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Love it or hate it, counter service is the surprising new trend in Seattle dining

Pandemic labor issues are to blame in part, but smaller staffs help keep prices down

By Bethany Jean Clement, The Seattle Times
Published: January 27, 2024, 5:55am

SEATTLE — What do you want when you go to a restaurant? The answer might seem obvious: You want someone to make you delicious food, you want to be taken care of, you don’t want to even think about the dirty dishes. You want it all to happen in a timely manner, and you’re willing to pay for the privilege — as long as, in the end, it feels worth it.

What if you can’t make a reservation, and instead, you’re likely to have to wait in a line? What if — rather than being guided to a table, presented with a menu, and having your needs attended to from drinks through dessert — you wait with whatever degree of patience to place your order, then give your name or receive a number, pay up front and fend for yourself when it comes to procuring seating?

OK, you say, but that’s not really a restaurant — that’s a pizza place, or a bakery or a cafe. If not always tablecloths, real restaurants at least have table service.

Not anymore — welcome to the era of counter service. Love it or hate it, a slew of new Seattle restaurants are embracing this traditionally down-market model, while upping the ante in the food they make.

Some specialize in one thing — be it possibly perfect pizza (Stevie’s Famous) or incredible fried chicken (The Chicken Supply) — while the definition of a bakery/cafe is definitely shifting in a miraculous direction (Saint Bread). Others are hailed among the city’s premier seafood restaurants (Local Tide) or showcasing Thai dishes rarely found anywhere else around town (E-Jae Pak Mor). The chef/owners of one spot got nominated for a James Beard award, their new counter-service place named Seattle Met’s Restaurant of the Year for 2023 (The Boat).

But as restaurants change, the way the data is collected remains frustratingly the same. While the industry as a whole has grown 15.6 percent over the last decade in King County, per Census Bureau statistics, the impact of the new counter-service wave is unclear. Department of Revenue figures lump all food-service businesses — including full- and quick-service places, food trucks and caterers — together, and census numbers that encompass counter-service restaurants also include delis, drive-ins, fast food, pizza delivery and more.

Meanwhile, these not-real restaurants are garnering rave reviews and landing on national best-restaurant lists alongside the likes of haute-service Canlis.

Short-staffed world

Why is this happening? Don’t restaurants want to provide proper service anymore? And how is this anything but worse for the diner?

First, blame the pandemic — at least, in part. Chef/owner Victor Steinbrueck absolutely had table service in mind when planning his locally sourced seafood restaurant Local Tide in Fremont. COVID-19 had other ideas.

In August 2020, “we were opening — I had sourced all this amazing seafood, and the quality was really there,” Steinbrueck explained recently. “And then it turns, because of the pandemic, into this — at first — takeout-only spot.” He dramatically reduced his plans for staffing, with six people on the payroll rather than 14. (And shortly, recalibrating again, he went down to four.) He significantly reconfigured his menu, changing more than half the dishes to make them to-go compatible and, concomitantly, less costly. Then he masked up and got underway.

Serving people some of the finest seafood possible, during a terrible time, in approachable formats like a gorgeously messy rockfish banh mi, at relatively affordable prices ($18 for that stellar sandwich) — it changed Steinbrueck’s entire conception of what his restaurant could, and should, be. “It gave us an opportunity to really try new things and figure out who we are,” he said.

The benefits of counter service went both ways, Steinbrueck realized. “We get to serve more people, (and) we can actually keep our prices lower,” he explained. “Whereas if we had these reservations, and this is how many tables we know we’re going to have each night, our numbers have to be a little more set.” Getting away from the table-service model would allow Local Tide to be both “more flexible and more accommodating.”

By the time dining in became a thing again, Steinbrueck was resolved to do counter service at Local Tide, and to do it right. He studied the balance of to-go orders versus those wanting to dine in. He carefully considered timing and the nature of the service at the counter itself — if the person there explained dishes and took a moment to be kind, that gave the kitchen the ability to keep up, and gave tables a chance to become available apace.

“Hopefully, after that interaction (ordering at the counter),” Steinbrueck said, “they’re like, ‘Oh, these people are actually spending the time and caring about each individual customer, rather than just trying to funnel them through.’”

Not having to hire for table service has continued to help at Local Tide in the newly short-staffed restaurant world, as many who left the industry during COVID decided not to return. This dearth of workers certainly has made counter service a more appealing option for owners post-pandemic.

But restaurants may want to avoid table service for more counterintuitive reasons. Anaïs Custer, beverage director and co-owner of Capitol Hill’s La Dive, said she and chef/co-owner David Gurewitz chose the more casual, order-at-the-counter model from their pre-pandemic start.

