In January, foodies in the Northwest drew quick breaths in trepidation upon reading Chef Holly Smith would be closing Kirkland’s beloved Café Juanita. Sighs of relief followed as soon as they realized the shuttering was temporary to accommodate a long-desired remodel of the space. In the meantime, Smith and Café Juanita are popping up weekly in Lark’s old space in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, offering a testing-menu-only dining experience four nights a week.
“I bought the building in September. I wouldn’t have done it unless I was an owner. It had been two years at least for me of ‘should I stay or should I go?’ If I stayed, I had to buy it. And if I bought it, I had to fix it,” Smith said. “It does seem a little overwhelming, but life would have been boring had I not done this.”
Smith believes that restaurant spaces either have magic or they don’t, and you know it when you see it. Café Juanita is one of the good ones, but she said that over the years the building has worked against her and her staff, and most of the remodel budget will be guest- and server-centered. Because Smith has been operating there for 15 years, she knows exactly what the restaurant needs in terms of a more efficient work space, and so the contractors and the architects are working on an informed design.
As for her brief foray into the Seattle market, Smith said that the biggest reason was to continue to employ her staff. She needed a temporary restaurant, and she knew that John Sundstrom was keeping the old Lark space, but he didn’t know what would become of it quite yet. The temporary solution worked out for both parties. The pop-up offers a tasting menu for $135, similar to the often-requested “Table Two for Two” set dinners that Café Juanita offers in its Kirkland space. Smith figured the tasting menu angle would be the best way to show up in Seattle but still be Café Juanita. The pop-up has been a team-building experience for Smith and her staff, and she says one of the best thing she’s learned is that they work well together no matter where they are.
In the midst of the remodel and the Seattle pop-up, news broke that Smith was once again named a semifinalist in the Most Outstanding Chef category of the James Beard Awards. She’s won before as Best Chef Northwest, but this particular category honors the best chef in the country, with past winners including the likes of Nancy Silverton, José Andrés and Tom Colicchio.
Another nomination is certainly a feather in her cap, but do accolades like James Beard nominations boost business? “We certainly hope that every time someone mentions us, it helps business. I want to be in your consciousness. James Beard is a big foodie thing, so that’s going to attract people that are going to come to our restaurant anyway. Some of that stuff is hard to measure. You never know how it’s going to pan out — Next Iron Chef didn’t really do anything for our business,” she said.
With so many accolades for Café Juanita, Smith has faced never-ending inquiries over the years about opening something new. The thought has crossed her mind plenty of times, but she remains dedicated to making Café Juanita one of the best restaurants in the Northwest, if not the country. “I figured out a while ago that what I really want is quality. I can grow my own business. That doesn’t mean I have to open up a bunch of places. It’s not that I don’t discount folks for doing that. More power to them. But every two seconds it seems like something is closing. I don’t want to do that.” Now that she owns the building that’s housed Café Juanita for the last 15 years, she’s dedicated to making sure it will be a viable restaurant space for the next 40 years and beyond.
Café Juanita is aiming to reopen its remodeled space in Kirkland this July. The pop-up dinners have been successful, and Smith wants to give the tasting menu more play when she heads back to the Eastside. Until then, you can make reservations for Café Juanita.