By Meghan Hall
When local Capitol Hill eatery Mezcaleria Oaxaca began building its third kitchen, little did the project team know the impact it would have in its Capitol Hill neighborhood as shelter-in-place orders took effect. As restaurants shuttered, Mezcaleria debuted its third kitchen—a walk-up taco window—and over the past couple of months has become a highlight for nearby residents, setting a precedent for how restaurants can adapt as Seattle begins to open up post-pandemic.
Located on East Pine Street, Mezcaleria Oaxaca opened back in the spring of 2014 and was the third restaurant to be opened by founding managing partner Roberto Dominguez. Mezcaleria Oaxaca’s two sister restaurants—La Carta de Oaxaca and another Mezcaleria Oaxaca—are located in Ballard and Queen Anne, respectively.
The newest Mezcaleria Oaxaca totals roughly 3,000 square feet. The restaurant was a former auto repair shop, and the updated interior was designed by local firm Graham Baba Architects, who is no stranger to restaurant and retail design in the Puget Sound region.
“We had been working with the owners of the Mezcaleria for years at other locations,” explained Jim Graham, principal at GBA. “When we originally began the project, it was an auto garage in Capitol Hill…it was a newer garage and was less of the grand legacy building that have these large volumes like you see in Melrose Market.”
The original design of the restaurant included high ceilings and a 50-seat dining room, complete with a large kitchen whose half wall is decked out in colorful tiles. Stools are covered in cowhide and large roll-up windows and a roll-up garage door also complete the space. The restaurant also has a rooftop bar, but as Mezcaleria Oaxaca’s popularity grew, the owners and GBA began to work to accommodate more hungry guests. However, the original kitchen could not handle the load brought on by the rooftop, whose capacity was 100 guests.
The result was to add a second kitchen on the roof, but in the form of an entire taco truck.
“We raised a taco truck and put it on the roof, at which time the roof deck was really hopping,” said Graham. “The kitchen downstairs wasn’t being taxed, and then they could serve all of the food from the roof with that taco truck, which further populates it with something from the ground plane and streetscape, and adds to the flavor.”
Then, about a year ago, the project team decided to begin planning for a third kitchen, a takeout window that would add to Mezcaleria Oaxaca’s presence on the street.
“They had always had the notion that they could serve takeout, but again, the kitchen could not keep up with the demand when they had other things going,” said Graham.
The project team worked to repurpose some of the underutilized seating space within the front corner of the restaurant to operate as a taco window. The window was mostly completed at the end of 2019, serendipitously prior to the current pandemic. However, the taco window’s traction in the neighborhood skyrocketed once COVID-19 hit and widespread shelter-in-place orders went into place.
“It was ready to open, but seasonally it was not really street time yet,” stated Graham. “But bang! COVID-19 arrives, the restaurant shutters…and it has just taken on a life of its own. What I was really most pleased by was how it enlivened the street. People are distanced, but it still puts some life on the streets compared to all of these shuttered restaurants which may have takeout but don’t have a street presence because they are not thoughtfully or purposefully open to the road.”
The takeout window is characterized by vibrant murals and open kitchen and unfolding door.
“That part of it wasn’t done when COVID19 hit, so it’s been an on-the-fly, quick artistic design move to build that as the window was operating,” said Graham.
Moving ahead, the window itself is just one of the many types of adjustments restaurants can make to the industry in a post-COVID-19 world. However, GBA and Mezcaleria are also working on another initiative that they hope will improve local’s dining experience moving forward: Streateries.
The Seattle Department of Transportation defines streateries as a combination of a parklet and sidewalk café. The goal is to utilize an open space to construct additional dining area in a parking lane outside of a local business. Open during business hours, the intent of streateries is to add to the economic vitality of commercial districts and activate the streetscape.
“We’re looking for positive ways to put energy back into the streets, particularly in dense neighborhoods that have a high population,” said Graham. “Margins are so thin and the seat count is live or die, so we have to find ways to give restaurants more seating. I think going to the sidewalk and the street is a way to mitigate some bankruptcies and failures.”
In order to be successful, and to get streateries up and running, Graham emphasized that the City needs to move quickly and streamline the necessary permitting process. GBA and Mezcaleria, for example, have been working to get their streatery up and running for more than a year and a half, with slow progress.
“Currently, the number of seats does not pencil with the entitlement process, and if it is only for post-COVID-19, I would encourage the city to make it streamlined,” said Graham.
Initiatives like streateries can revive the experience of eating together, but in a safe, effective and still-enjoyable manner.
“I hope it doesn’t take away from the beauty of restaurants being a convivial activity of enjoying a meal, not only with those that are at your table, but with the others that are around,” said Graham. “The social aspect of being together is so important to the human condition. I just hope that the response is safe and there’s distance but the restaurants are not siloed.”