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Originally published Friday, May 24, 2013 at 12:03 PM

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Brown bags to bistros, we make what we want of our noontime meal

At home, meals are too often dictated by the wants and needs of others. "Lunch is a time to not have to cater to everyone else's hunger pangs and preferences," says one expert.

Seattle Times food writer

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THERE'S THE three-martini, and the ladies who. And then there's the rest of us: working stiffs in need of workday sustenance — be it sandwich, salad bar, social hour or solitude.

We're landscapers coming in from the rain for a $6 bowl of pho and tweeting techies heading out for a $12 date with our mobile-lunch-truck crush. We're shoe salesmen hanging with Jimmy John, and U-District cops slurping ramen noodles. As busy school teachers and hungry hairdressers, we eat quinoa tabbouleh because that's what we like — or last night's leftovers because that's what we can afford.

Look and you'll find us.

We're working lunch. And never before have we had so many options.

Unlike breakfast or dinner, "lunch is more personalized, more individualized," says Michelle Barry, a doctor of sociocultural anthropology with a focus on food culture in Washington state. "It's a marker in time, and a way to tune in to our own needs."

At home, meals are too often dictated by the wants and needs of others: your spouse, your roommate, your kids. "Lunch is a time to not have to cater to everyone else's hunger pangs and preferences," Barry says. "You can talk to people if you want to, or not if you don't want to. It's a very self-directed occasion — and we don't get many of those."

NEARLY EVERY working day, bankruptcy attorney Jeffrey Wells, 62, leaves his office in the Logan Building and self-directs to the Harbor Cafe, a book of historic literature tucked under his arm. He arrives early to avoid the lunch rush and snag his favorite table. He eats turning the pages.

A block away at Wells & Jarvis, Emily Jarvis, 28, stays close to her desk. Lunch is a sandwich wrap from a nearby Starbucks, a salad from neighboring Kress market or leftovers, brought from home in vintage Tupperware. She'll often work through it, taking a break from her briefs to check in on Facebook.

Unlike many of her professional contemporaries who telecommute wear casual dress and burn the midnight oil, Jarvis has taken a page from Wells' book: She's become a proponent of regular office hours. "I don't even have my work email on my phone," she says — among the upsides of their alliance.

Wells made her a partner three years out of law school and, from the start, Jarvis says, "He expects you to be in your suit, ready to go," in the a.m. To his credit, "When he's at work he's fully present at work, but when he's home, he's home."

Lunch is the exception.

"Jeff's a creature of habit. He'll say, 'I'll be back in 20 minutes, I'm off to re-enter Renaissance history!' "

Wells is barely in the door of Harbor Cafe in the rear of the 1411 Fourth Avenue Building when owner Judy Lew greets him by name and rings up his order: the daily special, $6.95, dished up by her partner, "Chef Rut" Poladitmontri. If it's Monday, it must be chow mein. Thursday, Thai green curry chicken.

Unlike Jarvis, "I would not take food back to the office." Wells' wife, a nurse, packs her lunch, but he's not interested. "I've always gone out to lunch," says the attorney, who arrives for work at 7:30 a.m. and leaves most nights by 5:30. In the comfort of this utilitarian cafe there are no phones ringing for him, no paralegals in search of his signature, only the daily special and his book. "I use it as my oasis."

Jack Wells, his late father, had his lunchtime oases, too.

Wells senior was the regional loan man for the Small Business Administration and worked in Seattle's Dexter Horton Building during the Mad Men era. He'd think nothing of spending the afternoon with his cronies at fashionable Pioneer Square establishments such as Francois Kissel's French Brasserie Pittsbourg and Czech-chef Peter Cipra's The Prague famous for its tournedos Rossini.

In his college days, and early in his career, Jeff would join his dad for a decadent lunch "once in a blue moon," but as a young attorney his go-to joint was Ivar's Captain's Table near his Lower Queen Anne office. His standing order: soup and a roll. "It was cheap and good," and as at Harbor Café, "they knew my name."

Lew knows most of her customers' names, and when Alan Mackinnon shows up, as he does Mondays and Thursdays, she knows the techie who wants takeout has no time to waste. He's in, he's out, he's back in his home office a block away. The counter staff at the Dahlia Bakery — three blocks north — know him, too. He's there when he's not here, grabbing their daily special.

