Twenty-two years ago, Jim Marriott had dinner at Kirkland's Cafe Juanita with his mother. He was so impressed with the charming home-turned-restaurant, gracious service, and perfectly executed food, he asked for a job.
Now, 37 years into his taking great care of guests, the career server reflects on his highlights—including that time he served the Pope. For Classics Week, Eater sat down with Jim to talk about the view he looks forward to each day and why he'll never retire.
What is it about Cafe Juanita that has made you stay so long?
It's just so comfortable. It's home. You look out the window and see a pastoral scene, and that's what I've looked at every day for 22 years. I never get tired of it. There's a creek running through—well, you don't get a good view of the creek, but it's there—and the foliage, trees, the greenery... The fact that it is a house is very cozy. It's just a beautiful place to work and draws the most wonderful clientele. The fact that we see our guests repeatedly and build a rapport with them, that's my favorite part. You form a friendship; it's not uncommon for us to get invited to guests' homes.
With the restaurant closed for renovations until April, does it show you what life would be like if you retired?
Exactly, it has. I need a place to go to, a place to see people on a regular basis, and it's not happening right now. I'd like to keep working there as long as I can. I've never had any real desire to retire. Suddenly you go from being out five days a week, to nothing? I look forward to our pop-up at Lark.
How did you come to start serving?
I was living in Vancouver and working in a hospital up there, and I just decided to move over to Victoria. It was such a touristy town, I thought it'd be fun to be a server over there.
I went to one place that said they weren't taking applications, so I walked over to another and put in an application, and then went back to the first and filled out an application anyway. The hotel manager came and called for a meeting. He said, "Jim, this is all very nice, but you're not a server. What makes you think you can be a server?" And I said, I love to dine out, I know how I'd like to be treated, and convinced him.
He said to arrive the next day in a tuxedo to trail Robert for two weeks, because Robert had given his two weeks. Well, I arrived the following day and Robert was nowhere to be seen, because he had not honored his notice. So they threw me into a section, never having been a server before, because we got busy. We were right near the Parliament building, and people would come over for dinner after the session.
You look out the window and see a pastoral scene, and that's what I've looked at every day for 22 years. I never get tired of it.
We made tableside Caesar salads, and I had never made one. So when I got an order for a Caesar salad, I asked another server how to make it, and he said "just add a little of everything to the bowl and toss it with the romaine," and that was the full extent of my training. So I made a salad at the table and, after they tasted it, they said it was "good," but not great. And I had a single diner who came in several times while he was in Victoria, and this guy, he was an expert on Caesar salad, so I made the Caesar salad in front of him many times, and when I got to the point that he said it was great, I stopped making adjustments, and that's the one I stayed with.
The very first night I was thrown in like that, I was in the kitchen and it was like I had one foot nailed to the floor, and was in circles because I hadn't established my priorities. I either had to cry and walk out of there or get through it and figure it out as I went, and that's what I did. And from that point on, I never looked back.
I worked in the William Tell restaurant in Vancouver, BC, for 10 years, and before that, I was at Rosellini's 410. Victor Rosellini actually brought fine dining to Seattle. I worked for him for five years.
And how did you begin working at Cafe Juanita?
I left the William Tell and came down and applied at several restaurants downtown. I actually got a job at a restaurant in downtown Seattle, which shall remain nameless, and held it for two days and thought "I can't do this." It was not my restaurant, not my style. And it just so happened that someone had mentioned Cafe Juanita to me, not so much as to go to work there, but to dine at.
So, I took my mother, and we sat at table 18, which is now table 22, in front of the fireplace, and we had a wonderful meal, great service. And at the time, the restaurant was owned by Peter Dow, and he was at the door that night, playing host, so I went up to him before we left and asked if he was looking for any servers. He said, "I'm always looking for good servers." So he asked where I had worked before, and I told him I was just leaving the William Tell, which he knew very well. And so he said, "why don't you come and see me tomorrow?" I went in the next day, sat for about ten minutes, and was hired on the spot.
What was the transition like from one owner to the next?
I thought it was going to be harder than it was, but it was actually very smooth. [Holly Smith] changed the menu considerably, focusing more on Northern Italian.
Why did Dow sell the restaurant after 20 or so years?
He started the restaurant in ‘77 in a smaller location about four blocks away from where it is right now. The focus was on the food, but he started making wine under the Cavatappi label, so his focus kind of shifted. He hired someone to take over the kitchen but he wanted it to continue after selling it, and wanted it to be successful when he sold it. And Holly did just that. She won over his regular guests with ease.
That's a tough thing to do: take over someone's favorite place. There'd probably be a riot if you left.
