Evan Leichtling started listening to punk rock when he was 12 years old, a self-described “weird kid” who felt isolated growing up on Whidbey Island. As he started his training to become a chef — in culinary school and at Seattle fine dining restaurants like Lark — Leichtling spent weekends getting tattoos and going out wearing colorful clothes to local venues like the Funhouse and the Lava Lounge. “The small punk rock community embraced me with all of my weirdness,” he says.
Though Leichtling loved the creativity involved in cooking, he often felt trapped by the dress codes, the white tablecloths, the jazz music, the pretension, and the separation between the front-of-house staff, back-of-house staff, and customers he saw at many of the restaurants he worked in.
Meanwhile, Meghna Prakash had spent most of her life in India training to be a lawyer but was dissatisfied with her work-heavy lifestyle. She moved to Paris on a whim, thinking, “This has to be better than working stupid corporate hours at a Mumbai law firm.” The experience of moving abroad built her confidence and fed her obsession with food and wine, she says.
The two met in Paris in 2014 while Leichtling was traveling around Europe before his stint at Akelarre, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain. They began dating when Leichtling moved to Paris to work at another restaurant and, in 2019, moved back to Seattle to run pop-ups together under the name Fowl and Offal — the intention always being to open their kind of restaurant.
Off Alley, the 14-seat restaurant and natural wine bar the now-married couple opened last summer, is a rejection of all the rules the pair felt restricted by in their respective careers. Instead of the typical American service style that tries to offer something for every type of customer, Leichtling cooks whatever he wants, and Prakash — who runs the service and wine side of the operation — speaks to customers without deference, all with the goal of removing the pretentious aspects of eating good food and creating a more egalitarian service atmosphere. “You’ve come into our house; now hang out and enjoy,” Prakash says.
At a night at the restaurant — a narrow, remodeled brick alleyway with the kitchen in the back and the dining room, a narrow counter along one wall, in the front — diners snack on bites like grilled quail with nettles or fried pig head with preserved cherries while engulfed in blaring punk rock, loud conversations between strangers, and yelled communications between service staff and cooks. The scene is pure chaos, and that’s the point: Leichtling says all these “weird things happening at the same time that [customers] don’t really understand” are a purposeful attempt to bewilder diners and help them let their guards down, to create an environment not dissimilar to the inclusive punk environments he blossomed in as a young man.
“I grew up in these fun, loud environments without a lot of rules and fetters in place,” he says. This same philosophy ties into the menus, which Leichtling writes each day on a chalkboard that’s posted to an Instagram account with over 1,000 followers, and into Prakash’s wine list.
While many American restaurants take care to cater to dietary restrictions, always including a good survey of veggie, meat, and fish dishes, Leichtling simply cooks the best local ingredients he can find in a moment, without heavy manipulation (no meat gels or vegetable foams here), usually in a French or Spanish style. So nine out of 12 dishes on a winter menu might be meat, since the greens aren’t out of the ground yet, while a summer menu might be more vegetable-heavy. Though the portions are large enough to share, the entire menu can work as a cohesive tasting menu for a group. Dishes are served until they sell out, then crossed off the chalkboard.
This approach also helps Leichtling introduce customers to foods they haven’t tried yet like animal offal (a word hidden in the name of the restaurant) and under-utilized species of fish, like kinki, a local species of rockfish that’s popular among chefs in Japan but rarely seen on menus in Seattle.
Likewise, Prakash’s hand-written wine list focuses on the type of low-intervention wines she and Leichtling came to love while drinking at casual bistros in Paris, normally sourcing from little-known, small winemakers.
The pair say they have no plans to expand the restaurant or change the restaurant in the future. “It’s not a lily pad,” Leichtling says. “I am who I am. If you don’t like, fuck it, I don’t care.”
Off Alley is located at 4903 Rainier Avenue South.