"Going out to lunch is my big meal of the day," says Mackinnon. It's also his most important. In the dog-eat-dog world of software, he insists, "there's a high cost to starting the day, because you have to get into the zone before the work begins and really becomes intense." Morning hours are spent evaluating the prior day's efforts, pinpointing where he needs to be by day's end.

Lunch is the timeout before the tough stuff begins, the meal that keeps him going until it's over, at 8 or 9 at night.

When Diana Austin and Laurie Tolson show up at Harbor Cafe twice a month, they're in no rush. For them, lunch here is a treat. Co-workers at NISH — a nonprofit that creates jobs for the disabled — they've been making an effort to brown bag it more often.

Typically, they'll eat at their desks in the Century Square building and walk during the lunch hour, heading to Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill or the Olympic Sculpture Park. "We do it to de-stress, to clear our heads, to take a break from work issues," Tolson says.

Their jaunts might occasion a lunch stop at Juicy Cafe in the Washington State Convention Center, a solid option for someone like Austin, who's trying to adopt a vegan diet. Money plays into their choices, too. Despite modest prices at their usual haunts, "Going out gets really expensive," Austin says. Eating in has another advantage. "If we bring lunch to work, we can have control over what we're eating."

CONEL YANOS is an Air Force vet with 20 years in, a former California corrections officer and, until recently, owner of a Seattle-area home-construction company. "I ate out a lot," he recalls of his days as a builder, when he and his brother would turn to Yelp for direction then hit the streets in search of their native Filipino food, Hawaiian barbecue joints or authentic Mexican fare. The consequences, he says, were steep.

"We'd pig out. You just want to overeat and try everything." In the service, he weighed 200 pounds. In construction, he topped 340 pounds. Now a Boeing mechanic, he tries to watch his diet and his wallet, bringing food from home: salads, yogurt, vegetables with pork or beef.

Working the swing shift on the 787 line at the Everett Modification Center, his "lunch" — as workers call their mid-shift break — is a 30-minute window during most people's dinner hour. "Some of the guys I work with will drive out for takeout and eat it on the way back," Yanos says. "That's too stressful for me."

Blowing off the EMC cafeteria, where a repetitive menu heavy with fried foods could run $10 to $15, he opts for the factory break room where microwaves and refrigerators share space with lockers and a Ping-Pong table.

As many as 100 workers might join him.

On a bad day, he sits alone, distancing himself physically and emotionally from grumbling co-workers. "I don't want to hear negativity. If you've been in the military, this is gravy compared to being in Afghanistan or Iraq." On the best days, lunch turns into an impromptu potluck.

"Tony's Chinese, and he'll bring roast duck and Chinese vegetables. Jae brings straight-up Korean food — have you had that purple rice?" Yanos asks.

That multicultural experience — the sharing of food and food culture in a company break room — turns a tedious workday into a social occasion.

And let's face it: For many of us, that's what lunch is all about.

Troy Lynch is a product-review engineer at Everett's Boeing plant. He grew up in Jamaica, where, he says, workday meals might involve pushcarts selling jerk chicken, or visits to small, family-owned restaurants serving oxtail stew, or rice and beans.

At 24, he's one of the "starter engineers" with fewer than three years' tenure, and relishes the occasions when he shares a lunch table with "the veterans," as they're known among his group: engineers who've worked at Boeing for 15 years or more. Their experience offers a taste of his future, he says: "These are people who've worked on space ships, rockets, military programs."

As a kid, "I'd take apart anything with a spring, then get in trouble when I couldn't put it back together." As a Boeing man, he keeps his eyes on the skies and his feet firmly planted on Earth. "Working in a huge company, you have a lot of opportunities. Using lunch as a social tool is one of them."

But sometimes boys just want to have fun. That's when he and his buddies drive to the Mountain View Plaza at the corner of 75th Street Southwest and Hardeson Road, a strategically located commercial strip-mall built in Boeing's orbit.

Talk about a multicultural menu.

Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., this place is one part mecca, two parts madhouse. Cars and trucks swerve in and out. Takeout toters jostle sushi and Subway, tom yum and tikka kebabs. Banners boast "Free Delivery and Catering Available" for those stuck at work.

Got an hour, as Lynch sometimes does? Landing here for a leisurely lunch, "We'll talk about work, or try not to talk about work," or weigh in on last night's game while measuring the merits of Tokyo Teriyaki vs. Wasabi Factory.

