I drove past Francois Kissel’s old house in Madrona the other day, with its fine view across Lake Washington to Bellevue and the Cascades, and I got to thinking about our city’s history.

Seattle started with stunning geographic advantages, and it also had the enormous good fortune, as a young city unburdened by stodgy culinary traditions, to be at the epicenter of the past century’s three major industries: heavy manufacturing (Boeing, PACCAR), software development (Microsoft) and internet commerce (Amazon). Not to mention modern coffee culture (I’m looking at you, Starbucks). How did it become such a capital of food and drink? People with healthy appetites and wallets. 

And many of the people who made Seattle into a foodie’s paradise are still very much active. They all feed Seattle’s appetite; these are their stories, one fork at a time.

Today if you want an elegant dining experience, once you get past Canlis, you step into a broader, shallower pond. Two longtime mainstays, Rovers and The Georgian Room, have closed. Circadia, which has announced similar high ambitions, is not yet open. 

Yes, there are fine steakhouses; yes there are out-of-town destination restaurants in Woodinville (The Herbfarm) and on Lummi Island (Willows Inn, a three-hour trip); yes Il Terrazzo Carmine maintains high standards of elegance in Pioneer Square. 

But none of Ethan Stowell’s restaurants, none of Tom Douglas’s places, none of Josh Henderson’s or Renee Erickson’s many establishments, not a single one uses white tablecloths. Seattle is too casual, too egalitarian. Pity.

In the early days, when Seattle was less populated with restaurants, we’d stand at the top of the stairs, hungry; or at the bottom of the stairs, skeptical. Then the double-doors would open and our senses would be flooded with the prospect of sensory pleasures within. A sizzling steak, an ice-cold martini. Fresh oysters, chilled Champagne. Red wine, cheese. Chocolate.

Ah, but sensory memory is elusive; we crave specific details. We need the anchor of historic names: Brasserie Pittsbourg. The Other Place. Labuznik. Many in the Pantheon of Seattle’s storied restaurants, including the Brasserie Pittsboug, and the legendary Rosellini establishments (the 610, the Four-10 and The Other Place) are long gone, victims of urban development. 

But look what else is gone. In recent years, the Frontier Room in Belltown and the Alki Tavern in West Seattle. The Funhouse, Manray, the Sit & Spin, Ernie Steele’s, the Fenix Underground, the Dog House. Three grand hotel restaurants (the Cloud Room at the Camlin, Trader Vic’s at the Westin, the Golden Lion at the Olympic). Sorry Charlie’s in Lower Queen Anne didn’t survive the death of its piano player, Howard Bulson. The Beeliner Diner and the Mannings in Wallingford and Ballard respectively, gone. Labuznik on First Avenue, Trattoria Mitchelli in Pioneer Square, the Buckaroo in Fremont. 

Manca’s, a downtown mainstay, is gone, yes, but its iconic invention, the Dutch Baby, survives as the star of the breakfast menu of a hugely successful chain out of Portland, the Original House of Pancakes. Two more beloved survivors on Capitol Hill: Vito’s, venerable hangout for cops and politicians, lost none of its Prohibition charm in a recent renovation; and The DeLuxe Bar & Grill, home of burgers, inexpensive steaks, and craft beer, celebrated its 50th anniversary last summer. There’s hope for the world.

They were still restoring the Pioneer Square pergola in the early ‘70s, but François Kissel was already here, having set up the city’s first French restaurant in a seedy soup kitchen previously known as the Pittsburgh Lunch. It was a cheery half-basement space with tiled walls and floors that would have been hosed down nightly after the smelly indigents had been fed. “Tables for Ladies,” it said on one window: Meaning patrons could eat alone without being considered prostitutes. 

François transformed the space by leaving the tiles alone, the cafeteria line intact, covering the tables with butcher paper, and renaming  the place Brasserie Pittsbourg, even though, truth be told, it was far more like a busy neighborhood bistro than a big, bustling brasserie. 

You’d descend a few stairs, taking note of an impressive certificate proclaiming Kissel a professional member of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, and be greeted by glorious aromas unlike anything known to Seattle at the time: a billow of steam from the push-and-shove cafeteria line bearing a cloud of garlic, onions, rosemary and thyme, warm bread and simmering chicken stock. 

The waiters were mostly French expatriates who took your order with an accent. The salad dressing was a seductive vinaigrette that François himself concocted behind locked doors (Its secret ingredient, never revealed publicly, was probably sugar). The meats were unusual cuts for the time, like braised short ribs. For anyone who had traveled to Europe and eaten well, this was the real thing, the culinary equivalent of a full-throated Beethoven symphony, albeit with white tile floors, a pressed tin ceiling, bentwood chairs and antique copper pieces everywhere. Ris de veau, veal sweetbreads, were on the menu for $8.50, provençal leg of lamb for $9. 

How pleased Kissel looks in this photo by longtime Madison Park resident Bob Peterson.

François, who had lived in Madrona, eventually retired to the west coast of France and the Brasserie became an antique mall. Its longtime neighbor, Trattoria Mitchelli, stayed in business a block away for another decade until it, too, breathed its last. But a longtime employee, Axel Macé, took over the last surviving Kissel property, Maximilien in the Market. With his business partner Willi Boutillier he launched an unsuccessful expansion to Capitol Hill with a “very French” café called Le Zinc, now called Naka. 

Tradition is all well and good, but those appetites are renewed every day. And when we get hungry again, we make our way once more to the neighborhood café or diner and stand outside the door, reading the menu, hopeful, awaiting our supper.

Ronald Holden writes about restaurants for Pacific Publishing. His new book, Forking Seattle, is now available on Amazon.com.