Welcome back to One Year In, a feature in which Eater chats with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photos: Renata Steiner]
If you've ever set foot on Capitol Hill, you've likely been into one of the businesses owned by David Meinert and Jason Lajeunesse. The super prolific pair counts venues (Neumos, The Comet), restaurants and bars (Big Mario's, 5 Point), and even the Capitol Hill Block Party among their arsenal.
Latest darling, 24 hour diner Lost Lake just celebrated its first birthday, and Eater sat down with the owners and GM Joey Burgess to talk about their premiere year. From Lynch-esque blood-pooling fantasies of a certain famous person in a red room to a karaoke host kitchen manager who can kill a Frank Sinatra song, Lost Lake's first year has had no shortage of interesting moments.
So, people love to talk about their celebrity clientele. I know you've had a couple recent stop ins, care to share?
David: Macaulay Culkin was here the other week. We've had a bunch of bands. The big one was when Kyle McLachlan came in and ate cherry pie. We devised this whole plan to get him a little drunk and have him go into the red room women's bathroom. We wanted so much for him to sit on the toilet with a cup of coffee, to recreate the Twin Peaks scene. And he sticks his head in and there's this long awkward silence, then he stands back up fully and says, "I love what you've done with the place. No way am I going in there."
He was so nice. He sent an email later and said "I love the place. Thanks so much for putting on the event. Sorry about the bathroom. Few people know this but I still have nightmares about that scene. So, when I looked in there, I got really dizzy and almost passed out." In my mind, I just thought that if he passed out and hit his head, there'd be like a pool of blood and we could've taken a picture. (Wow, that's so dark…) Yeah I guess haha. You know how in David Lynch movies, the blood always leaks out in slow motion? I just think of that because I'm a huge fan of David Lynch.
We have three employees who have Twin Peaks tattoos, so he signed them.
When you opened Lost Lake, it kind of, uh, caught on fire. Literally. When something like that happens, does it feel like an omen?
Jason: Charlie, our landlord, when he heard about it, he said it was a sign of good luck. That fire represents money, and that we would do well. So, we went with that.
David: My gut feeling was like "oh, this is bad," but he was convincing.
What was that moment for you when you realized you were going to be super successful and that people were going to be into you for the foreseeable future?
David: Well, the first week, we didn't advertise we were open. We weren't going to advertise until the second week. And so we just put it on our personal Facebooks. And it was unbelievably slammed and we never had to use any of the ad dollars we had budgeted for.
Jason: I think when we hit the year mark—or, actually, the eight month mark—was when I started to feel like we have something long lasting. The first six to eight months were very hard and there were a lot of growing pains, kind of trying to figure out what we were doing. We were extremely underprepared to open a restaurant of this size. But things changed a little when Joey came into the picture. He was a server when we opened, and then took over as GM in August. But he'd been a GM before, at Emmer & Rye and Smith.
Those are great places to come from, but completely different rooms and vibes. With that background, were there aspects you brought into the service arena at Lost Lake?
Joey: I think the important thing is really focusing on service here. I mean, we opened a diner, and we're trying to keep the price point low. But with elevated service. We want to be that living room for Capitol Hill. We've really built up a staff that lives in the neighborhood and hangs out in the neighborhood. It was super important to just kind of create that family environment. And the tricky part is, we don't close. So, whereas with E&R and Smith were difficult operationally, we don't have that time to regroup here.
You, David, own the 5 Point, so you have some diner experience of course, but this seems like a completely different animal. How have you found the similarities and differences there?
David: Yeah, totally different.
Jason: I think we expected a little of the 5 Point but were quickly shown that it is a completely different atmosphere. The clientele is much different, the expectations are totally different. It was good just to have that realization early. And that happens a lot when you open a business. A lot of the time what you think is going to be your business, what you think is going to be your clientele, really changes dramatically. People will adopt it and then it's theirs. They have control over it and you just have to adapt and change.
Joey: I think what we're doing is, we're everyone's everything. I mean, if you look over your shoulder, that's just a snapshot of what it looks like in here, all the time. [Hugely diverse group]
Jason: A 24 hour diner kind of appeals to everyone. It's kid-friendly, which I think is unique on Capitol Hill. Our staff takes care of kids and we're not uptight about kids being in here. We get it and it's cool to bring your kid in here. We're not stressed about you bringing your 3-year-old in here, running around all over the place. There are changing tables in the bathroom.
Did you ever think that owning like, hip, cool clubs like Neumos and The Comet, you would also own a place that has changing tables in the bathroom?
