I lived in Seattle for around 18 years, and when you live in a place that long, you figure you kind of know your way around. In the mid-1980s, I decided to buy my own house, and since I was single and didn't make a lot of money, the neighborhoods I could afford were unfamiliar to me. And these were not "neighborhoods in transition" where university students, theatre people, artists or bohemians sipped lattes from vintage-furnished cafes and shopped for organic vegetables at food co-ops. These neighborhoods were unimproved, run down, a bit dangerous, hard to get to and totally un-hip.
As un-hipness goes, though, some places were still more desirable than others. Which is why, in 18 years of living in Seattle, I never explored the tiny South Seattle neighborhood of Georgetown, wedged between Boeing Field to the south, the I-5 freeway to the east, the Duwamish River to the west and the railroad corridor to the north.
Now, years later, I'm sorry I didn't take that chance. Because Georgetown is a unique community, known for its mix of historic industrial and residential properties, housing for artists, and its adventurous somewhat edgy style.
We had dinner reservations at The Corson Building, a Georgetown restaurant that sounded just quirky enough to catch our attention. In their own words, they are "dedicated to food and its direct connection to celebration, community, and culture." Well. Were we up to that? Sure.
Our GPS guided us through unknown territory, skirting Boeing Field and turning west beneath the high curving overpass of the Michigan Street exit from I-5. Immediately facing the roadway was a small graveled area in front of a thick hedge. Set into the hedge, we found a wrought iron gate, welcoming us into a small brick-paved courtyard with a fountain.
The small building is classically pretty in a non-Seattle, Mediterranean way, and there's a reason for that, it turns out. The building, which dates back to 1910, was owned by an Italian stonemason who manufactured cast stone decoration for buildings. His work graces the doors and arched windows, and an amazing stone fireplace is set in the center of the main room.
The philosophy here is to create food with fresh, local ingredients, and you can't get any more local than to grow your own. The property includes a wonderful garden, with raised beds of vegetables and herbs, fruit trees and fruiting shrubs, and even its own chickens.
Inside, the large room was set with three long wooden tables, each set for ten with a long bench on the wall side and mismatched antique wooden chairs toward the center of the room. Linen, heavy flatware and generous glassware await the diners.
From the main room you can look through the doorway and a wide inner window to the kitchen where the chefs were working. It didn't look like a restaurant kitchen - it looked like the kitchen of someone's house, where cookbooks were stacked under one shelf, and platters and pots were cluttered about.
Thursdays and Fridays they serve from an a la carte menu. Each day's menu is created for that day. After we were seated at the foot of one table, a hand-written card was placed before us.
Four choices of starters was followed by two choices of main dishes. We ordered a glass of sparkling rose and made our choices. A seafood stew with smoked halibut and clams, served over squid-ink rice with garlic aioli was [The Man I Love]'s choice, while I went with a duck-leg confit served with chanterelles and roasted asian pears.
While we sat there, we listened as a small plane approached Boeing Field, buzzing right overhead. A few minutes later there came clanging bells and the deep thrum of a diesel engine, and we watched through over the chef's shoulder as a bright yellow Burlington Northern locomotive moved majestically and slowly along the tracks immediately outside the kitchen window. Throughout the meal, the traffic on the concrete ramp above us provided a constant susurrus, like waves.
My first course was a salad of lettuces from the garden outside, with a toasted croute smeared with a generous blob of Kurtwood Farms' Dinah's cheese, a cow's milk camembert-style cheese, and garnished with chunks of a sweet-sour pickled watermelon rind. The cheese was amazingly rich and creamy, and the pickle was a great foil.
[The Man I Love] had the late harvest tomatoes and pole beans with the anchovy dressing, which was subtle and flavorful.
Guests are seated together at a communal table, and are encouraged to converse, to interact, and to share. Halfway through our main course, another couple was seated beside us. Visiting from Yakima for the day, they had been given a gift certificate for dinner here. We learned they were winemakers - in fact, they had brought their own wine to the table and let us share a taste. They were third generation farmers, high school sweethearts, and now had three grown children, one of whom had returned to the family home to join the family business.
Later, another couple joined the table, this time a young woman from Hawaii and her Seattle boyfriend.
Around us, at other tables, newcomers were paired with seated diners and the buzz of conversation flowed. Sharing a meal together truly is about sharing. Our enjoyment in the delicious food was heightened by the chance to meet other folks.
It's not just a restaurant where you walk in and request a table, order from the menu and talk privately with your partner. One evening might be a private event for a large group of people. Another might be a celebration on a theme - like Bastille Day. Another evening might be a food workshop with a guest chef. Or a prix fixe family supper. In each situation, diners are encouraged to break out of the pattern of dining privately, and create community at the table.
Dinner at The Corson Building has been described as similar to joining a dinner party at the home of a friend who happens to be a great chef. And that notion extends further than you'd expect. When we finished our meal, the waitress invited us to step into the kitchen and meet the chef.
The chef is Matt Dillon, on the list of semifinalists for the James Beard Foundations Best Chef Northwest award. His work at his previous restaurant Sitka & Spruce, earned him Food and Wine Magazine's notice as one of the ten best new chefs of 2007. Here he is in the kitchen at The Corson Building, preparing another serving of that seafood stew.
What a great discovery - wonderful food and a whole new side of Seattle I didn't know about. Surrounded by trains, planes and automobiles!
Visit The Corson Building's website to learn more about the restaurant. If you live in Seattle, or if you travel there, it's worth checking out.
Read more about Georgetown's history at this article at HistoryLink.