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Linda Derschang and Chef Walter Edward Talk Common Threads—and if Tallulah’s Will be the Last Hurrah

"We're not worried about being cool with our food—just craveable."

If you live in Seattle, you've likely spent plenty of time in one of Linda Derschang's bars. The queen of neighborhood takeovers has nestled her way into the daily drinking and eating habits of the city, with Linda's Tavern, King's Hardware, Smith, Oddfellows, Bait Shop, and now Tallulah's serving it up.

Eater sat down with Derschang and Chef Walter Edward to discuss how Tallulah's became a hub in an unexpected part of town. Now one year out from opening the veggie-heavy neighborhood cafe in an off the beaten path section of Capitol Hill, she's thinking of taking a break—possibly forever.

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Every other neighborhood you've opened a restaurant in seems a little more, um, hip? How did you pick this area?
Linda: What do you mean—I live here! (laughs) It was definitely a bit of a risk, but I'm very drawn to this neighborhood. One reason I loved this project is because we could have a patio. And the developer curated—I know that the word curate can be overused—but, gathered a group of interesting small businesses that work well together. And all these businesses right by here are owned by women who live in the neighborhood: Robin (Wehl Martin of Hello Robin), Molly (Moon Nietzel of Molly Moon's), Dani (Cone of Cone and Steiner), and Tierney (Salter of The Herbalist.)

I was wondering if you felt like it was a risk opening in such a different landscape from your other places.
Linda: If I hadn't lived here, I would've felt that it was riskier. There's always a risk of opening in a really busy, dense neighborhood, because you can get lost in the crowd. The risk in a neighborhood that isn't as dense is that you won't have enough people to sustain you.

Who are your customers at Tallulah's—the same as at your other restaurants, or a whole new group of "fans"?
Linda: It's pretty similar to Oddfellows, which is from babies to grandparents. It's a big mix of people who live in the neighborhood, but also people coming here from across town. It says something about Walter's food that people are driving from Phinney and Shoreline and Ballard.

Walter: Around the opening, the crazy thing we discovered was how many people live two blocks from here. Opening week, we had hundreds of people who came in and told us "I live two blocks from here!"

Linda: There are thousands of people who live two blocks away, somehow!

Walter: As we grow, I think more and more people are discovering us as a place to drive to in addition to being a place to frequent for neighborhood dwellers.

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It feels like with Tallulah's is more of a restaurant-restaurant than you've ever opened. Is that accurate, or is there a lot of similarity with others?
Linda: I think of Tallulah's as being a neighborhood cafe, like Oddfellows, but in a different way.

Walter: And in a very different neighborhood.

Linda: And Smith is a restaurant, but has a very hubby feel to it. And really all of the businesses are quite different, but there's a thread going through that I hope people notice...

What is that common thread?
Linda: A common thread is that they're very much neighborhood places. Whether bar or more restaurant, they're all places that are very popular in their neighborhood and were meant to really fit the neighborhood and be embraced in that neighborhood.

What has really stood out to you in the last year? Aha moments, frustrations?
Walter: We did a lot of planning and were lucky that things actually turned out that way. The patio was so successful, if anything, it was more than we even hoped for. It was slammed, a hit.

Linda: I don't think there were any surprises in terms of "oh no, we really messed that up. We have to rework that." We opened with a really great staff and there has been little turnover. In terms of construction, I signed the lease a year and a half before we opened, which I've never done before. I've never been part of a new construction. It gave me a lot of time to see what was opening, what was changing, what was happening in restaurants. I had a vision but it morphed and changed over that time. There have been times when I've signed a lease and been open four months later. There was a luxury in having that 18 months of planning.

Walter, how do you do all this with three-year-old twins?
Walter: I have an amazing wife, and she's been so supportive since the beginning. This is the first place I opened as Executive Chef, but it's something she's known would happen since we first met. It might not have ideally happened when our kids were two, but the kids love it, and it's nice that it's at a place that works so well with families. Sometimes they come here, and I'm able to get away enough that I get to see them.

So, the smooth opening: Did you do something different in putting together this staff versus others?
Linda: How do I say this without throwing anyone under the bus? I think the culture and team in the company right now are really wonderful. Every company goes through a year or two where things are magical and then someone or people come in and push things unbalanced, or someone leaves and throws it off a bit. In 20 years in my company, I've seen some really magical periods, and some where things got a little wonky. We have had an especially great group of people for the last year, year and a half.

What is your ultimate dish that you think really encompasses Tallulah's?
Walter: I would say that, surprisingly, our most popular dish is the cauliflower...

Linda: Since the day we opened...