David: When you have a kid, I have a 4-year-old, you realize that like you go to all these restaurants… I bring my kid everywhere. She likes going to Canlis. She's pretty well-behaved, but she has freak outs. And when you have a kid, you kind of want to bring your kid everywhere, and you should be able to and not be freaked out about it. And Capitol Hill hasn't necessarily been a kid-friendly neighborhood in the past, but it is now. I mean, we've got Molly Moon's, there's a kids' store around the corner, Cupcake Royale… and the park, which is one of the best kids' parks in the city.
Jason: I mean, we also have a bar, and there are spaces where kids, you know, aren't allowed, so there's that separation a little bit, too.
David: We have club people, and college students, a ton of seniors. We have a killer senior discount. And tons of industry people.
Jason: Yeah, they come in at like 4 (a.m.)
Joey: I think keeping with the spirit of Capitol Hill, too, we have a huge gay clientele, which we love.
Jason: And a big bear clientele.
Joey: Lots of chicken fried steak and biscuits and gravy. Jinkx Monsoon did her video here!
That's awesome. How did that get set up? Does it happen a lot?
Joey: They just showed up and made it.
Jason: We've definitely got a lot more people coming in and location scouting, wanting to use it. Out of all my businesses, this location definitely has been pitched more than any of the other locations. Just from local producers and stuff like that. But we haven't had a ton of actual shoots yet.
Joey: This place, we've had a weird year.
Jason: We all just did Jungian personality tests. And we're like the perfect couple. We should all be dating.
Joey: I'm an ENFJ. The Giver.
Jason: I'm an INFJ.
David: I'm an ENTP. Clever, is the word.
Good to know. I'm so happy for you all. What have been some of the nice surprises you've found in the first year?
Joey: For me, having an ownership group that lets us do the Lost Lake Cares program. We donate 10 percent of our sales every Tuesday to a charity; we don't have to wait for Dine Out for Life. The staff gets to connect with charities that mean something to them, and we give back to Capitol Hill.
David: The goal is for it to be local, this neighborhood, because this is where we are. But it's a mixed bag.
You guys basically took over the whole corner. Any particular reason for the takeover here?
David: Well, we don't own Poquitos… yet. Quinn's we'll own soon… just kidding.
What is it about Capitol Hill that has you guys so invested in just this specific area, this block? Between Big Mario's, Neumos, Moe Bar, The Comet, Lost Lake, Capitol Hill Block Party… I mean, it's really, really specific…
David: I have a lot of theories about urban development, and Capitol Hill is kind of everything. Right now, you could literally be born, grow up, and live, and retire, and die in this neighborhood. You could be born at Virginia Mason, you could go to preschool, elementary school, high school, college, including graduate programs, and then live and work on the Hill, retire at the retirement home, and then go to Bonney Watson when you die. And you can literally never leave this neighborhood. And you can walk everywhere, walk to the grocery stores, walk to concerts, there's music festivals… It's kind of, as far as all that, it's kind of the perfect neighborhood. A lot of our customers are in this neighborhood all the time. And we have a ton of regulars who come here every day. The people are really diverse.
Joey: And our employees.
David: Yeah, our employees are super diverse. And the other business owners are super, too. You've got Jason, for example, Linda [Derschang] is here, the Poquitos guys are great, Scott [Staples of Quinn's] is great, Jody [Hall of Cupcake Royale] is here… There's just a lot of really great other small business owners that are doing cool shit, and kind of in the same wavelength.
Jason: It's been super personal in terms of my connection with this neighborhood. I moved here 14 years ago and I've lived in Capitol Hill and worked in Capitol Hill for a long time, almost everywhere, with the exception of the Off Ramp, Graceland, for three years, but I lived on the Hill. But I spent all my time here. I started as a talent buyer at Neumos, and then became an owner, talent party for Block Party, and then became an owner… I've basically invested my entire life for the last 12 years to this corner.
Right, so you guys just work the corner. This corner…
Jason: (Laughs) Yeah. It's my whole life. I still get lost getting to Ballard.
So, does that mean, since you guys are so rooted here, that you wouldn't open something in, say, Ballard. A second Lost Lake, or another place together?
Jason: We've looked. We've been looking, in Ballard and elsewhere. We wouldn't rule it out. But it has to be the right thing. We've kind of realized that it's very good for us to continue to reinvest in this neighborhood.
David: We will continue to open new businesses, and I'm sure do some together. I like this team. And, you know, our personality profiles match.
Ha, up until today, you weren't sure, but now…
David: Exactly, it was a game changer. But since we did our online personality tests (all laugh). I'm sure we'll do new stuff, we just don't know what.
