Capitol Hill food+drink | Balancing adaptation and consistency, Olivar turns 5

(Image: Suzi Pratt for CHS)

(Image: Suzi Pratt for CHS)

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.

Olivar in Capitol Hill, Seattle, WA“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.

Olivar in Capitol Hill, Seattle, WAOne 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.”Olivar in Capitol Hill, Seattle, WA

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.

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by jseattle

 

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10 thoughts on “Capitol Hill food+drink | Balancing adaptation and consistency, Olivar turns 5

  1. CHS Food + Drink is my favorite weekly post on the blog. Keep it up, really love the spotlight business each week. Thanks for reminding us of Olivar. Been far too long since I’ve been in.

  2. Love, love, love Olivar; I don’t go nearly as often as I wish I could, but it’s truly one of my favorite restaurants on the Hill. Or in all of Seattle, for that matter….Congrats on five years!

  3. I can still remember the “new restaurant” opening up down the street from us around the same time we opened our doors. I brought a bottle of wine for the chef– he came out to the table with a big smile and said, “this is from where I grew up!”

    Olivar is one of our favorite places to dine and to recommend to out-of-towners (and Seattle folks who still haven’t discovered it. ?!?!?). The original, expertly-prepared plates are always delicious and engaging, and Philippe is so friendly, kind, and creative. If you have never met him, do so: he clearly loves what he does. Where else does the chef/owner sometimes go table to table to talk with guests? For me, it’s not just about the food: the excellent hosting (the staff always makes great menu recommendations), laid-back yet classy atmosphere, and eclectic wine list (you can never go wrong there).

    We’re lucky to have Philippe and Olivar. Congratulations on five years! That’s really something in this neighborhood with this economy.

    Cheers,

    Haj, Dave, and Vino Verite

  4. Congratulations! I have wonderful memories of good times there. One night, they even made my rabied, hungry friend happy.

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  6. Wow, it seems like everyone loves this place (including myself)! I went there a while ago for a drink with my friends and it was a nice experience. Pretty convenient coming from SU. Any who, I love the Capitol Hill vibe. Theres always new places to enjoy with affordable prices. Of course not all places but most of them. :)

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