Sarah Penn, who ran restaurants in Seattle for the last two decades, died Tuesday, January 23, at the age of 57 from ovarian cancer, her family told the Seattle Times. She was the owner of Pair (now Pancita) and Frank’s Oyster’s House, but her legacy extends beyond those restaurants to the many people she’s mentored, including Janet Becerra, the chef behind Pancita.
Penn grew up in Mount Baker at a time when many of the neighborhood’s white residents were moving away as the area diversified. But her parents resisted the “white flight” phenomenon. “We wanted our children to be exposed to families of other races,” Jane Leech, Penn’s mother, tells Eater Seattle.
After graduating from Franklin High School in 1984 and getting a film studies degree at Evergreen State College, Penn went to San Francisco where she attended graduate school and worked at fine-dining restaurants, including Kuleto’s, where she met her husband, Felix Penn. She carved out a career doing media production, her sister, Amy Sommers, tells Eater Seattle, but decided to switch gears and go into business with Felix.
The couple returned to Seattle and opened Pair, a French-influenced bistro, in Ravenna in 2004. It drew rave reviews for the menu’s small-plates format (then still a novelty in the city) and the restaurant’s intimate, communal atmosphere. The couple opened Frank’s Oyster House down the street from Pair in 2009, and though they divorced in 2019 they worked together until 2021, when Sarah bought Felix out, reports the Times.
Penn’s restaurants weren’t overly formal, but Penn lavished care over every detail. Her partner Tom Guyton said that she was constantly “scoping out” every element of a restaurant’s decor and service when they ate out. She had a particular fondness for “old-school” restaurants, like Mexico City’s El Cardinal, which the couple visited on a recent trip. “The waiters were all dressed up in black and white formalwear and very professional, and she loved that kind of stuff,” Guyton tells Eater Seattle.
As Penn’s health declined and Pair struggled during the pandemic lockdowns, the restaurant closed, then hosted Janet Becerra’s innovative Mexican pop-up, Pancita. The arrangement turned into a permanent partnership between Becerra and Pair in August 2023. The food is all Becerra, but many aspects of the restaurant have Penn’s fingerprints on them — how plates are replaced between courses, how crumbs are swept off the table by servers. “Sara really cares about keeping that kind of tradition alive,” Becerra tells Eater Seattle. “You know, really taking care of the guests’ needs.“ (Last week, Becerra was named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the Emerging Chef category.)
This approach won Penn’s restaurants many fans over the years. Frank’s opened at the height of the global financial crisis — not ideal timing for an oyster place — but the restaurant survived and thrived because “they were just really committed to having excellent, excellent ambiance and service,” Sommers says. A decade later, when the pandemic devastated the restaurant industry, Frank’s customers bought gift cards and sometimes just gave Penn money, Sommers says, in order to keep the place afloat.
Penn also inspired loyalty among many of the people who worked for her or with her. Becerra said on Instagram she considers Penn a “mentor,” and Alessandra Gordon, who runs popular local jam brand Ayako and Family, wrote a long tribute to Penn on Instagram. “You showed me that work and play could be a beautiful symbiosis of things, that we were serious and committed to excellence and that included building an indestructible foundation for our own joy,” Gordon wrote.
“She never gave birth to children, but I always felt that there were people who worked for her who were like her work children,” Sommers says. “They would invite her to their weddings and she would see their kids... she mothered a lot of people in ways that were really significant to them, personally and professionally. We’ve had such lovely messages from them as her illness became more and more serious, and then when she passed.”
Pancita closed for a day so that the staff could process the loss, Becerra says. “But then we just opened right back up, because I know, that’s what Sarah would have wanted. She would have been pretty upset if we closed for longer.”
Throughout her illness, Penn did her best to show up for others. Guyton remembers that a few days after a chemo session, she insisted on attending a neighbor’s harp performance as a show of support. Becerra says that Penn was physically at Pancita until September, a few months before her death.
“And even when she was not physically there, she was always still in the background,” Becerra says. “Any questions I had, I could just text her — she wanted me to bother her, to reach out to her. I was really truly amazed by how much someone can be so committed to what they love.”
Correction 1/31 1:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said Pair opened in 2003, when in fact it opened in 2004.