Special Report: The State of Dining on the Eastside

Photos by Jeff Hobson

Joe Vilardi has seen the Eastside restaurant industry mature from the nerd table to the jock table in 14 years in business at Bis on Main, the new American bistro he founded in Old Bellevue in 1998.

“We had some part in convincing Eastsiders to dine in Bellevue,” Vilardi said. “We showed them that it wasn’t tacky, that you weren’t a loser if you dined in Bellevue.”

The Eastside has grown from a geek to chic dining destination since Vilardi opened Bis on Main after four years of running the front of the house at Pioneer Square’s Il Terrazzo Carmine.

More Seattle restaurateurs are setting up shop on the Eastside to capture a hungry and sophisticated crowd weary of driving to Seattle for dining and entertainment. Monsoon, Wild Ginger, Cantinetta, Black Bottle and El Gaucho are among the restaurants founded in Seattle that have expanded to the Eastside in recent years.

“The perception was that there was no culture,” said Monsoon chef and owner Eric Banh, who opened Monsoon East in December, 2008 on the same block as Bis on Main. “That’s changing. (Eastside restaurants) are getting better and better every year.”

Volterra is the latest, opening a new location on Kirkland’s waterfront in September.

“We have regular guests from our Ballard location who have been excited for us to open a restaurant here,” Volterra founder and managing partner Michelle Quisenberry said. “A lot of them live around here and will walk so they will order that extra cocktail or that extra glass of wine.”

Restaurateurs and restaurant groups from across the country and the world have set up shop on the Eastside. Brian Scheehser opened Trellis in Kirkland at The Heathman Hotel in 2007 after 12 years as the executive chef at the Hunt Club at the iconic Sorrento Hotel in Seattle’s First Hill District. The original Heathman Hotel is in Portland. Joey Restaurants, based in Vancouver, B.C., opened a downtown Bellevue location in 2006.

The ill-fated Artisanal by New York restaurateur Terrance Brennan closed in June of 2010 after nine months at the Bravern in downtown Bellevue.

Restaurants based as far away as Taipei have set up shop in the Eastside. Din Tai Fung, the international dumpling chain, opened in Bellevue’s Lincoln Square in November, 2010.

In the meantime, fine dining destinations such as Café Juanita in Kirkland, The Herbfarm and Barking Frog in Woodinville, Seastar in downtown Bellevue and more casual restaurants such as Tosoni’s in Crossroads and Izumi in Kirkland have thrived for over a decade.

Monsoon’s Banh noticed that more than 30 percent of his guests making reservations at the original Monsoon on Seattle’s Capitol Hill left phone numbers with the 425 area code.

Mackay Restaurants COO Chad Mackay said about 40 percent of guests at El Gaucho in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood shared the 425 area code. He opened El Gaucho Bellevue in November of 2008. After running a deficit the first year of operation in Bellevue, Mackay expects to turn a profit for the third year in a row and clear $6 million in sales this fiscal year.

Transportation policy changes in the region such as enforcing street parking in downtown Seattle until 8pm and the toll on the SR520 Bridge has discouraged Eastside residents from crossing the bridge to Seattle and instead stay on their side of Lake Washington to dine out.

Vilardi’s regulars at Il Terrazzo Carmine, including wealthy executives and celebrities living on Bellevue’s Gold Coast, now dine at Bis on Main rather than driving to Seattle.

“I knew all these wealthy Eastsiders who dined in downtown Seattle,” Vilardi said. “For us, it’s a feather in our cap that we are their favorite restaurant. That signifies that our restaurant is a place to go.”

Mackay also said the Eastside is more business friendly.

“The City of Bellevue, the reality is, they are super easy to work with,” Mackay said. “Bellevue is happy you are there. Seattle’s attitude is you are lucky you are here.”

Eastside dining has also matured with the growing wine industry in the state.

“The wine industry brings more people to the area,” said Bobby Moore, executive chef at Barking Frog at the Willows Lodge in Woodinville. “People are tasting wine. They are taking home cases of wine. They are spending more. People are coming in and are more savvy. They want to spend more on a bottle of wine.”

The fortunes of restaurateurs have grown as Fortune 500 companies headquartered on the Eastside have grown. The success of Microsoft, Costco and Nintendo of America has raised demand for corporate events and wealthy executives and rank-and-file employees, during their time off, have raised fine dining demand.

Lisa Dupar opened Pomegranate Bistro in Redmond seven years ago to complement her thriving catering business. Dupar wanted a Class H liquor license, requiring that she be opened five days a week for at least five hours a day, allowing her company to serve liquor at catered events.

“We reasoned, lets open a restaurant, get our liquor license so we can sell cocktails at our cocktail events,” Dupar said. “Initially we thought lets have pizzas and a few simple dishes.”

Pomegranate is a full-service American bistro and has also become a location for Dupar and her husband/general manager Jonathan Zimmer to entertain catering clients. To meet demand for Dupar’s cocktails they opened Pombar, inside Pomegranate, earlier this year.

Her catering business also has grown.

“When we started catering for Microsoft (in the late 1980s) there were three buildings and no security,” Dupar recalled. “We would walk in with platters of food and set them down on Bill Gates’ desk.

“I can’t begin to tell you how Microsoft has impacted our business and not just the corporate functions. I am talking about employees at Microsoft getting married and their Bar Mitzvah’s. We’ve lucked out being on the Eastside and being part of the growth. Costco and Amazon have been good to us, too.”

The multinational corporations have also brought an international crowd that is reflected in local restaurants. Bellevue is home to the sixth highest concentration of Chinese Americans in the country with about 11,000 residents making up about nine percent of the city’s population, according to the 2010 census. The five cities with larger concentrations of Chinese Americans are all in California.

Eastside restaurants reflect the diversity of the region and of Chinese cuisine ranging from Cantonese dim sum houses to spicy Szechuan fare. Yea’s Wok in Newcastle, Perry Ko’s South China on Newport Hills, Facing East in downtown Bellevue, Top Gun in Factoria, Noble Court in Crossroads, Spicy Talk in Redmond, Shanghai Garden in Issaquah and Han’s Garden on Mercer Island are among the best Chinese restaurants in the region, rivaling the best of Seattle’s International District.

Indian Americans are the quickest growing ethnic group in the Puget Sound area nearly quadrupling from 2000 to 2010 according to the U.S. Census. Kanishka in Redmond, Spice Route in Bellevue and Clay Oven in Woodinville are meeting the growing demand for Indian cuisine for diners of all backgrounds.

The Eastside restaurant options have evolved from the nerd table, to Gates’desk, to some of the finest tables in the region.

“We are very happy we are in Bellevue,” Monsoon’s Banh said. “We battled through the storm. Our future looks great.”

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