Running a successful chef-owned restaurant is a dream that too often ends poorly. Few chefs can manage (and enjoy) cooking while running a small business. After five years of serving up Mediterranean Spanish fare at Olivar, chef Philippe Thomelin appears to have found his rhythm and beat the odds.
“75% of restaurants don’t make it within three years, that’s law,” he told CHS on a recent morning inside his E Roy St. restaurant. “Five years is a great deal. I wanted three.”
Part of the reason Thomelin has succeeded where others have failed appears to be his willingness to adapt. Since opening in 2008, Thomelin said he has diverged from his original concept for Olivar as an informal neighborhood bistro.
“I think the building, my accent, the food — customers took it as a food destination rather than a neighborhood place even though I’m a neighborhood guy,” he said. “That challenges me to do better food, better service.”
Thomelin said he still rejects the “fine dining” label. He’s refrained from putting down white table cloths, something customers expecting a finer dining experience apparently sometimes note.
Olivar’s ouvre has remained small and large share-plates that feature Spanish tapas and Mediterranean entrees. Thomelin is a classically trained French chef that fell in love with the lighter, more relaxed fare of southern Spain.
He studied at the Curnonsky Culinary School in France. His resume includes a stint at a two-star Michelin restaurant in the French Riviera. Aside from a small tapas bar he owned for a short time in Spain, Olivar is Thomelin’s first restaurant.
Prior to Olivar moving in five years ago, the 806 E Roy space was home to Bacchus and Coco La Ti Da. When Thomelin started looking for space for his new venture he said his wife, a Seattle native, saw the opening at the 1931-built Loveless Building and encouraged him to take it.
One of the most stunning features of the restaurant’s interior is the wall-to-wall hand-painted murals featuring scenes from a story by Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. The work was commissioned in 1931 when the Loveless building got its first restaurant, Russian Samovar.
Thomelin said he is responsible for maintaining the paintings as part of his lease agreement. He said he’s happy to do it, but wishes the city would step in designate the murals as an historical landmark to ensure future owners don’t paint over history.
It’s clear Thomelin is competitive as a chef-owner, and for all the right reasons. He has said he’s always keeping an eye on what other share-plate/tapas restaurants are doing. One Christmas he quickly changed out his parsnip ice cream dessert after discovering Poppy was serving the same thing just up the street.
The explosion of small-plate/tapas style dining in Seattle has also caused Thomelin to up his game.
“It’s great. But I wish there was more creativity. There’s a bunch of restaurants that serve basically the same food,” he said. “We’re not different enough to make it good for everybody.”
In a restaurant-focused city there is a certain satisfaction in finding your little known spot around the corner. Of course, for the restaurant owner, it’s a different story. Thomelin recognizes that part of Olivar’s appeal to regulars is that the restaurant if off the beaten path, but as a businessman he said he would prefer a location “closer to the action.”
He’s also committed to keeping his price points consistent at $10-$19 for small plates.
“I could jack up my pricing $5 but I’m a neighborhood restaurant,” he said. “It’s not all people north of here living in $3 million mansions. There are people living south of here who can’t afford those types of prices.”
But for those who still find Olivar a bit too much for a weeknight dinner, Thomelin has something else in the works: a tapas food truck. He is still working out the details, but Thomelin said he’s in the market for a truck to bring cheap and accessible Spanish food to the streets.
But for now, Thomelin said his main focus in on continuing to refine and adapt Olivar.
“I really want to concentrate here. I don’t want to lose what I’ve built.” he said. “I was trained to be a chef, I worked hard. Now I’m putting my experience to work.”
Olivar is located at 806 E Roy St. You can learn more at olivarrestaurant.com.
Capitol Hill food+drink notes
- CHS hears quite a bit of buzz about interest in re-opening the Bus Stop but one milestone has passed that makes a quick reincarnation less likely. The previous ownership’s liquor license was just discontinued, according to the state liquor board. Anybody who wants to open Bus Stop II (III?) will be starting from scratch.
- When will Freddy Junior’s open? The tentative plan for the Rancho Bravo burger cousin is
Wednesday. Ha ha. Thursday! Stay tuned.
- Add another to the list of continued big Capitol Hill food and drink openings in 2013. Juicebox has found a home on 12th Ave.
- Captain Black’s and 95 Slide embrace microhousing:
- “Big news! @SixStrawberries ice-pops are now carried by the @Central_Coop on #CapHill !!! :)”
- The Central District’s Standard Brewing has new beers on tap for the summer.
- Jason Wilson of E Madison’s Crush is opening a grill house in downtown’s Hotel Max.
- Another secret to Ethan Stowell’s success? Wife — and CFO — Angela, apparently.
- Earlier this year, we noted Madison Pub promising a few changes along E Madison. Looks good:
- Organizers have released the full line-up for the Seattle Street Food Festival taking place on 11th Ave along Cal Anderson Park in August. “I’d rather have someone kick me in the nuts than to stand in long lines for street food,” a commenter notes. CHS wrote about the first-time-on-Capitol Hill festival here.
- CHS stirs up some 11th Ave rumors – New big bar or restaurant opening in former bike shop space? Tell us everything you know!
- King’s Teriyaki RIP
- “It’s the most prestigious award the Seattle bar industry has received since legendary barman Murray Stenson won ‘Best Bartender in America’ in 2010 from Tales for his work at Zig Zag Café,” the Seattle Times says of Canon’s award from for “World’s Best Drink Selection” at an industry gathering in New Orleans.
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