In a city too cool for company, the Shanty serves a need
"You got any strawberries back there?" Don Smith booms loud and clear from a table in the back corner, knowing not only that someone must be in hearing range but furthermore that whoever it is will recognize his bray. Sure, a dozen other people are in the diner, but Smith feels at home here, and he should: He first walked into the place more than 50 years ago.
"No strawberries today," comes the response. But that won't keep Smith from returning for lunch tomorrow. The 73-year-old is among a familiar lineup of regulars who haunt the Shanty Cafe daily, or every few days, or on Saturdays, or just every once in a while, for breakfast or lunch. There's the couple that drives in from Issaquah; the walking-distance workmates from F-5 Networks or Holland America; the guy who single-handedly raises the volume at lunchtime; the retired flight attendants who hang out for two hours-plus on Sundays.
They swear by the food, or possibly it's the service, or maybe . . .
Well, maybe it's just that it feels good to be here.
Maybe it's because the Shanty can feel more like home than home itself, recalling the comfort of things as simple as mom's cooking and holiday fellowship; and because in a city known more for software and mechanized coffee than for genuine warmth, that's a much-needed commodity.
If nourishment and human contact are among our most primal needs, you could do far worse than a place where people feel free to pour their own coffee, where servers have seen customers through breakups and makeups and babies and burials.
The Shanty, in a building dating to 1908, is the kind of place many people drive past without noticing, the runt among a gleaming litter of expansive office complexes on Seattle's Elliott Avenue. Possibly the city's longest-continuously running restaurant, it's not the kind of spot that would fly in Houston or Miami: Aged axes, skillets and saws on the walls say you're in logging country. The photos of Ichiro, the Pike Place Market prints, tell you you're in Seattle.
The highly consulted special board features items like beef tips and noodles, lasagna and French onion soup. Amid the wood and cast-iron décor, servers Amie Tracy and Leslie Sumita float as dependably — and as differently — as sun and moon, while owners Ginger Crowley and Theresa Schmetzer are frequent fixtures behind the counter.
Says Raizin (actual first name: Michael, who hosts "The Raizin Radio Show" on Seattle's KFNK-FM, 104.9): "They seem like a family."
Family. You remember them. They're the people who show up when you need them, who remember your likes and dislikes, who let you stay as long as you want. They treat you special, put up with your odd habits (Don't sit there — that's Dad's chair!), they even clean up after you — though sometimes you'll share the work.
You travel with them. You look out for each other. When holidays roll around, who's there? Your family.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your usual, where servers can tell when you're down, when you're full of it, when you need company. The kinds of things Mom would know.
"When I walk in there, they know what I want," says Raizin, who often lunches at the Shanty before hosting his afternoon show from the Clear Channel Radio offices across the street. "They go, 'The regular?' I get the Shanty Philly with A-1 sauce, and they know I want the potato salad instead of the fries. Sometimes they'll see me coming and they'll start making it before I get in there."
In a former life, the Shanty went by the name of Violet's Shanty, and back then Don Smith worked for Henry Bacon Lumber, a throwback to times when such family-owned operations thrived in Seattle. Those times are immortalized in black-and-white photos posted on the walls of the scrawny red shack that, amid the modernization, still survives.
No strawberries? No worries.
"I have an account here," Smith says, noting that his son did some work for the restaurant a while back, and Smith is just whittling down that bill. (Family: They cut each other some slack.)
DING! ANOTHER order up. Yes, David, what'll it be today? Coffee — with cream, right? . . .
Have a good morning, ladies . . . I'll be back with more water . . . What kind of toast with that? . . . The bottom copy is yours . . .
Your hostesses today are Amie Tracy and Leslie Sumita. Tracy is honeyed, hip-shaking sass straight from a pulp-fiction paperback; Sumita is low-key, attentive and Swiss-army-knife functional, the one packing ketchup and Tabasco in her holster-like apron.
From behind the counter, Tracy points out the regulars along the far wall. That's the German Scrambler guy. That one's a waffle. That guy's French toast with wheat, crispy bacon and OJ. And there in the middle is Otto, the accountant who rarely says a thing. You'd hardly know he's there, he's so quiet. He's first through the door on Saturday mornings: Six cups of coffee, then he's back for lunch. As he leaves, he plants a pile of Sacagawea dollar coins on the table. "We call them Otto dollars," Tracy says.
Here's five-year regular Andy White, who owns a legal-copy-services business nearby. He takes a counter seat and asks for the usual. Tracy shoots him a look. "What?" he says.
She shakes her head. "Cold tunafish salad on nine-grain toast, with chips. He doesn't have what the doctor wants him to have."
What's that? "Something without mayonnaise and potato chips."
White holds firm.
While Sumita has been here longer than she cares to say, she has a teacher's memory for names and is the kind of server who remembers you like your coffee with milk, not cream. Regulars who come in on her days off say, "Leslie doesn't do it that way," or "Leslie told me I could do that." "For the love of God," co-owner Crowley says. "She spoils them rotten."
Take lunchtime stalwart Kathleen McLaughlin, a clinical chemist who works up the street and comes in late, to avoid the crowds. Her Mountain Dew, no ice, is already waiting for her on the counter. Like many regulars, McLaughlin has her usual spot staked out; if someone's sitting in it she'll wait until they leave and then move over. (Savvy Shanty-ers move as soon as they see McLaughlin walk in.)
