Two hours before the first reservation of the night, no one at Café Juanita is standing idle.
Among the six people in the kitchen, one pulls round hearth loaves out of the oven; another grates Parmigiano Reggiano; another inspects fresh herbs; and still another portions roasted eel. Tomato soup bubbles. Leeks sweat in a sauté pan.
Around the house, staff members confirm reservations, fold linen napkins, and pull bottles of wine. Others straighten chairs, vacuum the entryway, and direct deliveries.
It could be any Friday at the 60-year-old Kirkland house turned dining destination. Except for the sleek front door, the neutral colors and dark floors, and the entirely new dining space down the hall — all the product of a nearly six-month remodel earlier this year.
Café Juanita is back, and Chef Holly Smith is beaming.
“We wanted this house to match our intentions every single day,” she said. “The house is still a house, but this remodel has taken a lot of the restrictions away. We have more breathing room, more functionality.”
When Smith opened Café Juanita in 2000, she knew she wanted to make some changes eventually. But it wasn’t until she purchased the property in late 2014 that she was able to start acting on her wish list, from the structure to the furnishings. The restaurant reopened in mid-July.
The most obvious changes — the additional dining room on the east side of the building, the black counters masking storage space and topped by Carrera marble anchoring the middle of the restaurant, the potential for outdoor seating on a main floor deck and a downstairs patio — have elevated the space, Smith said. By offering more seating and showcasing sophisticated design and artistic elements, Café Juanita can evolve into a special occasion space at the same time it remains an upscale date-night choice.
The restaurant’s food and service already performed at a high level, architect Joe Herrin said. “But they were hamstrung by their space. The challenge for us was, how do we create a space that does justice to the food and service, so that they’re all on an equal level?”
The goal was to retain the atmosphere that people loved — the feeling of being in someone’s home — while enhancing the mid-century modern aspect, he said.
Smith’s wish list was long, and not everything was accomplished, but that, she believes, “ended up a complete blessing.” Take, for instance, the downstairs space, which used to be the private dining room and now serves as a casual lounge. Smith had envisioned installing a full bar there instead. But the requisite additions from a new bar — restrooms, a refurbished staircase, to name two — would have sacrificed the wine storage, dry pantry, pasta-making station and offices this remodel gained. “I did 4,000 times more than I thought I would do,” she said.
The renovation also opened up more usable outdoor space, Herrin said. The towering maple tree in the backyard shines — literally — with tiny lights, an even more inviting setting with the “discovery” of a fireplace on the back patio. A cedar tree removed during the renovation had obstructed the 13-foot-tall brick smoker.
Such improvements outside presented an opportunity to refine the experience for guests inside the restaurant, as well, Herrin said.
“The way the restaurant lays out is that half the guests are looking out the window, and half the guests are looking back into the space,” he explained. “We saw that there was some fantastic landscaping we could take advantage of.”
In the end, the project cost more than $1 million. Smith had aimed to spend $800,000. The price tag includes decorative touches such as landscaping, LED lighting, and comfortable Spanish chairs (“a three-hour chair, rather than a two-hour one,” Smith said) as well as infrastructure upgrades to plumbing and electrical systems.
During the remodel, Smith and her staff spent four months at Seattle’s Lark, trying a pop-up approach to tasting menus. It was an opportunity to learn, she said, and to keep everyone working.
Now Smith is deploying some of that experience on Café Juanita tasting menus, and restaurant operations. After all, guests who opt for the eight-course menu likely spend more time than a couple that shows up promptly for dinner service at 5 p.m.
The new space, with its new menus, new staff uniforms, even new coatroom, has led some patrons to believe everything is new and improved. More than one guest, Smith said, has sworn that a favorite menu item tastes even better now. They ask: “Did you change it?”
“No,” Smith responds, “It’s the same dish. Really.”
People will say about a restaurant, “It’s the food and service, it’s the food and service,” she explained. “But we all like a pretty space. People seem to be reacting to us differently now.
“We mature, we grow, we improve. It’s us standing a little more strong and proud.”