While it’s open to all ages, La Dive looks like a bar and acts like a bar, particularly during the neighborhood’s prime party time. But with Gurewitz’s résumé — Spinasse, Lark and more — it also serves superlative food under the guise of small-plates snacks. Custer and Gurewitz like that the level of what’s coming out of the tiny kitchen is a surprise, e.g., roasted Brussels sprouts in a silky mustard-and-cream sauce infused with lime leaf and adorned with shallots, golden raisins, mustard seeds and caraway seeds fried in butter, finished with a squeeze of lemon.

“We still wanted to be seen as a bar, somewhere that was fairly casual,” Custer explained, and they wanted to keep menu prices as low as possible — snacks run $5-$14, with sandwiches, noodles and dumplings $10-$15. And La Dive’s customers appreciate the expedited service, Custer said. The line can move relatively fast, and whether it’s just drinks or food, too, there’s no waiting for someone to wait on you.

“Our decision to go counter service — I think it resonates with our ethos, in terms of providing value for the guest, and also providing somewhere that’s less pretentious,” Custer said. The low level of commitment suits the Capitol Hill clientele; along with regulars stopping in and weekend groups drinking bubbles via Chambongs (a Champagne flute’s unholy union with a beer bong), they get a lot of first dates.

The math on the economics of counter service for La Dive isn’t as simple as you might think. In terms of adding a dedicated server, the additional sales would make up for the increased payroll, Custer noted, even with Seattle’s minimum wage going up. But, she asserted, “minimum wage for people in the service industry is really still not even enough” — restaurant staff depend on tips. With the addition of a server, “the tip pool would be diluted more, and then our bartenders and kitchen would therefore make less money” per shift, and thus overall. Retention would be tougher, and retention is huge in the restaurant industry now.

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Owner Trixia Paraiso of brand-new CheBogz on Beacon Hill also knew counter service was right for her from the get-go. Her family had owned beloved Kusina Filipina nearby, which they were forced to close due to an untenable rent increase in 2017. Paraiso started CheBogz as a food truck; when brick-and-mortar became a possibility, the neighborhood already had a renowned full-service restaurant for higher-end Filipino cuisine, Musang.

With CheBogz as a restaurant, Paraiso was after something not lesser, but different — easy for commuters on the close-by light rail, for one thing, and priced inexpensively in the new Seattle economy, with substantial entrees running from $14-$21. She wanted a menu of homestyle, comfort-food favorites, she said.

Paraiso also wanted to showcase that cuisine beyond the Filipino community, “where not a lot of people who know what Filipino food is, and they kind of just want to explore. … We’re able to provide it at an affordable rate.” CheBogz is slang for “let’s eat,” as well as a play on her parents’ nicknames, and the move here is to bring enough of a party of your own to order a bunch — like super-crispy lumpia, rich adobo, sizzling sisig and gorgeous ube milk cake.

Beyond CheBogz, for the good of the city as a whole, Paraiso is “a big fan” of the no-servers mode. “I think that counter service is here to stay, in ways that make the community embrace other, different cuisines much easier than a fancy restaurant,” she continued.

Her family’s dear departed Kusina Filipina operated cafeteria-style, so running counter service at CheBogz also feels like it “stays true to the roots … a very local, neighborhood, mom-and-pop shop,” Paraiso said. “We still operate as a family, and we want to keep it like that.”

Hospitality emphasized

So counter-service restaurants are more accessible — more affordable — or so they say. What does that mean when it comes to your bill?

Local Tide’s Steinbrueck told me that prices could be 20 percent higher or more with table service, while Paraiso estimated $3 to $4 per menu item might be added at CheBogz. In increasingly expensive Seattle — where dinner and drinks for two at a “nice” restaurant now quickly goes beyond $150 — to find top-notch food at less-than-astronomical expense can make waiting in line and seating yourself seem less tragic.

Then there’s the matter of what kind of service you’re actually missing. Not to impugn the professional servers doing excellent work out there, but they are fewer and fewer, with existing ones and kitchen staff often stretched thin. With counter service, the subtraction of time spent on multiple separate interactions, with the server depending on the kitchen to keep things moving, can feel like magic. Then there’s arguably a lot to love about skipping the wait for the bill — when you’re done at a counter-service spot, just get up and leave at will.

The caliber of counter service isn’t necessarily bottom of the barrel, either. When it’s not prime bar time at La Dive, showing interest can get you intel on, and tastes of, the natural wines available. At Local Tide, staff keep an eye out for those who might want more food, providing a handheld point-of-service device for convenient ordering; if it’s another beer you’re after, sometimes they just bring it on the house. The family-style welcome at the counter at CheBogz feels like someone calling you “hon.” By and large, there’s an emphasis on hospitality to those interactions at the counter, and then again when the food is delivered to the table, and with checking back in. It may be counter service, but it’s not perfunctory.

A certain luxury of dining out is lost with counter service, to be sure. The tradeoff is an inclusivity that’s gained, with diverse cuisines at high levels of deliciousness increasingly available at accessible prices.

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