Oh, I doubt that. The servers are all so wonderful there. Everybody's very personable and approachable without being uppity.
You and Holly must be good friends after so long.
Every year, when we celebrate the anniversary of her buying the restaurant in 2000, she thanks me for staying for so long. I always say, "well, where else would I be? Where would I go?" I love it.
What are your favorite foods on the menu?
The rabbit has been our signature dish for 22 years. We do a lovely duck. We have a great fish, always from the East Coast. Holly's from there, and figures everyone can get salmon and halibut and other fish from here everywhere else. So, she brings fish from the Atlantic: striped bass, branzino, and does a really good job on those. We do scallops. We don't do lobster or crab, really, though we have an Alaskan crab appetizer with green apple sorbet and a crab butter powder sprinkled over top.
The house feels like it has a lot of stories. True?
It was a private home for many years, built in 1955. The matriarch was a piano and dance instructor, so the room downstairs was a dance studio. And upstairs, she'd teach piano lessons. I've had customers over the years who come in and used to take piano lessons there as children; they'd wait in the living room and take lessons in the dining room.
Is it hard for you as a really professional server to go out to other restaurants?
I'm so forgiving, you wouldn't believe it. Because we all make mistakes. I've made mistakes over the years and people have been very forgiving to me.
What do you think less experienced servers can do to win over a table?
Well, more than just getting the orders, you have to make people feel like they're your entire focus while you're talking to them. When you're in a conversation, you should always be present and pay attention. People can tell when you're not. I've always looked forward to the challenge of having control of a section, all the different stations of service, and keeping everything rolling, not having any hiccups.
What are some of your favorite restaurant service memories?
When my mother was living, I took her to brunch every Sunday at Cutter's on the waterfront. Back then, before the remodel—I don't like the remodel, too modern—but we'd go every Sunday and they were so good to her, treated her like a queen. So we went there for years. But now that she's gone, I don't go there.
What changes have you seen in the industry since you started?
Well, one change is that we used to be called waiters and waitresses, and now we're servers. Which I think is obviously much better. One restaurant I worked at, they had waitresses at lunch and waiters at dinner. We had one female who served dinner, because she was the wife of the chef.
I served dinner to the Pope and then went home and sat up till 5:30 in the morning, and served the Pope breakfast.
There's something about the setting that just seems so special and memorable. How many proposals have you seen at the restaurant over the years?
I've probably seen several hundred, not always in my section, but yes, a few hundred.
Any that went poorly?
Not at Cafe Juanita, but back at the William Tell, I actually had a table and he asked her to marry him and she looked at him and said, "WHAT?!" and absolutely, flatly turned him down because they hadn't known each other that long. And he had this romanticized vision of their relationship which she didn't have. She was so embarrassed, she left the table and never came back. So he was sitting there quite embarrassed, and I had to calmly asked if I could do anything else for him, and he said "No, I guess we're done." And I mean done. I felt so sad for him.
This wasn't a proposal, but was very memorable and strange: Once I had a lady at a table by herself, in her 20s. She sat and had a cocktail, a glass of wine, a salad, a main course—it was a very nice meal—and after I cleared her entree, she asked where the restroom was. So, I directed her, but a little later I was walking through my section and on the table was a set of keys on a key ring. So I kept seeing that, and 5, 10, 15 minutes passed and she didn't return. She had purposely left dummy keys to postpone our concern or curiosity as to where she was. She was a dine and dash. We've never had anything like that at Cafe Juanita.
I was told you once served the Pope—how did that happen?
It was when I was a server at the William Tell and I was approached by a cathedral representative to serve, because of my reputation at the William Tell. And so the Pope was in town for a celebration of life. He had been at an airport for the early part of the day, and then was at the cathedral. I had to go through all sorts of security procedures, then I served dinner to the Pope and then went home and sat up till 5:30 in the morning, and served the Pope breakfast. And then he left, and I slept.
Did you get to talk to him?
After breakfast, we went on a little tour of the Cathedral and he gave me a rosary in a box. And we spoke then. I happen to be Catholic, but it was not a deep conversation.
I had sung on stage with Mother Teresa. I was very involved at the Cathedral. When our choir was invited to sing at the ice hockey arena when she was in town, the bishop was coming into the stadium with Mother Teresa. She was so tiny, and the people parted in the center and she walked up to the stage. And when she walked through, I just started crying. Here was this woman, and she'd accomplished so much, and she was as big as a minute. Those two experiences are definite highlights of my life. I've had many, many smaller experiences in restaurants as a server, but those are the highlights. She came up and we sang and at the end, she shook all of our hands. I didn't have to travel to India or Rome to experience that.