Walter: Since the day we opened. We never expected that. When I wrote the menu, it was one of the first things I put on the menu, and it wasn't necessarily because it was what inspired so much, it just felt like it belonged. And it wasn't vegan to be vegan, it just didn't need to not be.

Humor, humor is the common thread through all my businesses. Little weird, funny things all over.

Linda: Is cauliflower the new kale? I think it is.

Why is it that you took such a vegetable turn here?
Linda: My inner hippie came out. No, I really am a healthy eater and always have been. I asked a lot of friends what they wished for in a neighborhood restaurant, in whatever neighborhood, and I continued to hear "lighter, healthier, more vegetables, less meat," without it being a health food restaurant. And I was feeling the same way.

We've had a lot of pork, a lot of whole animal, and it's wonderful, but I felt that it was right for the time. There's a lot of restaurants like that opening around the country. I think Ottolenghi cookbooks have been an inspiration for a lot of people. I think people are definitely thinking about how you can live a vegetable-forward lifestyle without being a vegetarian.

Walter: It's a place where people in the neighborhood can feel comfortable coming in and eating multiple times a week. You can't always eat a double pork chop, but you can come in and have the cauliflower and beets and carrot soup...

Linda: Or you can go right for the lamb burger!

Walter: Or the lamb burger! Even on the hanger steak (Ed note: so so delicious), the potato galette is lightly gratined but not quite as over the top... and much prettier.

Walter, do you feel like this menu is a culmination of your experiences with Maria Hines restaurants and at Oddfellows and Smith?
Walter: I think everywhere I've worked has really come together in this menu, and that's pretty true for a lot of chefs. Soon after I came to Oddfellows, I was approached by Linda about heading up Tallulah's once it opened, because the plans were already in the works. I don't know if there was something about writing the specials at Oddfellows that felt like a peek into Tallulah's food...

Linda: I felt like Walter would understand what I wanted because of that, and when we sat down, he got it. I'm not a chef and I don't like to write menus, but I like to think of myself as a good editor, and chefs as writers. And I knew I would like Walter's book.

cat tallulah Suzi Pratt for Eater

What are you changing moving forward, if anything?
Linda: I think we're constantly evolving. I don't think changing, necessarily. Walter's brought back some things from last year's menu that were really popular while balancing the menu with new items.

Walter: We're not worried about being cool with our food—just craveable. What do people want to eat. We change our menu pretty frequently, always putting something new on. And we can do throwbacks, like "remember this? I think it's the perfect time to have it again," and then just let people enjoy it.

Linda: Imagine what we'll be saying in 5 years.

Let's talk about the cat in the room: The big white lounging one greeting guests when they come in the door.
Linda: Cashmere! When I bought that cat painting, I had no idea there were others. It's a print! And when I bought it, I wasn't sure if I was going to keep it at home or bring it here. I thought it might be crazy.

After, I was browsing Craigslist for midcentury modern paintings and came across another Cashmere. I thought, "How can there be another one? That's an original!" But I found out there are so many of them. One of the things I read online is that JC Penney's hijacked it and made a bunch of mass-produced versions of it. They sold tons of them in the ‘70s. At first I was really disappointed that there were other Cashmeres, but once I read the story, I was really excited. Chris, our assistant manager, even has one hanging in his house.

And the twins in the women's bathroom? Those are terrifying.
Linda: Do you know Derek Erdman's work? We have the Tonya Harding, like, yelling by the wait station, because wait stations are so crazy. In the bathroom, above the men's urinal, there's a painting of his of John Wayne Bobbitt...

Walter: Not only is there a painting of John Wayne Bobbitt, but as you stand in the urinal, it stares right into your eyes.

Linda: Humor, humor is the common thread through all my businesses. Little weird, funny things all over.

Were there any growing pains with Tallulah's joining the "family"?
Walter: It's been really positive in aiding communication. There are managers meetings, and we're a real sounding board for each other. There's a basic philosophy at all the restaurants of just doing simple, lovely food, albeit in our own ways.

Linda: There's a lot of camaraderie, and that's a common thread that goes through: just the respect, the connection, and the communication.

Looking back from when you first thought of the concept to now, did you have any buyer's remorse moments?
Linda: You know, I didn't really. I was excited about this. I love design challenges. The only time that I went "oh my god" was that we did Bait Shop and we were open a few months, and then I didn't really have time to catch my breath. So, maybe I take a few years' break after this, or maybe this is it? Maybe the company is big enough and this is the last one.

So, Tallulah's could be the last we see of your places?
Linda: I can't say 100 percent, but I'm trying really hard to not open anything... at least, not for a while.

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550 19th Ave E, Seattle, WA 98112 206-860-0077 Visit Website

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