Restaurant Zoë Reinvented

With its relocation to Capitol Hill, a stellar restaurant reaches full maturity.

Be yourself: It’s the advice we all hear repeated throughout our lives, when we’re school-age kids doing our best to fit in (or at least not to stand out for the wrong reasons), during the angst-filled first weeks at a new job and so on through the years. As I get older, it seems like “being yourself” is at once the easiest thing to do and the hardest. It’s deceptively simple advice.

It also may explain the recent, bold reinvention of two thriving restaurants: West Seattle’s Spring Hill, which chef/owner Mark Fuller renamed Ma‘ono Fried Chicken & Whisky earlier this year. A new name, an almost entirely new menu with many Hawaiian dishes—a little Korean influence threaded through—but the address stayed the same: Ma‘ono lives in the same space as its predecessor, Spring Hill. Fuller says that the changes reflect a return to his roots; his mother is Hawaiian, and he grew up visiting family there. Going downscale, serving less fussy food, proudly frying chicken every night—it’s how Fuller wants to cook. It’s him being true to who he is.

Scott Staples went an arguably more precarious route when he closed Restaurant Zoë a year ago after a healthy decade of life in an iconic windowed space in Belltown. Staples reopened Zoë on Capitol Hill this winter on the outskirts of the Pike/Pine corridor—easily the most frenetic, food-frenzied area in town—at East Union Street and 14th Avenue. Same name, but a new, largely less expensive menu graces the new location. During my visits to The Coterie Room, which now occupies Zoë’s former Belltown space, I twice overheard diners come in asking for Restaurant Zoë, only to be told it had closed. It’s risky business changing places: Will those diners seek out the new Zoë?

Restaurant Zoë’s sleek new Capitol Hill location shines; at right, red wine-braised short ribs with steel-cut oats, nettles and a smoked shallot marmalade

If they’re smart, they will; the kitchen is already running on all cylinders, and the food—sometimes daring, sometimes refined, sometimes playful and seasonally aware—gets better with each visit (three so far). And on the whole, it’s a more affordable destination for dinner. There are still the luxurious people pleasers, but instead of a $30 steak, it’s now a 28-day-aged, grass-fed beef burger ($15), melty, messy and funky with Taleggio cheese and browned, balsamic-tinged mushrooms. On some days, there is abalone—abalone!—shipped from California and cooked to the gentlest soft finish, the most tender I’ve ever had, accented with bitter greens and citrus ($29–$32). Where, outside of better sushi bars, are you even going to find abalone on the menu?

There are sumptuous short ribs ($32)—they’re sensational, a holdover from the original Zoë menu—and salads of compressed fruits ($10). There are perfect fries with house-made aioli ($6), lush steak tartare with house-made potato chips for scooping ($12), and simple, seasonal tarts and just-baked cookies for dessert. You can play it safe with a burger and fries, or geek out to your foodie heart’s content with abalone and pig ears; it’s a fun, smart, balanced menu. [Shown right: Zoë’s Neah Bay King salmon rests atop English peas in a rhubarb vinaigrette.]

You’ll look marvelous eating it all, too. Credit the gorgeous lighting to Staples’ wife, Heather, who hung two massive globe-shaped fixtures (one imported from France, one a reproduction) that sparkle high above the tables. She designed the interior, as she did the original Zoë and the couple’s other restaurants, Quinn’s Pub and Uneeda Burger. There are rustic beams, soaring ceilings and reclaimed wood-framed windows. A side dining room has white-washed wood-planked walls and red accents (the main space is a touch more upscale, though still solidly drop-in ready). The semi-open kitchen has shelving that shows off glass jars filled with spices, nuts and pickled vegetables. It adds up to a reclaimed barn feel, but still quite civilized. On warmer days, the 15 patio tables are sure to be in high demand. And there’s talk of special dinners hosted in the adjoining Oola Distillery space, too.

Staples, when he talked to me about taking Zoë out of Belltown, was careful not to say anything disparaging about the sometimes-dicey neighborhood. And it is true that he’s got two other businesses—Quinn’s Pub and an event space, Sole Repair—within walking distance of Zoë’s new locale, which could also explain the move.

Still, it’s clear there’s more to Zoë’s reinvention and relocation than convenience. Sometimes restaurants—like people—grow out of a neighborhood and desire a different way of life. As we age, grocery stores sure are nice to have close by, as are parks for the kids, and the 2 a.m. party neighbors who were such fun in our youth start to really lose their appeal. Zoë’s move strikes me as a similar acceptance of the inevitable: that both the customers and the restaurant’s owners have grown up and moved on. Zoë’s new location is not quite at the throbbing heart of the Pike/Pine action, but it’s plenty lively. Sometimes being just around the corner from it all is about perfect.

Restaurant Zoë
[Capitol Hill]
1318 E Union St., 206.256.2060;
Sun.–Thu., 5–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.