers Hotel building, has been vacant ever since.
But finally a new tenant has claimed the corner space, where Post Alley meets Yesler. There's brown paper on the windows, and cleanup work going on inside.
Restaurant investor Sam Takahashi and chef Scott Carsberg toured me through the space this week. It will be home to a new Bisato, a revival of Carsberg's acclaimed Belltown eatery (2010-2012), which replaced his famous Lampreia (1992-2010) at First and Battery.
“It's not very big, it's about 3,000 square feet,” says the James Beard Award-winning Carsberg of the vacant new space. The open kitchen will go in back. There will be a bar, a reception area on Yesler and seating for about 58 diners.
He and Takahashi hope to open by fall or by the holidays. No outdoor seating (for now), no frills, everything custom-made. “Food and service is number one,” says Takahashi. “People come to eat.”
Carsberg and his architect, GM Studio, have already met with the Pioneer Square Preservation District board. Approvals were relatively simple, since the new restaurant doesn't represent a change of use. GM's prior restaurant design work includes Girin, Momiji and Otoro Sushi.
And the general contractor? “Everyone's so busy,” Carsberg despairs. “We're close.”
Takahashi adds, “We don't have any offers or bids yet. We are applying for a building permit.”
“There were no brokers,” says Carsberg. “My last lease was 80 pages. This one was only 14.” As he recalls, he was out walking his dog last summer, not far from home, when he eyed the old Trattoria Mitchelli space.
“I knew Danny, and I knew his dad, of course. Who didn't?” But Carsberg had never cooked for Mitchell — only patronized the place. “The anchovy pasta was my favorite,” he recalls.
Carsberg didn't know the landlord, however, or the provenance of the building. Constructed in 1913, the structure has been known over time as the Travelers Hotel, the Elgin Hotel, and Post Mews. The three-story building at 611 Post Ave. was remodeled in the 1970s by Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects.
It was then considered the first mixed-use condominium in Seattle — and possibly the first in the U.S. It has eight residential units and eight commercial spaces, the latter still owned by Jones & Jones. Commercial tenants include Skyn, a spa and salon, and small offices.
Carsberg got the number for Ilze Jones and called her. “She didn't know who I was.” She Googled him, and they soon met. Negotiations were short and sweet. “I said no lawyers and no brokers.” He and Takahashi have a 10-year lease with two five-year options.
Why was the place vacant so long? The recession, Pioneer Square's endemic problems, uncertainty about the viaduct replacement tunnel … the usual factors. But mainly, says Carsberg of Jones, “She was very picky!” He says it in an affectionate way — picky in the way he's picky about food. “She's known as a tough, smart woman! I think she was waiting for the right partner.”
The longer backstory is that Carsberg had, since the last Bisato, been scouting around town. The recession also scuttled plans for another restaurant. But as the economy rebounded, Capitol Hill was priced out of reach. “They wanted $80 a square foot!” And Old Ballard, though charming, seemed too distant for visiting food tourists. Belltown? Been there, done that. “I was looking for a place that had soul. It's authentic. It's human-scaled,” he says of Pioneer Square.
He also likes to be close to home. “I'm a walker.”
He continues, “The reason it's been vacant is because there's been no one with a serious plan to raise the standards.” In other words, Jones didn't want another tattoo parlor, Subway or 7-Eleven. “That space has to be exceptional. That's one of last great corners in Pioneer Square.”
Jones and her husband, Grant Jones, have been a big part of the movement to preserve the neighborhood. (They also own the nearby Globe Building.) “She needs to be respected for what she's done,” says Carsberg.
Takahashi, a Japanese-born immigrant who came to Seattle in 1970, has been in the food trade for over four decades. In addition to investing in restaurants including Shiro's in Belltown with his friend, the renowned sushi chef Shiro Kashiba, his background extends to hospitality and food operations. He opened Chandler's Crabhouses in Yokohama and Tokyo Bay.
(Editor’s note: The story has been corrected to reflect that Takahashi was not involved with Pearl restaurant in Bellevue, but he opened Chandler’s Crabhouses in Yokohama and Tokyo Bay.)
Though not a chef himself, “I can make all the guests happy,” Takahashi says firmly. “Restaurant operations I know,” Bisato is clearly not a vanity investment for him (and a nephew), but a prestige investment. “I have been in the restaurant business all my life. I know it's a big gamble. The passion comes first, then the money. I have to start giving back.”
Takahashi is also a big believer in culinary tourism. “Seattle is one of the most popular cities in the country. We have so many tourists coming. The Pike Place Market is now a tourist mecca.” He foresees a veritable Silk Road — Food Road? — extending from the market to Pioneer Square, from Shiro's to the new Bisato.
With an eye on the bottom line, he says, “We need lots of reservation people,” not drop-bys and fast-casual patrons looking to fill up quickly before a ballgame.
