By Jack Stubbs
Seattle and the broader Puget Sound region are experiencing a sustained period of growth due to the continuous commercial and residential developments that are coming online throughout the city. In such a period of transition, designers of restaurant and dining establishments throughout Seattle are looking to create projects that both connect with their existing neighborhood contexts and retain some of the city’s history.
Three restaurants in particular—Harry’s Fine Foods, a restaurant-bar-apartment project in Capitol Hill designed by architecture firm Hoedemaker Pfeiffer; Bruciato, a pizzeria on Bainbridge Island designed by Eerkes Architects; and Kati Restaurant, an establishment in South Lake Union designed by goCstudio—are transformative projects that look to provide both unique gathering places for their respective communities and preserve the history of the physical buildings themselves.
Given that Seattle is in such a protracted period of growth and development, the importance of preserving historical structures throughout the city is heightened. According to Steve Hoedemaker, who helped design Harry’s Fine Foods, one of the key objectives with the adaptive reuse projects was to highlight the unique architectural character of the city. In the design of the building. “I think there’s something special about buildings like this, which is to say that the city is undergoing this monumental phase of growth. We’re seeing so much new architecture and so much that’s changing, so it becomes especially important to grab and maintain pieces of character throughout all of Seattle’s neighborhoods in order to tie ourselves to the historical context,” he said. “It’s important to maintain some of the architectural continuity in the city that has been here for well over 100 years.”
Another of the objectives with Harry’s Fine Foods—which transformed a 1910 corner grocery store into a restaurant-bar-apartment, which was built by Metis Construction—was to provide a link between the old and the new in an evolving city, according to Hoedemaker. “Our jumping off point is the things that make a space feel familiar or personal. In the context of a city that is remaking itself where there are a lot of things that are new, being able to have something with a long narrative history…allows a sense of continuity from the past into the future.”
From a programming perspective, the designers looked to transform the building into a mixed-use space while also retaining some of the longer-term history of the early 20th century grocery store. “Over the last 20 years, most of the building’s original character had been boarded up; its use had been maintained, and it had always been a part of the neighborhood. We wanted to give the building the interior and exterior visibility that had been missing for the last couple of decades,” Pfeiffer said.
The building was stripped back to its studs, and the project was transformed into a ground-floor restaurant/bar and an upstairs apartment, where the proprietor of the restaurant lives. The restaurant is outfitted with vintage furnishings and fixtures: a salvaged 1950s refrigerator occupies the chef-grade kitchen and a Victorian-era tobacconist’s case is used for storage.
In the broader neighborhood context, the objective with Harry’s Fine Foods was to reinforce a sense of community in Capitol Hill for wider demographics to enjoy. “I think sometimes older buildings are knocked down for an older, more efficient use. It was about holding onto a sense of community. The goal was to create something of a small neighborhood corner place where people could hang out…it’s much more of an old school urban setting than in other parts of the city…it’s a restaurant that achieves that generational bridge across demographics,” Hoedemaker said.
As another example of an adaptive reuse project, Eerkes Architects and contractor CDBuilt created Bruciato, a 2,100 square foot establishment on Bainbridge Island that originally served as a hardware store. Similarly to the transformation of the 1910 grocery store with Harry’s Fine Foods, Bruciato required the adaptation of a local hardware store, which served as a focal point for the surrounding community for several years. According to Les Eerkes or Eerkes Architects, one of the challenges with the restaurant was how to successfully preserve the character of the older building. “On Bainbridge Island, the hardware store on Main St. was always one of the beloved spots. When that hardware store closed in the late 1990s, it went through a series of changes and a coffee company was set to take it over…the building sat there for a couple of years. The [challenge] was [how] to not change the bones of the building.”
Programmatically, the design team looked to incorporate some of the original elements of the hardware store into the design of the more contemporary restaurant space. As part of the renovation, the interiors of the space were stripped back to showcase the bowstring trusses, the bare-wood ceiling and the raw concrete floor. “When we started the project, the owner of the building was intent on unifying both sides of the leased space; there was a push to do some things to hide some of that [original] character. The challenge was not to do that,” Eerkes added.
