Chef Aaron Tekulve was just getting started. After building a following with the well-received Pacific Northwest wine and food pop-up Surrell for the past three years, Tekulve had been putting the finishing touches on a cozy wine bar of the same name on Capitol Hill earlier this spring, with a chef’s counter set up for tasting menus. The space was housed in a more-than-century old historic building formerly occupied by new American restaurant Crush, and it was almost ready to go before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Seattle.
Now, Tekulve is trying to roll with what’s allowed during Washington’s stay-at-home order. He’s set up pre-purchases for private dining experiences to help generate some revenue (these will be held in individual homes or at the restaurant for “when we’re allowed to be around each other,” he says), and has a selection of takeout offerings, including heat-at-home meals, wines to-go, and even cookbooks for retail. But he still laments that the original vision for Surrell likely won’t come to pass.
“What’s been difficult and heartbreaking for me is that this is my first restaurant, and I took two to three years to prepare myself for this big step,” he says. “I built a beautiful chef’s counter that I was going to be showcasing a 9-10 course tasting menu at this spring, and will definitely not happen any more.”
Washington state released new rules on dine-in services for “phase two” of reopening the economy, and they require restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity, to have at least six feet of spacing between tables, and to establish social distancing between staff and diners. That means intimate dining experiences, like the one Tekluve intended, are simply not a viable option — and likely won’t be for the foreseeable future. “There is no way I can see a kitchen-facing chef’s counter being OK for a very long time,” he says.
The phase two requirements will affect some of Seattle’s finest restaurants, which rely on the small seating set-up, offering just a few seatings per night for prepaid tasting courses. Hillman City’s Filipino fine-dining restaurant Archipelago only has eight people in for dinner at a time and is typically booked months in advance. It’s closed temporarily, but is now working on meal boxes for delivery featuring fermented goods and other locally sourced items. Chophouse Row’s lunch counter By Tae relies on daily signups to nab one of the few spots for star chef Sun Hong’s Korean-American omakase experience. Since mid-March, it has ramped up its grab-and-go offerings, with sushi rolls and katsu chicken with curry and rice available.
Frelard’s upscale Valencian restaurant Tarsan i Jane once had 65 seats in its dining room, but shifted plans in recent years to offer a multi-course chef’s counter tasting menu from chef Perfecte Rocher. It’s now offering a few make-at-home dishes for takeout, including Rocher’s famed paella. It will continue to offer them during phase two because, as manager Alia Zaine tells Eater Seattle, the restaurant cannot operate at half capacity — and the future is unclear. “We have to be so careful to make the right decision because we do not have investors to fall back on to help us if we make the wrong one,” says manager Alia Zaine.
This uncertainty extends to the many sushi restaurants around Seattle. Anyone who has eaten at Wataru in Ravenna can attest that the best way to experience a meal there is to sit at the counter and watch chef Kotaro Kumita work his magic. Right now, it’s open for limited takeout, with chirashi bowls and futomaki. Meanwhile, the critically acclaimed Taneda in Capitol Hill only really offers counter seating for its omakase, with prepaid reservations, and is temporarily closed.
Even larger sushi venues, such as the iconic Sushi Kashiba at Pike Place, will need to make adjustments. “Fortunately, we have an expansive sushi bar that would allow for social distancing, albeit with less seats,” says Ed Kashiba, son of the restaurant’s namesake and master sushi chef, Shiro. “The dining room tables and seats will likewise be adjusted accordingly. Our main priority will be for the safety and comfort of our staff and guests.”
Eventually, restaurants will be able to seat diners at fuller capacity, possibly even by mid-summer, if the coronavirus data in Seattle trends downward and the spread becomes more manageable. But it’s clear that social distancing measures will continue to be in place for awhile.
So even in phase three (when restaurants can have 75 percent capacity and seat 10 or more at a table), and then phase four (when restaurants can seat at full capacity), chef’s counters may not come back right away. And it’s a legitimate question whether they will return at all until a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is developed.
It is a tribute to the resiliency of Seattle’s culinary scene that many small restaurants are still adapting and trying to find creative ways to still serve the public, given the current conditions. Tekulve says he has enough room beyond the counter to set up seating arrangements with social distancing. “I do have plans to offer a dining service in phase three and four,” he says, adding that he’s trying to divide up the restaurant into mini dining rooms. “Currently I am thinking each party will preselect their menu, drinks and anything else to go with their night.”
But that’s still a long way off. And those that rely on the intimate tasting room experience will need to continue to reevaluate things, as the city prepares for a tentative reopening.
“We still need to consider what to do when restaurants are allowed to open at full capacity in phase four,” says Zaine. “Our fear is, what if this returns next winter? Will all of this repeat itself?”