to an unknown audience
Dept. of Shopkeepers/  /November 05, 2002

One of the mildly tragic consequences of the so-called New Economy was the swarms of intrepid entrepreneurs who, in early '00, dashed to the bank to open (in early '01) storefront businesses with a new aesthetic: white-tablecloth wine bars with old-skool metal playing overhead (there's the novelty), e.g.

In Seattle, for example, you can see the carcasses of these shi-shi (sp?) venues all over Capitol Hill and Belltown: they're now either empty lots, or they've been replaced by darker, funkier, black- or no-tablecloth venues (lower laundry overhead?).

One of my favorite poorly-timed engagements, however, lives on: the Blue Willow Teahouse. This place has an exquisite sharpness to it: nice smooth wood tables, clay vases on wrought-iron racks, bronze statues, letterpress works from Copper Canyon Press. But it snuggles into a former industrial space: they opened one face up with windows but huge girders still crosscriss that face, cutting the view, supporting the structure.

I forgive the place its "pan-Asian" (if not Orientalist) flair (soups such as "Dawn of Eternity") because the experience is so unfamiliar and encouraging. On my first trip, I ordered the ultra-smoky Lapsang Souchong tea and produced this conversation, in cooperation with the young lad who served me:

Have you. . . had that before, sir?

Yes, I have.

So you're aware that it's. . . very smoky, sir?

Yes, I am.

Oh, I love it myself, it tastes like campfire, but many people aren't used to that.

Very good.

(waiter goes and returns)

Sir, when you have your Lapsang Souchong, how long do you normally brew it for?

Excuse me?

The Souchong brews very quickly, it gets slightly bitter if you leave it in too long.

What do you suggest?

I recommend two minutes and thirty seconds.

Very good.

(waiter goes, returns with teapot)

That's right at two minutes, thirty seconds.

Most excellent.

But, what I really love about Blue Willow is that, despite its perfectly-manicured surface, you feel you've walked in on some people who are, after all, just running a business. You hear the noises of the kitchen from somewhere just around some corner. You see the owner behind the counter, checking his email (with Outlook, alas). They take UPS deliveries through the front door, between the plate windows and the bronze statues. It feels very functional, yet somehow the grace of the place is undiminished by these mechanics.

And on further thought, that's not surprising. After all, everything functional is beautiful. The girders, the pedantic server, my awareness of the kitchen, the owner milling about between the waitstaff, the UPS man, and the email: it's a smooth system, functioning. Things are happening: I find that graceful.

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Astonishingly amateurish, this one. What am I saying about White Tablecloths and New Economy and all this rot? But I remember it still, as a distinctive, crisp experience, so it seemed worth retaining in the museum.

On a historical note: the space where that teahouse was has rolled over several times since. In the last year-n-half it has booted up twice. The latest incarnation is one "Sam's Tavern"—easily the most uninspiring American eatery in all Capitol Hill, perhaps in all Seattle.

—posted by the author at April 23, 2013 1:07 AM
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