After Sumita noticed McLaughlin's daily ruffling through the pile of papers by the door for an unblemished set of jumbles and crosswords, she started saving one for her. Now, every afternoon, taped next to the register near her favorite counter stool, McLaughlin finds a clean, folded-up features section with her name on it in black marker. (Family: They do nice things for you without your even asking.)
Four friends who became regulars just after server Tracy started working there are now guests at her home for Christmas or birthday celebrations. Though they don't come in quite as often anymore, "I wouldn't have them in my life if it wasn't for this place," she says, "and now I can't imagine my life without them."
Over the years, Tracy has traded tidbits with customers about her life, her kids, her periodic trips to Italy. So when she dropped the idea of renting a villa in Tuscany, it only seemed natural to ask whether anyone was interested in accompanying her and her son.
Some had already signed on, including the mother of a former loyal regular who had died young. When Tracy underwent an emergency appendectomy during the trip, one of her café co-travelers took her grateful son under his wing while she was hospitalized. "Tom is now Uncle Tom forever," she says.
And when she had another surgery several years ago, there was one more surprise. "Waiting in my hospital room as soon as I came out was the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I had ever seen," she says. "From Otto."
A LONG TRADITION of female ownership continued when former grade-school classmates Crowley and Schmetzer bought the Shanty nine years ago. Their kids help out on weekends, the way Crowley did in high school when her mom baked pies for former longtime Shanty owner Jackie Philbrick, who died in 1996. (Crowley has since assumed pie-making duty.)
Running a mom-'n'-pop restaurant is often more than they imagined. Accounting department? Maintenance operations? You're talking to 'em. And days off suddenly become days on when your fridge goes on the blink.
But somehow they've made the Shanty the epitome of all that diners represent in American culture — a pint-sized place for people, regardless of the labels on their jeans or what cars they drive, to gather, converse and enjoy lunch. In short, to be a community.
Ruth Velozo, 78, has breakfast here, then helps out to keep herself busy. The former director of Northwest Harvest, Velozo was a friend of Philbrick, which is how the Shanty came to sponsor periodic fundraisers for Northwest Harvest that continue today.
Philbrick, whose formidable, no-nonsense bearing and beehive hairdo belied a caring nature, was an avid fan of the card game Uno, and current co-owner Crowley recalls the rollicking Uno tournaments Philbrick stirred up among lunchtime customers.
"Jackie was crazy," says Crowley, who worked for Philbrick as a young server. "If I called in sick, she would come to my house and say, 'You're not sick. You're hung over.' "
Crowley and Schmetzer continue to nurture the friendly, caring vibe Philbrick created, chit-chatting with customers who come in alone. "You kind of have to be a shrink in this business," Schmetzer says. Political discussions are few when Crowley gets her way, but the rare tiff occurs and prompts counter regulars to stew at a nearby table instead, away from their former seat mate, until things simmer down. (Family: They can get on your nerves.)
The two owners have sent get-well cards to regulars, thrown a party for one who was deathly ill, attended the occasional funeral. When five-year regular Pat Griffith told Schmetzer that a shy exchange student from Ghana enjoyed soccer, Schmetzer's husband — a coach with the Seattle Sounders — took him to a game.
For all they get, customers give back: They bring flowers from their garden and jelly beans at Easter. When last winter's windstorm shook the Shanty's awning off its bearings, it had to be removed, along with the building's siding. "Four or five people — customers — helped us take it down and to the dump," Crowley says. "That doesn't happen at a chain restaurant."
One woman has made it her duty to tend the Shanty's potted flowers. Occasionally, Schmetzer has driven by the place on a Saturday night and seen her out there with her pitcher, watering. "She just has this thing, that she has to take care of our flowers," Schmetzer says.
Sometimes customers are drafted into duty. (Family: The people you ask for favors.) One busy day, with the café's marker-stained phone ringing off the hook, Tracy lulls White, the legal-copy-services guy, from his newspaper-reading reverie. "Andy, could you get that for me?" she says, sailing by with a slice of lemon cake.
Another Saturday morning, "Amie got slammed," co-owner Crowley says. "She was here all by herself." Then Dale Smith, Don's son, came in, "and she's like, 'Do dishes.' So he did."
Some customers leave their tastes imprinted on the menu, with items they've personally inspired — for weekend breakfast, for instance, you'll find David's Scrambler, a mix of eggs, turkey, avocado, Swiss, mushrooms, sausage and country gravy.
"I eat there more than I do my own home," Raizin says. The Shanty Philly, he swears, is the best cheese steak he's ever had. And it's not so bad being greeted with "Hiya, sweetheart" every time he comes in.
"That's the best part, really," he says. "Even though it costs money, it's like rolling into home for lunch."
Is Mom's food really as good as you remember it? Maybe. Then again, it's also entirely possible that it wasn't some just-right combination of ingredients or spices, the pinch of this or the quarter-cup of that, that made it so special. Maybe it was the sense of home, of belonging, that came with it — a sort of warm embrace on a plate.
"It's just basic food," Crowley says. "There's no mystery to it. People say, 'Why is your French toast so good?' I don't know; we just dip it in egg and throw it on the grill."
Marc Ramirez is a Seattle Times staff writer. Betty Udesen is a Times staff photographer.