There are three things to know about St. Clouds, the cafe at 1131 34th Avenue, at the corner of 34th & E. Union Street in Madrona.
First, simply by virtue of its location at the heart of this quiet residential district, it's like a community center crossed with a neighborhood bistro. You can come once a week (“Home for Dinner”) or twice a year (“Out for Dinner”). Either way, the menu will be as welcoming and unpretentious as the service. They offer delights like pasta, chicken, pork chops, salmon, rib-eye and mussels in cream — not to mention decent wine at reasonable prices.
Second, every Monday for the past 15 or 16 years, a low-key country music group called the Rolling Blackouts performs in the bar between 8 and 10. Led by guitarist Tom Bennett, the group performs with a low-key enthusiasm that fills the restaurant without distracting diners from their plates. I'd be hard-pressed to name another venue that has had the same musicians perform 800 weeks in a row.
Finally, there's the story of the restaurant's origin, and the remarkable life it leads today.
Three decades ago, there was a novel by John Irving called “The Cider House Rules.” It was set in an orphanage, St. Clouds, in rural Maine, with a doctor, Wilbur Larch, who was both an obstetrician and an abortionist; and an orphan, Homer Wells, who was trained as his successor. In the novel’s film adaptation, Michael Caine played the doctor, and Tobey Maguire the youngster.
But long before the movie came out, the book was adapted for the stage, and “Cider House” was produced at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. An English teacher from the Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, John Platt, ended up cooking for the Rep’s cast and crew as they workshopped the production. Platt was no kitchen amateur; by this time he had trained at Coastal Kitchen and 5-Spot and had been a general manager.
So when “Cider House” took itself to Los Angeles and then to Broadway, Platt teamed up with a colleague, Paul “Pablo” Butler, the Spanish teacher at Charles Wright, and plunged into the restaurant business.
The two were social activists and wanted to incorporate a spirit of community in their restaurant project, which found its home in the Madrona space vacated by Cool Hand Luke’s. They decided to emulate Dr. Larch’s sense of duty and generosity, so they named the restaurant St. Clouds. There was a tent city at St. Therese church a block away, and they made a commitment to monthly “homeless cooking” events. That was in 2001.
So Platt and Butler have been feeding more than 200 people at five homeless shelters every month for 15 years now, based on food donations and ideas from participants. As they say on the restaurant’s website, “We hope, by the act of creating a meal together, we can build more connections among ourselves and provide an hour of dignity and good food for those who find too little of both in their lives.”
They cook on the third Wednesday of every month, and everyone is invited; bring an apron, a knife, a cutting board and a few vegetables.
This is not condescending, steam-table mac-and-cheese fare, either. There's salmon, there's Chinese broccoli, spinach, and pesto. Pratt would like to see similar involvement from other chefs, especially those whose restaurants don't open until dinnertime. He'd love to teach them what he's learned.
In the meantime, if you come to St. Clouds as a customer on a weeknight, there’s a happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m. If you come for brunch on the weekends, be prepared to wait a while. (St. Clouds does provide baskets of toys for the littlest kids.) If you come for dinner, you could do a lot worse than the pork tenderloin.
The food is homey, unfussy, comforting — not just for the orphans, not just for the residents of Madrona, but a place where all of Seattle can find a sense of home and family.
Ronald Holden is a restaurant critic for Pacific Publishing. His latest book, “Forking Seattle,” has just been published, and is available at Amazon.com.