The locally sourced movement is coming to the Eastside. Can the new crop of sustainably minded restaurants tickle taste buds and convince diners to open their wallets?
With the summer launch of Homegrown sandwich shops in Kirkland and Redmond and the addition of both Local Burger and bistro 99 Park in Bellevue, two new aesthetics have quietly slipped into the Eastside dining scene — one framed around the sustainability and “farm to table” motifs that have mostly graced Seattle menus, and another framed around shareable plates of contemporary Northwest dishes.
“The Eastside is ripe for a restaurant renaissance,” says Quinton Stewart, executive chef at 99 Park, where the focus is on “sexy” food served in an indoor/outdoor setting. “People don’t want to have to cross the bridge.”
Stewart says he and his partners have been pleasantly surprised since 99 Park’s August opening at customers’ display of culinary adventure, and their willingness to spring for a $37 Wagyu steak served with roasted sunchokes and truffle butter.
“I had a fear we’d be plating mostly cheeseburgers and green salads,” he says. So maybe Eastside diners are more adventurous than their reputation suggests, but do they care about local sourcing? Some restaurant entrepreneurs say that, despite their affluence, Eastsiders just don’t care about the locally sourced movement as much as their neighbors on the other side of Lake Washington.
“The demand for farm-to-table food is psychographic,” says Kurt Dammeier, whose Sugar Mountain holding company operates Bennett’s on Mercer Island, Pasta & Co. in Bellevue and Beecher’s cheese shops in Seattle and Manhattan. “Liberal people tend to care more about food sourcing, and there are more liberal people in Seattle.”
Dammeier acknowledges that farm to table is a loose label, but he only applies it to a few nationally known, white-tablecloth restaurants in the region: The Herbfarm in Woodinville and The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. These are restaurants that own and operate farms and gardens or closely manage the production of the food populating their menus, with special-occasion meal prices that reflect the extra care.
The Eastside’s new locally sourced restaurants aren’t as literal or as expensive as the elite restaurants Dammeier calls farm to table. At Local Burger, a cousin of Belltown’s Local 360 that sources its menu from within a 360-mile radius, diners can order up bacon-laced burgers dotted with bleu cheese and wash them down with cocktails featuring spirits from local distilleries.
Local sourcing also defines the brand at Homegrown, which launched in Seattle in 2009 and has five shops there. Homegrown cafes offer sandwiches, salads, and soups built from ingredients that are, when possible, both certified organic and grown in the Northwest. In 2014, Homegrown began operating its own organic farm in Redmond, called Sprouting Farm, where it grows seasonal produce.
“Over the years we’ve gotten a barrage of requests to come east,” Homegrown co-founder Ben Friedman says, noting that 20 percent of the company’s business comes from catering — often to Microsoft and Expedia — and thus locals already know the product. The main reason it’s taken Homegrown this long to cross the lake, Friedman says, has nothing to do with customer psychology or resistance to the idea of paying $11.50 for a well-built sandwich. Instead, it has to do with real estate options.
With bigger, newer buildings and boxy corporate retail spaces more the norm on the Eastside, restaurants with a local angle can have a hard time creating an atmosphere that matches their menu. Furthermore, demand on the Eastside is high, leaving few vacant spaces.
“I’d love to have a store in downtown Bellevue, but the vacancy rate is 1 percent,” Friedman says. “The ‘canvas’ for space is better in Seattle.”
Eric Banh, who opened Bellevue’s Monsoon East with his sister Sophie in 2008, seconds Friedman’s opinion. New restaurant build-outs are expensive and the bulk of the budget typically goes toward outfitting the kitchen, so choosing a space that also needs major work just to create the right dining atmosphere can become cost-prohibitive.
Banh says he is open to more projects on the Eastside. That said, his newest dining venture, 7 Beef, is slated to open in November near Seattle University.
“7 Beef would do well on the Eastside,” Banh says. “But there isn’t an appropriate space. A space has to feel right to my eye.”
Even as the locally sourced dining movement slides over to Bellevue, some chefs are wondering if sourcing and organics are enough to influence diners’ forks.
Monsoon East has worked closely with organic and local producers. But Banh doesn’t necessarily tout that his pho features Painted Hills grass-fed beef or that Monsoon’s fish is sustainably caught. Diners come, he says, because the food tastes good. That said, he credits the 2004 arrival of Whole Foods in Bellevue with subtly educating consumers about new foods and why organic or local products can cost more.
“We don’t have the time, energy, or budget to market our use of sustainable products,” he says. “Most chefs don’t want to have to say, ‘Organic this, organic that,’ because we’ve already been cooking that way for a long time.”
99 Park’s Stewart agrees: “As a chef, you have a large responsibility to influence diners, and by making small, smart choices over time you have an impact,” he says. “Using local producers and choosing organic are just what you do. In Italy, no one in the market has to say, ‘It’s organic,’ because that’s understood.”
Stewart and Banh are quick to point out that they’re not criticizing the new locally focused restaurants.
“It’s just what you do,” Stewart said.
One thing’s for sure: Whether a restaurant beats the “local menu” drum, or quietly pickles locally grown beets, the Eastside restaurant mix is diversifying.