The Bellevue Dining Scene Continues to Evolve

Bellevue’s dining scene has experienced exponential growth in the past couple of years, particularly with the addition of Lincoln Square South and the construction of several other nearby towers.

The boom got off to a slow start a decade ago, when the economic disaster of 2008 put a chokehold on retail and restaurant spending nationwide. El Gaucho Bellevue celebrates its 10th anniversary this month and, while CEO Chad Mackay anticipates a record holiday season, the now-thriving steakhouse experienced a dicey first year when it opened on the Eastside.

Construction on El Gaucho Bellevue was well underway in 2008 when the economy tanked. “Opening a restaurant 10 years ago was a scary endeavor,” said Mackay of the company’s most expensive and largest project to date at the time. But there was no way to stop and reconsider, so they continued forward and opened in November — right before the worst snowstorm in years, which kept customers off the roads and out of restaurants. Many restaurants count on the holiday season for the bulk of their annual income. Combined with the already-slow economy, this was a one-two punch.

Looking back, would Mackay do it again? “Absolutely! (At the time) well over 60 percent of our Seattle customers were coming over the bridge. Bellevue wasn’t a bet as much as a hedge. It was already on the rise.”

El Gaucho food

Already an institution in Seattle and with a classic dark steakhouse vibe in Tacoma, the company wanted to build a restaurant that reflected the Eastside aesthetic. When the space at Bellevue City Center became available, its stunning high ceilings, mezzanine, and wall of windows overlooking a park-like setting fit the aesthetic they were hoping to achieve. It’s a place to celebrate.

As the economy continued to decline in early 2009, El Gaucho Bellevue launched a “value wine” list and fought the notion of scarcity by visually featuring the contents of the wine cellar. Wine bottles were retrieved from storage and displayed throughout the restaurant — a practice they continue to this day. “Our culture here is always about trying to be abundant,” said Mackay. The menu has evolved over time, but the concept of providing memorable experiences and service to guests remains the same.

Over the last 10 years, the skyline of Bellevue has reached lofty heights, and those buildings have been filled with new and exciting restaurants — many chain restaurants have come and gone. Local “chains” like Heavy Restaurant Group’s Purple Café and Lot No. 3, Fire and Vine’s The Lakehouse and El Gaucho, and the partnership of Cactus and Tavern Hall have been quite successful in this landscape. Small chef-owned restaurants are still in short supply, however. Mackay points to the expensive rents, which undoubtedly prevent young innovative (albeit broke) chefs from “boot-strapping” their way into the Bellevue dining scene. Restaurant failures often occur in shiny new spaces, but new chefs may be able to capitalize on those already-built-out kitchens and slip in with lower upfront costs.

Though the progress is prolific in Bellevue, the elevation of the Eastside’s culinary scene is not happening in isolation. Woodinville has unfolded many times over in recent years, attracting millions of visitors annually. Heritage, Woodinville Cut Shop, Barking Frog, Russell’s, Beardslee Public House, and more have risen to feed those visitors. Kirkland’s downtown has been transformed over the last decade with Bottle & Bull, DERU Market, Little Brother, and Volterra, and continues to evolve as the Kirkland Urban project draws to completion. Stone Kitchen in Redmond has been joined by Woodblock, Prime, and Tipsy Cow, among others. And let’s not forget about Black Duck in Issaquah or the plethora of fantastic ethnic options across the Eastside. Even Snoqualmie’s quaint downtown is buzzing with chef-owned Heirloom Cookshop.

One of Mackay’s favorite observations about the Eastside dining scene is the high number of families that go out together. Servers and staff at El Gaucho Bellevue tend to be long-term employees, and they have had the pleasure of witnessing young kids grow up from elementary school all the way through college, taking care of these regulars as they go to prom or celebrate graduation. “We placed our bets on Bellevue and have been very happy with the results. It’s humbling to receive notes from regulars and watch families grow up,” said Mackay.

Celebrate with El Gaucho Bellevue this month. During the week of Nov. 12, the restaurant is offering “10 items for $10,” featuring 10 classic El Gaucho fan favorites, including Wicked Shrimp, Beef Tenderloin Diablo, Octopus Skewers, Ostrich Carpaccio, Grilled Lamb Lollipops, Shrimp Louis, Lobster Tempura, Oyster Rockefeller, Cherries Jubilee Cheesecake, and Crepe Suzette.

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