But Seattle — and Seattle dining — has changed since the old Bisato closed. That place was less expensive than Lampreia — precisely to draw a wider, recession-era demo. Speaking of the new millennial foodie culture, and of time-crunched Amazon and tech workers in general, says Carsberg, “Those kids are going to come.” The new Bisato can't be too fancy, too expensive, too exclusive. “‘Come as you are' is my philosophy.”
Though both partners watch the stalled First Avenue streetcar project with alarm, they believe that pavement will eventually be mended, and the utility pipes returned underground. Takahashi opines, “Pioneer Square has a lot of history. It's a destination place. It's evolving.”
More boutique hotels are coming, too. The two partners were unaware, but delighted to learn, of citizenM's 200-plus-room hotel being planned on the parking lot next door at 60 Yesler.
Cynics and history students might reply that Pioneer Square has seen cruel cycles of optimism-and-decline before.
After the preservationist flowering of the 1970s, when Brasserie Pittsbourg operated in the Pioneer Building, came one bust. Two more cycles followed. And while shared-office operators have lately colonized many historic buildings, and laptop hobos clog every coffee shop, the chronically homeless/addicted/mentally ill population has never been larger or more visible.
As if on cue, as Carsberg, Takahashi and I are walking in Post Alley, a polite but persistent panhandler joins the group unbidden. This is not what international food tourists from well-scrubbed world capitols want to experience.
And that is one reason Mitchell finally closed Trattoria Mitchelli. He had long complained about the decline of Pioneer Square, citing the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake and Mardi Gras riot and murder, as hurting neighborhood businesses.
Mitchell opened his eponymous eatery in 1977 with business partner Jackie Roberts. (She later ventured out on her own to open the Pink Door in 1981.)
At the height of his restaurant empire in the 1990s, Mitchell and family also operated Angelina's Trattoria in West Seattle, Bella Luna in Greenwood, and Stella's in the University District.
Today there are signs of hope around Pioneer Square. Besides the citizenM hotel, the Pioneer Square Hotel at 77 Yesler is adding 33 rooms and 35 parking spaces (mostly below grade). The nearby J&M Hotel Building may yet realize its planned conversion into a modern boutique hotel. All those guests could become future diners at the new Bisato.
Just down First at Jackson, there's a new General Porpoise donut shop, run by Carsberg's fellow food maven Renee Erickson. Next to that, Carsberg tells me, there are plans to revamp Il Terrazzo Carmine. And in the same building, a new Browne Family Vineyards tasting room recently opened. (They're all part of Hudson Pacific Properties' King Street Crossing complex.)
Some kind of food hall is planned for the old F.X. McRory's space at RailSpur.
Carsberg says the viaduct removal wasn't a factor in choosing Pioneer Square. “It's about time for restaurants to invest. This is the start of it. It's changing.”
So is Carsberg, after his six-year hiatus. What was he doing during that interim?
“I was still cooking, but I didn't tell anyone. I didn't put it on social media.” Those gigs included pop-ups and private events. He also consulted for businesses including Fran's Chocolate and Caffe Vita. He and his wife, Hyun Joo Paek, who was integral to both prior restaurants, also traveled to Europe, Korea, Japan and points beyond. He enthuses, “Everyone in the hospitality industry needs to go to Japan. My only regret is that I didn't go there sooner.”
He raves about a visit to Sawada, the legendary Tokyo sushi spot with two Michelin stars. He went as a pupil as much as a diner. “I had to retool. I've always wanted to be a better cook. The difference between very good and excellent is not just the details, but the improvement.”
So part of the last six years have been a culinary sabbatical of sorts; and another part sounds like some sort of Zen vision quest.
Accordingly, there's a new documentary-in-progress, “The Last Course,” about Carsberg and the Bisato reboot. The film's executive producer, Christopher Boffoli, has been filming Carsberg off-and-on for four years.
“He's been saying this is going to be the last, best restaurant of his career,” says Boffoli. “He's not the kind of guy who wants a chain of restaurants.” Boffoli plans to incorporate scenes of the new Bisato's development into his doc, which he hopes to have finished in time for the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival.
Carsberg isn't going to reinvent the Bisato concept, which could loosely be described as Venetian or Northern Italian or even Tyrolean Italian cuisine. Will some familiar menu items return? “Absolutely! Don't go against the river,” he says.
The workaholic Carsberg was known for doing practically all the cooking at the old Bisato and Lampreia — instead of franchising those names and launching new ones. That's not likely to change.
“I've never wanted to be big, like Tom Douglas. I'm an old-school chef. Since I was 14 years old, I wanted to be a chef. And I still do. That's why I'm always there [in the kitchen]. You have to be willing to physically do it. It takes the same amount of time to do it bad as to do it good.”
Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at email@example.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.