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[Photos: S. Pratt]
This past Sunday, Brad's Swingside Cafe celebrated its 23rd anniversary, "The feast of the Archangels. September 29," says proprietor Brad Inserra, who opened his tiny Italian restaurant in Fremont back in 1990. He bought the place after moving from Pittsburgh. He's been in Seattle now 33 years. If you ever want to meet the guy, he's sure to be cooking in the Swingside's kitchen where he prepares what he calls, "evolutionary aspects of Italian cooking." It's mostly traditional stuff, but his riff on it all. The menu is familiar (and long). And if Brad takes a liking to you, you could very easily be chatting with him until past closing time.
Brad has become sort of a mainstay on the Fremont strip. And now with a burgeoning restaurant scene, he faces being introduced to a whole new audience. This is cool with him. With new spots springing up all around him, it'll be hard, if not entirely impossible, to beat his homey three-pronged dining room (there's an entire banquet room designed to look like an aquarium) that seats just 50 diners a night. Oh, and he lives in the house upstairs.
Here, Brad talks about his place, his passion, and why working in the kitchen for more than 70 hours a week hasn't killed him yet.
How has this place changed since you opened 23 years ago?
I was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner at first. And then I realized that was going to, like, kill me. I did weekend brunch and dinner for a few years. I left for my first break after about five years and I came back into town a day earlier than my staff was expecting and I found out they had a food fight party; I found out there was all kinds of weird stuff happening when I was gone, so I canned the weekend brunch staff and have just been open for dinner since then. Seven nights a week for dinner. I always intend to reopen for not so much weekend brunch, but for lunch, and I am going to actually do it again. It's about meeting the right person and getting them in place. I'm not going to do sandwiches because I don't want to compete with Paseo, so I'm just going to do stews, soups, pastas and salads for lunch. And on Saturday, which would be sort of brunchy.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
What was this place before you moved in?
It was a restaurant. Short-lived. It had several sort of inceptions before I had it. The final one before I bought it was kind of a country French peasant place owned by a couple of women. That was the irony in actually getting the place. I came to have lunch, I sat in the corner, and for about 15-20 minutes I wasn't getting served. I finally asked the people next to me if you got service here, because it was lunch — you gotta eat it and beat it pretty much — and they said, "No, you have to get it yourself." You basically had to go in the kitchen and cook it yourself.
Is that even legal?
I don't know. But I realized it was kind of crazy and left. I came back in for dinner and it was empty and it was 5:30p. I said, "Table for one," and they said, "No, we're full," and I said, "But there's nobody here?" They told me they were going to be full — there were only like 5 or 6 tables — and I said, "Well, what time are you full?" and they said 7:30p. I told then I would eat it and beat it and they basically said, "Sorry, no." I said, "Do you want to sell this place?" and they said, "Yeah." I sort of made them an offer they couldn't refuse and that's how I got in here.
Where did the name 'Swingside' come from?
The Swingside came from the original owners. It was kind of co-op like — several owners who just wanted to have a place to hangout and do like jazz and beat poetry and a little bit of food and wine and coffee. During the original meeting, one of the owners heard a song on the radio called, "Meet Me at the Swingside," so that's how they came up with the name. And when I bought it in 1990, I came into a bunch of photographs from Charles "One Shot" Teenie Harris who shot for The Pittsburgh Courier. He was their photographer and he only had enough film to take one shot of each thing and that's why they called him "One Shot" and he was tiny, so they called him Teenie. His stuff is mostly in the Smithsonian now, but I bought a bunch of his work when I bought the place and much of his subjects were baseball players and jazz musicians, which were "swing" things, so I kept the name Swingside and called it Brad's because people encouraged me to do that. But it doesn't sound Italian at all. My name is Bradano Antonio Alberto Inserra, so that's Italian enough I guess.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
What brought you out to Seattle from Pittsburgh?
It was like throwing a dart at a map kind of thing. I had an acquaintance here. I came into town and was offered a job at DeLaurenti. I was offered a place to stay by this couple that I met that was going back east for 5 weeks and they needed someone to watch their house. So, things just kind of fell into place. I really intended on going back to Sonoma, where I had been involved in the wine industry earlier, but I got a job offer here and I've stayed ever since. That was 1981.
What's your culinary background?