Got a half-hour? "The new fast food is Asian," insists Brad Durbin, after nosing his ladder-stacked truck into the plaza lot: "Thai, teriyaki, pho." At 45, he's laid off the frequent trips to Burgermaster that defined his younger days. "I can't do that anymore." Nor, as an earlier generation of contractors might have, can he count on his wife to pack his lunch. "She works, too."

Diane Gillings could use a wife. Instead, the single mother of four, with two teens and a tween still at home, makes do with the respite provider who cares for her special-needs daughter. Meanwhile, Gillings brings home the bacon. Or she would, if only her kids would eat something other than spaghetti or tacos.

The development director at the Little Red School House minutes from Mountain View Plaza, she lives for lunch. "For me, it's a respite from my home life."

That life has her rushing home to cook, feed her son when he arrives from practice at 6:30, then dash off to rush his sister to soccer at 7:30. "I eat, or I don't eat, depending on whether I have time," Gillings says.

At work, she revels in the noon hour when she and her friends leave their private offices, gather in the break room and eat. There, they trade recipes and gossip, share salad dressing and confidences. "We all know each other's life, and we all talk about it over lunch. We're civil to one another." There's the woman who makes beautiful salads with fresh spinach and rotisserie chicken, and another who always has to sit in the same seat. Take it, "and you have to move — just like at home. It's very ritualistic, very family-like."

BRIDGET JENNINGS is a project manager for EMP whose office, like so many others, has relocated to the South Lake Union neighborhood, where armies of creative types descend from their shining towers to swim in a pool of hunger-sating possibility.

"Every morning I wake up and have all intentions of putting together a lunch," says Jennings, who doesn't mind dropping $10 a day for the luxury of not doing so. "But between the husband, the kid, the dog, the full-time job and the house, I always end up going to Whole Foods."

Welcome to the club.

One where Amazonians like Gurav Singh come to eat nearly every day. "It's convenient and fast, without being awful for you," he says. Of course, "You can go awful," as he sometimes does, scooping up creamy macaroni and cheese, among the comfort-food classics on display. Or you can be tempted by edamame salad and tofu.

And despite what some may think, eating here doesn't have to eat your whole paycheck.

"Lunch has exploded in the last two years," says Meg Trainer, who oversees prepared-foods teams for six stores in the Seattle metro area. "We're at the epicenter of a new part of town," and given the number of restaurants and cafes, coffee shops and cafeterias that dot the landscape, the company "wanted to answer to the value lunch."

Those values include the $6 Big Sandwich program — where staffers hawk ready-to-go subs. And the 5 for $5 option, featuring five 4-ounce portions of (mostly) vegetarian and vegan-friendly items.

Among the 18 Whole Foods in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, Westlake rings up the biggest numbers: In the noon hour, 1,000 people walk through the doors each weekday.

When Wesley Gould, a software engineer, isn't foraging at Whole Foods, he might be sitting down with friends at nearby Mio Sushi, or standing in line at his favorite food truck.

Those options are seemingly endless. And if he's not sure who's where or what's what? There's a site for naming names: Follow www.seattlefoodtruck.com. Hit the SLU tab and the world's your oyster ('po boy). Where Ya At? Jemil's Big Easy. (That's a) Hallava Falafel! Now Make Me a Sandwich.

And what if the line is too long? No problem, says Gould. "My team has a meeting every day at 11:15. As long as you're in then, nobody cares." Gould's workday often starts just before that meeting and ends at 8 p.m. "You're judged more on what you get done than on the number of hours worked."

Paul Davis is an unemployed long-haul driver who's eaten lunch at truck stops from coast to coast. He grew up in Greenwood. Lives in Ballard. Now 51, he's looking to go back to college, study computer science, maybe someday get a job at one of these hotshot outfits in South Lake Union.

Meanwhile, he's sitting on a park bench watching the lunchtime crowd, enjoying a Whole Foods quesadilla ("two for $6!"). When he's not here, he's likely at Grumpy D's in Ballard, where the waitress tells him it doesn't feel like a normal day if he doesn't stop by. "I like to eat, and I know how to cook," Davis says, "but eating at home, alone, is sad."

So was losing the best job he ever had. Driving long-haul is a lot like finding that great little lunch place, he says. "You need to have a sense of adventure."

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times food writer. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.

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