Josh Henderson and Huxley Wallace Collective seem to have hit a rough patch in South Lake Union. The restaurant group opened a slew of new eateries throughout Seattle in 2016 and already replaced one of them — boundary-pushing Pacific Northwest-inspired taco spot Bar Noroeste — with Kiki Ramen, dialing back the creativity and catering more directly to the Amazonia lunch and happy-hour crowds.
Now, Henderson has also closed high-end, highly regarded, wood-fired Vestal and plans to reopen it in late April or early May with the same name but a pared-down concept: counter service, lower-priced comfort food in the $10 to $20 range, quicker turnaround, and — you guessed it — a renewed focus on lunch and happy hour, plus brunch this summer. “I think we were doing good stuff but I honestly think people want a little bit easier, they want casual,” Henderson told Eater, echoing a comment he made about opening Kiki Ramen “to do what the neighborhood wants.”
What happened? Did Henderson misread the neighborhood? Did he overreach? “Maybe both,” he said. “There was a lot of hope involved. Obviously where I want dining to go and where this city wants dining to go, at least in these two specific instances, weren’t aligned.” Henderson said Vestal is “in an area that’s growing and we were probably a couple years early there;” soon, Google will add its considerable bulk to the existing base of Amazon techies, which may shift the idea of what’s desired or practical in SLU. Henderson also said Vestal was in a price category that greatly limited its pool of potential customers, setting the restaurant up as a destination in a non-destination neighborhood.
Vestal was billed as a passion project for Henderson, a restaurant where he’d return to the kitchen regularly and follow flights of fancy over an open flame, a far cry from something like Great State Burger, a conscientious but straightforward chain he launched last year with one of its two locations in SLU.
Vestal received critical acclaim right off the bat: The Seattle Times awarded it three stars, singling out a consistent head-turner in the lievito e pepe, “an ingenious twist on cacio e pepe.” Seattle Weekly’s Nicole Sprinkle named Vestal one of the top newcomers of the year and best meals of the year. And Seattle Met’s Allecia Vermillion called it one of her biggest dining surprises of 2016, telling Eater, “I walked in expecting perfectly competent, crowd-pleasing food; instead it was all these inventive dishes with texture and loads of umami.”
Sadly, applause alone won’t keep the lights on. “People vote with their dollars,” Henderson said. “When there’s not enough votes you gotta get outta the game or change your strategy.” Some of the more inventive dishes, like the lievito e pepe, will remain, but will comprise only about 20 percent of the updated menu; the other 80 percent will be simpler, like sandwiches and burgers from the hearth, chopped salads, and brick chicken. “I won’t have to explain to you what lievito e pepe is with yeast and marmite; you’re gonna see a pasta that makes sense at a glance,” Henderson said. “I wouldn’t say it’s gonna be breaking down any culinary barriers, but it’s also the kind of food I like, and I think people will enjoy and feel comfortable in a beautiful space.”
If you need a final fling with Vestal pre-metamorphosis, the restaurant will host two farewell dinners featuring the existing menu Friday, March 24 and Saturday March 25 from 6 to 9 p.m.
“This year was certainly humbling, but in the end I have a business that I want to stick around. I want a fighting chance,” Henderson said. “Successful restaurants, to me, are the ones that are still open and can stick around for a while. We’ll get opportunities to do more fun stuff down the line, but the goal is to keep the doors open, give people what they want, and keep building. It’s layers of complexities. It involves emotion, business, ego, creativity, and you have to figure out what’s more important.”