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Why Palace Kitchen is More Successful After 18 Years

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<span class="credit">[Photo: <a href="http://suzi-pratt.com/">S. Pratt</a>]</span>
[Photo: S. Pratt]

Welcome to Beyond the Buzz, a monthly column dedicated to shining the spotlight on restaurants and bars that are still killing it long after the media buzz has worn off. If you have a nominee, please send it to the tipline.

[Photos: S. Pratt]

Say what you will about Tom Douglas getting the lion's share of Seattle restaurant real estate. The guy is a smart businessman. All of his restaurants saw a banner year for profit last year, even the oldest goat of the herd, Dahlia Lounge. What's his secret? The short answer is that he takes nothing for granted.

Here, Douglas talks specifically about Palace Kitchen, the third oldest in his roster behind Dahlia and Etta's. Palace turns 18 soon and has never looked better. This is why.

How does Palace maintain its popularity after all these years?

It's never done less [business] than the year before. It'll be 18 next year and it's always increased in volume and it's always been a great spot. It's still very consistently busy at nighttime and even though some new restaurants have come after that business, in the 18 years...you really have to have fortitude to operate a full kitchen until 1am — not the bar so much, but the full kitchen.

How have you managed to keep it thriving for 18 years?

Well, it's the same reason I hope [Tanakasan] will be a success, because we don't ever take it for granted — ever. We get up and we work really hard. We talk about this every week, every day. It's like, get up, show up. If you're going to work, show up. You can't underestimate the effort that it takes to keep these places running. And if you make the effort, you're going to be successful, generally.

Our chef rotation has really helped, putting fresh faces on [our restaurants]. Desi [Bonow] has been at Palace for about two years now. Before him it was Duskie Estes (of Zazu Restaurant in Santa Rosa), Matt Costello, Brian Walczyk; a really nice line-up of chefs have come through that restaurant. One of the things we like to do with our restaurants, every three to five years, is rotate the chefs, put fresh eyes [on the restaurants]. The other thing that helps us stay fresh in our company is our management rotation. We have rovers at each of the restaurants. The rover that's working at Tanakasan might be working at Palace tomorrow night. They're bringing in the same fresh ideas and fresh thoughts to the company as a whole.

How has your menu at Palace changed throughout the years?

I would say Palace is as tied to the original concept as any of our places. I think we really hit it the first time out with that wood rotisserie. The big difference is we used to have on the menu...you could see what the Tuesday night or Wednesday night special was. It's a great way to make the menu look bigger and more interesting when you have a smaller menu, by showing what was around for the rest of the week. So, that's disappeared and we've added more food, but it's always been appetizer-focused, always bar-centric, no reservations, you can sit anywhere and have dinner and a cocktail or a cocktail and apps. Free pistachios at the bar since day one. All of our nightly specials still come off the wood-fired rotisserie. The big gigantic crouton was on [the menu] since day one as was the slow-roasted chicken. The American farmstead cheese plate we put on [the menu] 18 years ago and it's still on there.

Any glaring omissions?

We used to have Goat Tuesdays on the rotisserie. Lola now has the goat. The burger was added after about a year. We did the Palace Burger Royale that used to come out on a three-tier stand. I liked it, but we just didn't have room on the tables for it.

Why is this place such a big industry draw?

I think it's a great spot. Honestly, I think it's a sexy late-night spot. I don't think everything has to be super loud music and super dark corners. It's a grand space. I think it's just a real place. I don't know how to explain it other than it's always been what it is.

Do you also think it's because you're good at branding yourself and your company? How important has that been to your restaurants' success?

I think it's huge. I think that's part of the effort piece. People ask me how I get so much free press, but that's just part of getting your ass out of bed and doing New Day Northwest and Q13 and doing all that stuff.

How do you constantly get new people into your restaurants?

I don't know if you've noticed, but I tend to open new restaurants all the time. New restaurants get the attention, but that attention really does trickle down to all the restaurants. I write books once in a while. I'm not making money on any of my books, I guarantee you, but they get a lot of attention; they get publicity, people want to talk about them, I travel and do media for them because you can get on TV shows if you have a new book, right? So, the next thing you know, somebody in Miami sees me and when they come to Seattle they're going to want to stop into one of my joints. I have my product line that gets me out and about talking about our company all the time.

Would you say you're busier now than you've ever been? Or was it more of a struggle for you when you just had one restaurant?

My life? It was really busiest when I just had one or two [restaurants]. One was the busiest, two was a struggle for a while understanding my new role, three really solidified that role. Since then, you tend to have more of an overseer role, you just put people in their spots; it's just different. With my first restaurant I was cooking on the line, lunch and dinner, seven days a week.

Do you ever jump on the line just for the hell of it?

Just for the hell of it? No. I cooked for 25 years. It's time for me to do something else.

Anything that's going to change about Palace Kitchen anytime soon?

It's always constantly changing. We print our menus every day. I'll be curious how [Tanakasan] reflects over there. Nothing immediately. The menu is always changing, but the format is probably always going to stay the same. It's really successful. We get such nice comments about Palace Kitchen. But I gotta tell ya, Dahlia had its best year last year, Lola is killing it, Serious Pie is killing it. Etta's just had its best year by 10-percent last year. Etta's! Nobody talks about Etta's. When was the last time you talked about Etta's? Seatown. Does anyone say a word about Seatown? It just had its best year ever out of three years now.

Did it help that Anthony Bourdain came a knockin' for his Seattle 'Layover' episode?

Yeah. And [the producers] picked that, not me. I was like, 'Seatown? Go for it! That'd be sweet!'

· All Tom Douglas Coverage [~ESEA~]
· Tom Douglas [Official Site]
· Inside Tom D's Expansive Tanakasan & Assembly Hall [~ESEA~]

Seatown Seabar & Rotisserie

2010 Western Avenue, Seattle, WA 98101 206 436 0309 Visit Website

Lola

2000 4th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98121 206 441 1430 Visit Website

Palace Kitchen

2030 5th Ave, Seattle, WA 98121 (206) 448-2001 Visit Website

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