One year in, are there any changes that you're going to implement, like, immediately? Or that you've added to other businesses of yours thanks to what you've learned here?
David: I think one of the things that we're doing is adding more vegan and vegetarian options to the menu. What else, Joey?
Joey: We have 60 1-star Yelp reviews and 60 5-star reviews. People love or hate us, so we just need to push a little more love into it.
David: I think the majority of the 1-stars are from the first two months. But obviously there are some things that need to change to get those marks up. We're building a parklet outside, with outside seating expansion for 30 to 40 seats. Should be done by summer…ish. That'll be a big addition to the place. We've got a lot better ventilation in here than last summer. We've added a really good whiskey program over the year, and the menu keeps developing.
Jason: It's been a crazy year. We opened, we had a big management overhaul. Like, the entire management team has changed at least once. We then took over The Comet, renovated The Comet. Created a menu for that venue. Now we're building this parklet outside… It feels like since we open, nothing has stopped. We've been building for a year straight.
So, that 24 hour open thing is affecting your 24 hour change mentality.
Jason: It's endless. Never tiring.
David: I think, I mean, you asked about the business side of it, and I think we're in a place where it's been profitable since the first month, which is unheard of. And that, I think, is an indication of how much the neighborhood has embraced the place. And we're just continually reinvesting everything. The Comet was the first thing, the parklet is the next thing. We've been really fortunate.
Jason: Right now, it's just menu development and fine tuning the details. Honing what we've already built.
David: Yeah, just making food even better, the food come out quicker… all the things you do at a restaurant.
What do you love on the menu?
Joey: the corned beef hash. It's Miss Julia's secret recipe. Ms. Julia is our kitchen manager and chef. She's fantastic. She used to work on the oil rigs.
David: I'm always eating different stuff here, changing it up. But if I could eat anything, I would eat the Philly cheese steak or the tuna melt and tater tots.
Jason: I don't eat it often, but I love the chicken fried steak. And as part of our new menu for summer, the ribs are awesome.
Miss Julia: My favorite thing to prepare is the corned beef; it's a lovely corned beef hash. My menu is old Southern secrets that I'd have to kill you if I told you. It's cooking with love. Good food takes a while, but when you do it correctly, it keeps them coming back for more. It has become my heart and soul, working here. (How did you end up here?) I was recruited for prep work when launched, which I didn't mind, I was able to get my hands wet, if you will… and have just become completely involved since. (Fun fact: Ms. Julia has hosted karaoke at the Crescent for 32 years. She started karaoke on Capitol Hill. Her go-to song is "That's Life" by Frankie. "It sums it all up," she says of her pick.)
David: Ms. Julia is special.
Jason: Ms. Julia developed all the sandwiches for The Comet with us.
What's missing in your repertoire? What's coming down the pipeline?
David: A week off (laughs).
Jason: We were working on a project that we just kind of walked away from, so there's literally nothing in the pipeline. We're free!
David: We're just investing everything here. We've been really lucky in all of our business that location is a huge part of it. So, it's really about finding the right location. It's the neighborhood, but it's also the right spot. Like, say we were to move to Belltown. There are streets there that are awesome, but you could move a block away and get no business. Our business models tend to rely on that walk-by traffic and neighborhood support. Our general premise is that we want to keep price points a little lower, so people can stop by three to four times a week, not on special occasions. They don't have to wait till pay day. We're patient, we looked for this place for two years to find the location for Lost Lake.
Jason: And it came in like at the very end.
Was there something you based it on? Is there a Lost Lake Senior some place in the country?
David: I'm a diner fan. At one point, I thought I'd retire from the music business when I'm old and just open a diner in some small town somewhere. It's based a little on a diner some distant relatives, who I don't know, own: the 101 coffee shop in Hollywood. Jason's a design freak.
Jason: I don't know about freak… It's the midcentury modern element. We wanted to do sort of a Northwest take on a diner. Coincidentally, obviously, Twin Peaks was made. And it's not like we looked at set design to try and copy that, but subconsciously, it probably played a part in that. There's not much to it, because it's not like we created a new concept. We took an established thing, this diner concept, and put it into the shell that we aesthetically liked. And here we have Lost Lake.
Do you have plans for how it's going to interact with Capitol Hill Block Party this summer, and how The Comet will?
David: Well, we've already been through it once, but yeah, preparedness, it's all different now.
Jason: The Comet now being attached has changed the space dramatically. The Comet will be crazy like it always is at Block Party. We're not going to have shows here, but it'll be open for business, of course. They can be long days if you're here start to finish. It'll be a place where people can duck out and have a bite to eat. A reprieve.