I worked for Michelin and Cordon Bleu-trained chefs in San Francisco and Hawaii and New York, where my sister had lived for 25 years. I don't have classical training; it was more hands-on, working for German and French chefs. And then I started working in Italian restaurants when I was 11 and kept doing that on-and-off.
Are you doing all of the cooking here?
I do all of the preparation and I do the line five nights. And because I'm a single dad with a 10-year old daughter, I have a sous chef, Mikael, and he works the line the nights I don't work, which are Sunday and Monday.
Over the 23 years you've been open, how much has the menu changed?
The standard, basic menu is almost the same as when I opened the place. I have two menus: I have a Hot Sheet that I change often and then I have a standard menu which is pretty much the same menu that I opened with, which are classic Italian pasta dishes and salads and appetizers. On top of that, I do a lot of different kinds of...I do Sardinian fricassée and Sicilian couscous dishes and seafood specials. I do a lot of game dishes, northern Italian kind of classic roasts, osso buco and risottos and things like that. But most of those things have evolved over the years and they're kind of like more of an elaboration of the basics, which are on the regular menu.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
What's your most popular item? The thing you'll never take off the menu?
The Aglio Olio. When I wrote the original menu I referred to it as, "the dish that made The Swingside famous!" even though I had only been open a couple of days. People were still ordering the dish. It was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy to some degree because it's still on the menu. It's an elaborated, glorified version of Aglio Olio, which really just means "garlic oil."
Who's your clientele here?
That's the interesting part of what I'm up against here in Seattle. The average age of a Seattleite is 33, 34-years old and the average age of a Swingside patron is probably about 60. I'd say a lot of educated people, retired people, world travelers, people who know good food and like an authentic atmosphere with a hands-on owner/operator chef. Some have been coming here since day one, but I've had a whole generation pass away on me. I've been here for a long time!
Do you feel you're constantly getting a new crop of diners who are just now discovering this place?
Yeah, I am, but I haven't done much in the way of promotion. I don't have a strong web presence. I've only been reviewed a couple of times since I've been here. One of the reviews said this place was too crowded. There's a line outside the door. If you want to enter cramped quarters with a cozy atmosphere and wait outside in the rain, then go to the Swingside. The quarters are a little cramped — they're not that bad. And there's hardly, if ever, a line out the door. It's easy to get a table pretty much any time. In that sense, I guess the reviews are old and outdated. I really could use a good shot in the arm from the young crowd in Seattle who have no idea I even exist.
What's your secret to keeping this place thriving after 20 years?
Keeping my heart and soul in the food and the atmosphere. To not rest on my laurels. To try new things and improve the things I've been doing forever. To never relax really, to tell you the truth, on what I do here. I work hard and I try to keep a strong vision for how to make the place better. Hopefully, that's enough.
You have to have a love and a passion for [this business] and I do, and that's what keeps me going. That's my ticket to success. I care immensely about what I do here. As much as I did when I opened this place, maybe more so because I don't take it for granted as much. If you feel burned out [on this business], get out of it.
I imagine you being here all the time is a huge reason people keep coming back.
Absolutely. Almost to the point of fault, because it would be nice to be able to step away a little more. I'm not getting any younger! Not that I feel overwhelmed by the work load, but it is a big work load. I try to keep myself in shape so physically I can handle it without it taxing me too much, but I do work about 70 hours or more a week. Minimum 70 hours. But, yeah, people really identify with me being here when they come in as part of the experience. Actually, I'm legally blind and I can't wear my glasses in the kitchen because they get steamed and splattered, so I don't even see if people are out here sometimes. Unless they actually approach me, I won't even know they're here half the time. I don't mean to offend people, but occasionally I think I may because I don't recognize them. I stay really focused in the kitchen; I'm working on four burners, basically.
What do you think about your neighborhood booming with new restaurants?
The more the merrier. It's great. I had a great month in September. There's a new place that opened up the street (RockCreek) and now Matt (Lewis) is opening (Restaurant Roux) kitty corner from me, which will extend the commerce and business and food scene in this upper Fremont neighborhood, so I see it not as being a detriment but a real positive for me.
You seem to be that guy everyone in the neighborhood gets along with.
I don't know. I am part Sicilian. If I don't love you, I'll kill you. (laughs)