Last week the Boston Globe ran what was mostly a pretty standard interview with Megan Vaughan, the incoming executive chef of Encore Boston Harbor’s Rare Steakhouse. Vaughan has worked for some of the country’s highest-profile restaurateurs, and her last gig was as executive chef for Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak Seattle. At one point in the interview, the Globe asked her to share her impressions of the cities in which she’s worked, and when she got to Seattle she touched on one of our collective civic nerves:
I don’t want to say anything too harsh, but honestly, I was disappointed. The seafood was amazing. There was definitely fresh seafood. But as far as creativity and different restaurants, I think they really could not recover from the pandemic. It really showed in the downtown area. That’s actually one of the reasons why I left, because of how unsafe downtown was. A lot of things would close around 8 or 9 because you couldn’t really stay open late down there.
This line of thinking shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who has been paying attention to what many Seattle business owners have said since the pandemic began. Common complaints include shoplifting; open drug use and selling on the street (especially downtown); the presence of mentally ill people, some of them homeless; and a general air of lawlessness. Katherine Anderson, then a co-owner of Pioneer Square’s London Plane, wrote in 2021 that “our staff can no longer take being on the front lines of mental health and harassment patrol.” In 2022, Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton described downtown Seattle as “a city that’s collapsing around me” and an “urban dystopia”; the decline or even death of downtown has been a frequent topic of the city’s only daily newspaper’s op-ed page. Bruce Harrell won the mayorship in 2021 running as a moderate on a platform that in part advocated for crackdowns on the city’s homeless population.
Last year a poll from local news outlet Crosscut found that there was a divide between renters and homeowners on the crime issue, with more renters thinking that the media overplays crime or reports accurately on it, while more homeowners tended to think that the media underplayed crime in Seattle. Since homeowners tend to be wealthier and older than renters, this might speak to a difference in the generations, with older people worried about crime while younger people may suspect that the media is engaging in right-wing scare tactics.
So Vaughn’s assessment of the Seattle’s restaurant scene as lacking creativity might upset a lot of people, and the claim that she moved away partially for her own safety might strike some as overblown. But it’s worth noting that her former restaurant is around the corner from Third and Pine, a longtime hub for street crime and drug use — despite a very welcome recent decline in downtown crime, people are still pretty open about smoking hard drugs there. Vaughn is far from the only person to leave Seattle in the last few years, and though not many of them get interviewed by major newspapers on their way out, it’s likely that many of them share her feelings.
But saying Seattle restaurants lack creativity?! C’mon.