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Café to Café


Winding down after a half century at the original 13 Coins

By Ronald Holden

Photo courtesy of 13 Coins

Fifty years, every day, all day, all night, it's been like this. If you recognize the picture, it's because you've been there, at one of the high-backed swivel chairs overlooking the kitchen at 13 Coins at the top of the South Lake Union neighborhood. As you walk into the low-slung building across from the Seattle Times offices at Boren and Denny, you get a sense of déjà vu (or should we say déjà mangé?).

In your memory, you've surely been here before, or seen elegant, upscale diners like this in the movies: leather upholstery, swivel chairs along the counter, fawning servers, the darkness pierced by flashes of fire from the exhibition kitchen (an innovation when it opened), where a brigade of cooks incinerate one classic dish after another. Yes, Hollywood. The Brown Derby. Chasen's. Or Broadway: Delmonico's.

Appetizers cascade onto the table, starting with the complimentary tray of chilled antipasti (carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, salami slices). You could order the Coins' excellent sautéed calamari, a juicy artichoke, steamed clams (with perhaps too much pesto), barbecued pork. Main courses: coconut prawns, eggs Florentine, crab & shrimp Louis, veal piccata, steak Sinatra. For "old times' sake," I might order the Joe's Special, a fanciful take on that hippy standby, the Scramble.

Back in the days of three-martini lunches (hah! hard to believe, but yes), I'd come here with the gang from KING TV and nosh on a tureen of bean soup. I returned a decade ago at the invitation of a PR firm hired by the longtime owners to announce a new chef.

Part of the Coins' early success was due to its proximity to the newspaper offices, "back when the Times was a real newspaper," my son Dominic used to say. Now there are construction cranes all over the neighborhood, and you can't hear yourself think during daylight hours. The building is slated for demolition, and 13 Coins-which already operates sibling restaurants at SeaTac and in Bellevue-will move in January to new digs in Pioneer Square.

Jim and Eileen Ward started this place, and they opened the original El Gaucho steakhouse as well. The gent who ran the kitchen was a firm but beloved old-school taskmaster named Earl Owens, who almost single-handedly trained a whole generation of Seattle restaurateurs. Both his grandsons, the Anderson brothers, are in the biz, and both work for Consolidated Restaurants, Joshua as GM for Metropolitan Grill, Jeremy as VP Operations for the whole company. 13 Coins, meantime, has a new owner, UW basketball star Al Moscatel.

The name? Peruvian, according to the owners. "The story goes that a poor young man loved and wished to marry a wealthy girl. Her father asked what he had to offer for his daughter's hand in marriage. The young man reached into his pocket. He had only 13 coins, but assured the father he could pledge undying love, care and concern. The father was so touched, he gave his daughter's hand and '13 Coins' has come to symbolize unyielding love, care and concern."

The Reuben

Fair enough. Now it's time to confront the question: how good is the food? To which there's one answer: kind of what you'd expect. Nothing fussy, nothing that requires elaborate plating. Decent. The menu's too big, the demands of a 24-hour spot too weighty. For instance, pastas have been parboiled so they don't need to spend 10 minutes in the water before they meet their sauces. But the egg dishes are made to order, at least.

The thinking behind the Joe's Special (eggs, chopped sirloin, onions, spinach) has doubtless been around for a while, but the dish became famous half a century ago at a swanky joint called Ernie's, in San Francisco's gaudy North Beach. With its high-backed booths and copious portions, Ernie's was a model, of sorts, for 13 Coins. Old-school elegance, this was. Seattle's 13 Coins imported the basic décor, substituting dark Naugahyde for the garish red leatherette. The Joe's Special appears at the upper left-hand corner of the menu, leading off the category of "Della Casa" (aka, house specials). Alas, what used to be a five-egg order became four, then three. The price remained a reasonable $16, though. A spin-off, Ukrainian Joe's, $17, added a handful of mushrooms, a scattering of green onions, and a meager dollop of sour cream. What they lack, though, is a sense of generosity, let alone flavor.

What has happened? How did 13 Coins go from fascinating to bland, from dazzling to drab? The 13 Coins outposts at SeaTac and in Bellevue, we can understand that they would dial back their spiky hair and nose rings to avoid offending hungry (and slightly disoriented) patrons, but this seems like a systemic collapse.

On the positive side, the Reuben was still fine (and safe-photo). The dish of pickled vegetables served as a complimentary antipasto was fine, too. And maybe, just maybe, we can attribute the kitchen's failure of nerve to short-timer's attitude. After all, they're closing down. Last call is New Year's Day, approaching fast. Bonus: 1967 prices on the last day.

It would be a shame if 13 Coins went the way of Manning's, Herfy's, Farrell's, and the Dog House. My fervent wish: bring back the bean soup!

13 Coins Restaurant
125 Boren Ave N (until New Year's Day)
Seattle, WA 98109

Photos by Ronald Holden

December 2017

Ronald Holden's latest book, "Forking Seattle," is a critical guide to local food and drink.


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