October 9, 2013

Why Seattle Restaurateur Tom Douglas Builds New Restaurants in Old Buildings

  • By: Guest Writer
Written by Ric Cochrane, Project Manager, Preservation Green Lab

Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas; food at his restaurant Lola. Credit: Tom Douglas; conjunction3, Flickr
Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas; food at his restaurant Lola.

“Buildings have a temperature,” Tom Douglas says, sitting at the bar of his popular restaurant, Lola, one of ten in his Seattle food empire. “Old buildings are warm. Many new buildings are ice cold. I’m not talking about temperature -- I’m talking about intimacy. People want to eat good food in intimate spaces. New is rarely warm.”

To Douglas, intimacy means local character, the story of a place that adds to the experience of eating his famous food. He says old buildings often come with stories built in: “I love new buildings -- they’re much easier [compared to renovating old buildings]. But they don’t tell stories.”

Douglas says the unique story of each building is especially important for restaurants, because the craft of food production in each of his restaurants is a unique story about the ingredients, the people preparing the food, and the regional context. Indeed, the entire story is essential to the restaurant experience.

That Douglas considers old buildings an integral part of his culinary storytelling is not unique -- many of Seattle’s most highly regarded restaurants are in old buildings. You could argue that typically low rent rates in old buildings are a major driver for this trend, but that would be missing the point: Douglas has paid his highest rents in old buildings that fit within his vision of using restaurants as placemaking tools -- hubs of activity that bring people together and give life to neighborhoods.

Cuuco's exterior in the South Lake Union neighborhood

For example, Seatown sits at a highly visible corner near the Pike Place Market, providing a view along the Market’s famous cobbled lane that completes a story about the sources of the food being served. But Douglas’ selection of the corner building is also integral to his mission to help improve the troubled intersection; across from Seatown sits Victor Steinbrueck Park, with brilliant views of Elliot Bay but also a thriving drug trade.

Another example: In South Lake Union, Douglas paid $5 per square foot more than the asking price to bring three restaurants -- Cuoco, Ting Momo, and The Brave Horse Tavern -- to the Terry Avenue Building, a City of Seattle Landmark often cited as the most important preservation effort in the rapidly changing neighborhood.

The Terry Avenue Building tells many stories that lend Douglas’ kitchen creations a compelling story -- from the massive Douglas fir (no relation, of course) beams that evoke South Lake Union’s history as a sawmill district, to the worn, exposed brick walls that serve as a reminder of Old Seattle amid the gleam of new office and biotech towers.

Guests enjoy the historic ambience at Ting Momo in Seattle. Credit: California Avocados, Flickr
Guests enjoy the historic ambience at Ting Momo in Seattle.

Douglas works extensively with architects that understand his devotion to ambience: “Most architects don’t give retail spaces a 100-year plan, but you need permanence and durability and materials that last and are adaptable to create warmth.” In short: Buildings aren’t good because they’re old; they're old because they’re good.

Douglas is finally venturing into a new building, Via6, a residential development in Seattle’s Denny Triangle, but only because regular collaborators Graham-Baba Architects are designing the space. Accordingly to Douglas, the warmth of the architects' spaces feeds the overall aesthetic and ambience in which Douglas wants to present his food, host people, and give them a feeling that will get them to stay, circulate in the neighborhood, and come back for more.

As for his mini-empire, Douglas is direct about his intentions: “Multiple restaurants create diversity and fill spaces -- private and public -- with people, which changes the entire character of the street and surrounding neighborhood. I love traffic of all sorts -- that bustling feel is what makes a place work."

Have a story idea that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience? Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Looking for a meaningful way to support the historic local eateries you love? Take it beyond takeout and nominate your favorite spots for a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant.

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