There was no other place quite like it.
From buttoned-down business executives to working girls, movie stars and rock musicians to club kids and politicians, sometimes it felt like the whole world was at “the Queen.”
The Queen City Grill opened on a chilly afternoon in 1986. The Belltown flagship eventually paved the way for an explosion of fine dining restaurants in the area, but at the time, the neighborhood looked a lot different.
“There were no condo buildings north of the Queen,” recalls Queen City Grill general manager and part owner Robert Eickhof. “It was all labor temples, working men’s bars and artist’s studios.”
Over the next thirty years, the landmark restaurant on the corner of First Avenue and Blanchard remained a constant fixture on the Seattle nightlife scene. It was a place that welcomed everybody, where one could just as easily go for an anniversary dinner as one could sidle up to the bar for a nightcap with a stranger. People frequented the restaurant for a number of reasons, ranging from the familial and friendly service, the dim orange lighting that somehow made everyone look just a little bit sexier, the seared steak with peppercorn demi-glace and the hidden stairwell enclave where lovers and smokers would sneak out for a rendezvous.
There were highs and lows, for sure—but throughout it all, the Queen City Grill retained an undeniable mystique and allure, characterized by the hosts’ unwavering hospitality and, at times, devil-may-care attitude.
On January 2, barring a last minute change of heart from the restaurant’s landlord, the Queen’s reign will finally come to an end, the result of an ongoing financial dispute between the restaurant’s owners and the Plymouth Housing Group, a nonprofit which leases spaces to commercial tenants and uses the proceeds to help the homeless.
According to Queen City Grill’s other owner, Steve Good, the fallout stems, in part, from a disputed $5,800 utility bill which has ballooned to more than $14,000 over the years after accruing interest and late fees. Efforts to repay and renegotiate with the group have been rebuffed, Good says.
“For us, the end of this restaurant would be a big letdown,” says longtime server Lorenzo Boini, whose sly wit and jovial attitude have earned the sexagenarian a loyal following in the city. “This place has become an extended family for me.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many: On the restaurant’s 30th anniversary party last month, the rallying cry “Save the Queen!” was painted on banners and shouted throughout the evening by the hundred or so patrons who showed up to support the restaurant.
Though it might feel like the end of an era, it’s also a story that Seattle knows all too well. Rising rents, shifting demographics, and an influx of tech money has changed the geography of the city at lightning speed. For many, the bright glowing letters on the restaurant’s awning are a lingering reminder of another time, where grit and glamour were not mutually exclusive terms.
“Thirty years ago, Belltown wasn’t like it is now,” recalls Boini who was part of the restaurant’s opening staff. “It was like skid row—opening the restaurant was a risk for everyone, and we didn’t know what would happen. But then the ‘90s came and we were rocking.”
“The Queen really helped turn around the neighborhood,” says Scott Soderstrom, another longtime employee. “It was really the cornerstone and the anchor of many businesses and residential buildings that came to the neighborhood.”
Belltown’s luxury development boom in the ‘90s and early ‘00s delivered a rush of posh clubs and restaurants, frequented by high rollers who didn’t bat an eye at dropping a few thousand dollars on any given evening.
“There wasn’t really anything else like it at the time,” recalls chef Brendan McGill, who worked at the restaurant in the early 2000s. “All of a sudden there were doormen and velvet ropes and people popping bottles of expensive champagne. I’ve never seen anything like that since or before, in Seattle.”
The restaurant became a hotbed for celebrity action, and included regular visits from actors Tom Hanks and John Corbett, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, Elton John, artist Dale Chihuly and Mary K. Letourneau, among others.
“It was egalitarian, in a way,” McGill said. “It was the kind of place where everyone from high-powered lawyers to self-styled gangster types would go. Everyone could go there, and if you had money to spend, they respected you and you were welcome. Anything that you wanted to get, you could probably get.”
If the sound of the late ‘90s opulence was a champagne cork popping, the following crash during the 2008 recession sounded a lot more like a crack pipe shattering. Crime—in the form of drugs, vandalism and violence—became rampant in the neighborhood and the Queen City Grill fell on leaner times. The nearby Frontier Room and Belltown Billiards, businesses where Good and Eickhof were stakeholders in, took a deep financial hit and eventually closed.
Since then, business at the restaurant eventually picked up, and things in the neighborhood have shifted for the better, Eickhof says, thanks in part to the Metropolitan Improvement District, which has worked to clean up the neighborhood.
“There was a time when we were struggling but we’re not anywhere near that now and Belltown is back to being vibrant,” Eickhof says.
When news of the restaurant’s imminent shutter was made public last month, the Plymouth Housing Group released a statement on their website, alluding to the restaurant group’s past financial woes:
“Plymouth regrets the difficulties being suffered by this long time Seattle institution but cannot offer a new lease term to this commercial tenant without risking the financial stability of Plymouth’s mission.”
Eickhof says his team remains hopeful their landlord will reconsider, and opt to exercise an additional five-year option written into the lease.
Since the announcement, letters from longtime customers and supporters of the downtown restaurant have poured in, and the owners have erected a Save the Queen Facebook page in an effort to raise awareness.
“We want people to understand, this is not a failing business,” Boini said recently when reached by phone. Pausing, he admitted that many of the longtime employees are worried about being left in the cold.
“For those of us like me, we’re not getting any younger—we’re still functioning but I don’t know where we go from here.”
Helen Freund is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans who writes about food, culture and criminal justice. Follow her on Twitter @helenfreund.