When Rachel Johnson and Joe Sundberg opened Manolin with partner Patrick Thalasinos and chef Alex Barkley last December, they had no idea they’d be met with such acclaim. The restaurant’s beautifully composed plates of fresh ceviche and meats cooked in the wood-fire grill have earned it a constant waiting list and dedicated regulars.
With Bon Appétit naming it one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country last month, Manolin is busier than ever. A triple threat of great food and drinks, supreme beauty, and fantastic service, the restaurant has just earned a spot as the newest member of the Eater 38 (replacing the just-shuttered Gastropod). To celebrate, we sat down with Johnson and Sundberg to discuss their restaurant (named for a Hemingway character), from concept to future plans.
What kinds of big surprises have you had in your first nine months?
Joe: All the attention from the media is weird. It doesn’t feel like we don’t deserve it, but it’s surprising. Why us?
Rachel: It’s a mix of some luck and some chance. (Bon Appétit Restaurant Editor) Andrew Knowlton could’ve gone to 10 other restaurants — and maybe he did — but for whatever reason, he came here. And he loved it. And we are thrilled.
What has changed since Bon Appétit named you one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country?
Joe: We were just dialing it in with manageable schedules for everyone right before the Bon Appétit award came in.
Rachel: Now every night is a Friday. Well, a Friday plus. There is no capacity for us to fit in more people or to make more food. We can’t add more tickets to the board. We are at capacity. Outdoors, we added four small patio tables and it’s a split between that and a waiting area.
Joe: I’d love to put, like, a beach shack in the courtyard. Maybe a pop-up on busy nights. To be clear, there are no plans at all to actually do that…
What other awards have you picked up?
Rachel: Joe’s mom gave us the "Best Restaurant in the World" Award, so we’re riding pretty high on that right now. (Laughs) We got a Seattle mag nod, we’re on the Eater cocktail list and hit the Heatmap, too. We try not to listen too much to awards, to get them in our heads. It’s so much more important to listen to what our customers are saying here, on the ground.
Joe: We don’t let it affect how we do things. I mean, we opened in December, which is the worst month of all to do anything. Just this dark month, put our restaurant set back from the street with little signage… But the neighborhood found us, and not just found us, but neighbors were coming in two, three times a week — and we were only open five days a week. It’s the biggest compliment. In five years, I hope they’re still coming in with such passion and frequency.
You’re pretty and all, but why do people love you so much?
Rachel: Ha! Well, thank you. We try to make it a really comfortable place, where you can come in for any reason, in any clothes, with anyone. You can walk in straight from yoga in sweats and be welcomed, or come in for a special night and get the same treatment. The vibe is super important to us. We want to keep it light and fun and airy, bubbly music. (Is that why you have music in the bathroom?) Yes! The party don’t stop when you go to the bathroom…
Your menu rotates a lot. Is there a favorite dish that has continued throughout?
Rachel: The plantain chips are definitely the most popular item. Almost everyone gets them, and if they don’t order them, servers will often check to make sure they haven’t missed em.
Joe: The menu has undergone a lot of changes. We print new menus 2-3 times a week, with small changes. Usually, a supply has changed with some ingredient going out or becoming available. Monthly, though, it stays about 75% the same.
Everyone always calls your crew "Renee Erickson alumni." Is that an accurate shorthand?
Joe: There are three owners: Rachel, me, and Pat. The real genesis is back in the day at The Dish. Rachel was a server there and there was this cook, Alex, who was like 18 years old. I was a customer at The Dish, and Pat’s girlfriend worked there. Rachel latched onto Alex immediately.
Rachel: There was just something about him, I knew it right away. He was holding down a super busy station there and was into food in a strange way for his age. His favorite restaurant was Sitka & Spruce — the original — and he was staging at Cafe Juanita and Rover’s and just knew food so well. Then, he went off to cookery school in London.
Joe: When he came back, I was at Walrus (& the Carpenter), and we were looking for a cook. Alex came to mind right away and they hired him and he worked his way up. Then, when Rachel was at Whale (Wins), he ended up going over there. Meanwhile, we hired Pat at Walrus, Mariah too. Kristin Coker was at Walrus for three years…
Rachel: We’ve tried not to poach people. We only really hire people who we brought in to the fold or who left the Nautical Mafia or only had a couple shifts and needed more. After Whale stopped doing lunch, there were a bunch of people with a need for hours, and they’re over here now.
For people who have never been to Manolin, or who’ve tried and failed to get in, is there a secret?
Rachel: Come at four o’clock. There has never been a serious wait before 5pm. We just had our busiest night ever, and the ebb and flow is always a bit unpredictable. It’s unusual to have a wait longer than an hour, though two has happened a few times.
A lot of people don't know how much you do, but Joe was on the roof when I got here, fixing a skylight. You guys built it out, work here day to day... Is there anything you don't do?
Rachel: We really are hands on! We did the build out, we do all the repairs, everything. Our realtor told us about a lot of new buildings, but we wanted to find something with life in it.
Joe: Yeah, when we were demoing and rebuilding, it was so important to us to keep the textures of the existing structure when we were building it.
I've heard tell of Mexico as a life-changing lead-in to Manolin. What was the actual inspiration?
Joe: We took a trip to the Yucatán, and that was actually the genesis of Manolin. We went to Tulum, and kept hearing about a place that you could get to if you just kept driving. Past a palm grove, past where you think it should be. You just walk out there and there’s this little tiny place where they serve ceviche and whole fried fish. They don’t speak any English.
Rachel: And beer!
Joe: And beer. It’s this journey to get there. And we loved that. We couldn’t exactly erect a palm grove when we opened here, but even if it’s only a few feet to walk down the path to Manolin, across the courtyard, it’s not right on Stone Way.
Rachel: The other restaurant that was inspiring to us is Hartwood. It’s in the jungle, near a beach, and they cook on wood fire, in a wood oven. There’s no electricity, and it’s run by an ex-pat New Yorker. They use really fresh ingredients and have a rotating menu. The other day, three women walked in to Manolin and were looking around as we were setting up for service, and one of them told her friend that we reminded her of Hartwood. Just out of the blue. It was pretty cool.
What, if anything, are you going to change as you approach your year mark in December and beyond?
Rachel: We want to make sure our employees are taken care of. We’re trying to drop the kitchen staff down to four days. We’d like to add health insurance. We’d like to take care of ourselves a little, too. Maybe hiring managers? We need a little break from the daily grind and time to be creative, instead of being in the mix of it at all times. We’re closing the first two weeks of January to let everyone take a trip and regroup.
What’s something about Manolin you’re really proud of, but no one talks about?
Rachel: We are a super healthy crew. This crew, I don’t know how it happened, but the kitchen is a mix of super light-drinking people and some who don’t drink at all. It’s ridiculous, this group is so in shape, just the healthiest people. It’s wonderful.
You have a Britney Spears album cover that’s become kind of a permanent part of your decor. If she walked in here, would she eat for free?
Joe: We found it when we were doing the build out: Not the album, just the cover, of Stronger. If she came in, we’d hook her up with a little friends and family discount for her whole bill, and maybe we’d send her a dessert or something.
Rachel: Yeah, no freebies for Brit. Everybody pays.