Eighteen years ago, twin sisters Laurie and Leslie Coaston were sitting on the corner of 19th and Mercer, counting off cars as they passed by. The single digit count was making the sisters seriously doubt their decision to open a soul food restaurant in the backcountry of Capitol Hill.
“This was a bad idea,” Leslie remembered saying. “There is nobody out here.”
Luckily, having good street visibility was never necessary for the Kingfish Cafe. On opening day in 1997, a line was forming around the block. It’s similar to the nightly — and brunch-ly scenes — happening in the final days of the 19th and Mercer Kingfish. “We’re going out like we came in,” said Laurie while taking her first breather after a slammed Wednesday lunch.
The Kingfish will close its doors for good at 19th and Mercer on Sunday afternoon, ending a long chapter in the commercial life of 19th Ave E. Since the sisters made the announcement last week, lines have wound up the block with customers hoping to experience the Kingfish one last time. The outpouring of grief and goodwill came as somewhat of a shock to the Coastons.
“Some people said they saw the news that we were closing and they cried,” Leslie said, looking bewildered. “I just hope we can hold it together on Sunday.”
Growing up in Leschi, Laurie and Leslie knew Seattle would always be home. They both attended Garfield High School and both ran track for the University of Washington. Going into business together seemed like a natural fit for the sisters who finish each others sentences and laugh to the same beat.
Like all worthwhile soul food restaurants, the inspiration for Kingfish Cafe came from the childhood memories of home cooked meals. The Coastons remember holidays filled with massive feasts prepared by their mother and aunts. “We grew up on this food,” Leslie said.
Seattle has had its share of pioneering soul food restaurants, but the city has never been known for southern cooking. Being located thousands of miles away from soul food’s spiritual center in the southeast didn’t deter the sisters. Confident their recipes would be a hit anywhere, the Coaston family encouraged the sisters to open a restaurant despite having no experience in the business. “My first day working in a restaurant was the first day we opened,” Leslie said.
Laurie and Leslie’s restaurant education came in the form of a nationwide tour de soul food. The sisters traveled to New York, Atlanta, Chicago and other cities to meet with soul food restaurant owners and eat as much as possible.
At the time, Laurie was working in special education and Leslie was working as a flight attendant. It took another five years to gather enough money to open a restaurant. The sisters had nearly given up when they got a call from a woodshop owner who was leaving her studio on 19th Ave and wanted to know if the sisters wanted the space.
After just one year in business, the Kingfish expanded into their well-known corner storefront when a painter closed his gallery there. Not quite ready to more than double the size of the restaurant, the sisters took the plunge anyway. “We thought ‘we can’t lose this,’” Laurie said. “It’s a pretty impressive corner.”
In all these years, the sisters have never spent a full day in the kitchen. Their mother baked cornbread and muffins before the work grew too tiresome and many of the servers and chefs have been with the Kingfish for decades.
Between the staff, menus, and large black-and-white photographs hanging throughout the restaurant, the Kingfish has hardly changed over the years. “We take things off the menu, but then people freak out, and say ‘why did you do that?’ So we put it back,” Leslie said.
Soul food mainstays like the catfish, fried chicken, and mac and cheese have been Kingfish staples since day one. The sisters are hoping to continue serving up those dishes in their new venture: a string of take-out focused restaurants.
“We have a good name behind us, 20 years experience, and we thought maybe we could just go out and do some smaller to-go places,” Leslie said. “Simplfy,” the sisters chimed together.
The cheap rents that first attracted the Coastons to Capitol Hill are gone, but the sisters told CHS they want to keep a presence on Capitol Hill. Of course, they’re getting lots of suggestions these days on where to open a new spot. “A guy said he would finance 100% of a new location if we opened in Edmonds,” Lesile said.
Leaving 19th Ave won’t be easy for the sisters, who have called the Kingfish home for nearly two decades. Laurie met her husband at the restaurant 13 years ago. “He was sitting down at table five and I just thought ‘oh my god,’” she said.
Since the day it opened, the sisters say the Kingfish has always been guided by a single principle: to make the restaurant feel like home.
“I think a lot of people come here for a Kingfish experience, not just for dinner,” Leslie said, reflecting on what made the restaurant such a success for so many years. “We just did it our way, and it has become what it is.”
The Kingfish Cafe closes at 19th and Mercer Sunday, January 25th. The sisters have announced the following hours of operation for their final weekend of business:
Please note the hours for our last days of operation;
Thurs January 22, dinner 5 pm until 9 30 pm
Fri January 23, dinner (only) 5 pm until 10 30 pm
Sat January 24th brunch 10 am until 2 pm
Sat January 24th dinner 5 pm until 10 30pm
Sun January 25 dinner (only) 4 pm until 9 30 pm
No reservatios and expect longer than usual waits.
Thank you and we look forward to seeing you.