Another of the difficulties involved in the creation of Bruciato was how to preserve some of the original features of the space while also providing a dining establishment that would flourish in the local and regional food scene, according to Eerkes. “Chef Brendan McGill comes from Alaska and is a raw kind of guy; so we were intent on matching the space with the chef and having a feel that was respectful of the building that we had. But, [we were] also looking forward to a world-class establishment that could be part of the Seattle food scene,” he said. The James Beard Award-nominated restaurant features a fifteen-seat bar inlaid with Carrara marble and salvaged church benches that serve as seating for the tables, made from old-growth, salvaged fir.
In terms of creating a dining establishment that successfully fit the character of Bainbridge Island, one of the foremost objectives with the pizzeria—which emphasizes a farm-to-table approach to its Neapolitan cuisine—was to provide a gathering space for residents of the island. “[Given the restaurant’s] position in town, everyone wanted a space for the community, so that was the beginning of the process. One of the themes of the restaurant was to provide a hangout community space for the people who are embedded into the community,” Eerkes added.
Additionally, the hope was that the establishment would provide a link between Bainbridge Island and Seattle, which is a short ferry ride across the Puget Sound. “There’s two sides to the coin of Bainbridge Island. There are lots of people commuting to Seattle’s downtown core every day; they’re a pretty cosmopolitan bunch working in tech, law and [other industries],” Eerkes said, adding how he thinks that the restaurant appeals to an intersectional demographic on Bainbridge Island as well. “On the other side of the island…there’s a farming and gardening character, with farms supplying the restaurants. [The restaurant] creates a real conversation between the city and the island; you do get the best of both worlds here.”
Across the Sound in Seattle’s ever-evolving South Lake Union neighborhood, architecture firm goCstudio and Metis Construction looked to capitalize on the activity of the neighborhood in its design of Kati, a 1,450 square foot vegan Thai restaurant located in a former pub space. According to goCstudio co-founder Jon Gentry, the project owners wanted a space designed to fit the growing demographics of the tech-focused area. “The owners were very excited about being in Sound Lake Union with everything that’s happening there…and South Lake Union has a large Asian and Indian population and there is not a lot catered specifically for them in that area,” he said.
Inside, the design team worked on transforming the dark interior space into a bright, open-concept accessible space for the vegan Thai-inspired restaurant. According to Gentry, one of the challenges with the revitalization process was how to reinvigorate the space, given the existing design elements in the space, while also respecting the current layout of the building. “There were challenges of working with the existing infrastructure, and we kept the expression pretty minimal,” he said.
While these various restaurant revitalization projects represented attempts to foster community environments that fit into the surrounding neighborhood contexts while simultaneously respecting the history of the buildings on the site, the undertakings did not come without their associated challenges due to this two-part objective in an evolving city. According to Steve Hoedemaker, who worked on Harry’s Fine Foods, the project represented a myriad of challenges throughout the design process. “The challenges were around zoning, space, parking and the existing infrastructure…the [corner store] would have gone down, [so] it was about seeing it as a treasure in the neighborhood,” he said. “Others might have wanted to bulldoze the buildings around it and put in another apartment building, which would have been an unfortunate scenario.”
In the current period of densification occurring throughout Seattle—with many developers and design teams looking to maximize their return on investments with residential projects in evolving neighborhoods—rising costs across the board mean that many neighborhoods are experiencing increased housing density, even at the expense of historic neighborhoods of which they are a part, according to Pfeiffer. “There’s no question that there’s a real housing crisis as the cost of housing [increases] and rents go up. The city is struggling with how to accommodate growing numbers of people that are falling below an income threshold that allows them to live comfortably in the city,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure to get more housing in, but adding density to historic neighborhoods doesn’t come without challenges.”
Pfeiffer thinks that with restaurant project like Harry’s Fine Foods and others like it throughout the city, the question of whether to build more housing units or working on fostering a deeper sense of community through dining establishments is part of a larger social consideration. Looking ahead, it appears that the city of Seattle will have much to answer for. “For me, it’s part of a civic value equation that we don’t often see manifested. [It’s the question of] whether there is more value to another 32 units sitting on top of a ubiquitous ground-floor retail space…or as a place where thousands of people can come to on a weekly basis and find a sense of community,” he said. “These are the opportunities that the city needs to look at differently.”