Vivre: Veteran chef plans shift from Japanese to French to catch up with Hill’s restaurant boom

In the midst of the Capitol Hill food+drink economy’s boom, one chef/owner is admitting he made the wrong call.

“I’m a fighter,” Eric Stapelman tells CHS. “I could have just given up.”

Instead, Stapelman says that after just over a year of business on E Pine, he is going to turn his troops around and choose a new flag to fight under.

Saturday, August 1st will be the final night for Stapelman’s Shibumi, the Japanese-faithful restaurant concept he brought to Seattle in his move from Santa Fe. By Tuesday, August 4th, Stapelman says the restaurant will become Vivre, his new concept based along classic French bistro lines.

“Some of the first foods that I was cooking were French,” Stapelman, who sprang to a kind of fame as a celebrity chef in New York City, said. “I love simplicity and I love bistro food.”

“I wanted to be more of a destination restaurant.”

The change comes as Naka and chef/owner Shota Nakajima establishes itself on E Pine only two blocks away and replaces another fallen warrior in the great Capitol Hill restaurant wars of the 2010s, French joint Le Zinc which pulled out after only 18 months of business and despite veteran Seattle restaurant leadership.

But Stapelman said he was ready to forge new battle plans even before the players on the street made their changes. “For me it’s not about the competition,” Stapelman said. “I like to do what I like to do which is cook great food.”

“I wanted to be more of a destination restaurant,” Stapelman said of his original hopes for Shibumi.

But Stapelman says he picked the wrong strategy for the Seattle battleground. “Why would people want to come try to park on Capitol Hill when they can eat in their own neighborhoods?”

He also apparently underestimated just how mercenary local guerrilla forces are. Stapelman claims Capitol Hill’s new population of tech workers is too transient to build into a loyal army of regulars. “It’s very difficult with all the 5-over-1 (buildings) and short, three-month leases,” Stapelman said. “Shorter leases. High rents. Bouncing around.”

Meanwhile, rent on Capitol Hill for restaurateurs, too, is exorbitant.

Stapelman’s solution with Vivre will be a neighborhood focused, moderately priced bistro with price points for classic elements like french onion soup or frisée salad for around $10 or $11 and entrees topping out around $17 to $20. The simplified approach will also have a much lower overhead than the labor intensive Shibumi with its never-ending appetite for fresh fish from the market. Pair it all with affordable bottles of wine, and Stapelman hopes to give his diners a night out in Pike/Pine for around $25 a person.

The change in format will include Stapelman’s existing staff — everybody, he says, but the sushi chef. French sushi just hasn’t caught on.

For Stapelman, the change is part of his decades of cooking for a living. He’s been through format changes like this before with his previous restaurant starting French for four years, going Italian for five, and then finishing out with a last gasp of French before his move to Seattle. “What I did in Santa Fe is I closed on a Saturday night and on the following Tuesday we made the change,” Stapelman said. For the restaurant veteran, the change in tactics will be a familiar part of continuing the fight.


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26 thoughts on “Vivre: Veteran chef plans shift from Japanese to French to catch up with Hill’s restaurant boom

  1. That’s quite the litany of problems he lists, but he doesn’t seem to mention his high price point and small portion size. I tried Shubumi a couple times but went away disappointed both times, as it felt pricey, stuffy, and the kind of place that was way too into itself to be inviting.

    I wish him best of luck with Vivre but think he has some serious soul-searching to do to make it work.

    • Same here – we’ve tried Shibumi a couple of times, and found that it was trying to be a very high end restaurant, but the food wasn’t up to the price point.

      I would be interested in a French restaurant in the area, but if the price-to-food ratio is the same, I think it will suffer the same fate.

      Also – that specific location is difficult for a higher end restaurant even if the food is fantastic. Parking is similar to other local places, but the visibility is down, and not that many people happen to walk by. That block needs a neighborhood joint, not fancy food.

    • I have to chime in and agree if Stapelman is reading these comments… I had very high hopes and anticipation when it opened — which were more than met by the food itself — but I just couldn’t manage the price point with the amount of food.

    • Just to clarify – I was not only speaking to the amount of food, but the quality. It was good, but not as good as his prices.

    • I agree about the location being more amenable to a local joint than something high end. It gets a lot of foot traffic for the going-out scene, which is not necessarily looking for high end. The building is not well-situated for parking and is not conspicuous to a driver passing by.

  2. Breakfast food and Mexican do well on Capitol Hill. Neither loyalty nor saturation is a problem. Price and that location may be. I try to stay under $15 and I’d better be full.

    • I think we’re nearing saturation on Mexican, but there is SO MUCH room for breakfast joints. It wasn’t many years ago if you tried to eat breakfast before 10:00 on Capitol Hill you wondered if anyone else was awake yet? It’s not like that now, but we sure could use some more breakfast options.

  3. Ahhhh. Just what the area was missing, and yet yearning for by the masses..another “French” cuisine place to ‘pretend’ at. Just once or twice, I’d love to have a few of the ‘choice’ restaurants that are always featured on “Triple D” aka Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. So many cities have’em and we get pricey, uppity, niche themed places to loathed. give me a f*ing break! When will they ever learn?

  4. It’s good to see Stapelman’s humility shining through. I’m really sorry that I’m too dumb to know what “FLOWERING BROCCOLI OHITASHI 菜の花のお浸し” are. The Japanese sure helps. The sneering from the front of house staff certainly reminded me that the restaurant really wanted to hold to a sartorial and fitness standard so that it was full of eye candy, but they let us walk in anyway.

    Certainly, switching to french food will allow Stapelman to engage with the community by replacing the Japanese words with French ones, and no one will care about a snobby French maitre de. I’m sure it’ll work.

    Or maybe that stinks less in New York.

  5. I’ll be excited to see what emerges from this kitchen. I did have one of the most beautiful meals of my life there.

  6. Never went to Shibumi becuse I simply didn’t want to pay for an overpriced Ramen.

    Doing a complete 180, from ramen to French style? Instead of being a ‘fighter,’ you might want to step back a bit and approach this differently. Maybe be a ‘thinker.’ Don’t forget that Le Zinc, another French style restaurant that was located down the street, barely lasted a year, if that.

  7. I had a delicious meal there – the pork belly broth was insane – but I have heard so many upsetting things about the management from employees current and past that I did not go back.

  8. I went to Shibumi twice and it was disappointing food, snobby service and pricey. Le Zinc was the same and also failed. Get the idea? The new French place needs to be more down to earth or REALLY GOOD, i fear it will be neither.

  9. I went to happy hour there (or what I thought was happy hour). Cocktails were as high as $15 bucks! The food was good and Japanese food in general is portioned small. However, after a few drinks and a couple small dishes the bill was $128. Also, I think me and my friend were the only ones in there.

  10. We went for happy hour awhile back. But the HH drink prices only applied in the “bar” which was two feet away from us. And the place was EMPTY. And the ramen was weak. So, nah. Petty policies and forgettable food? Good luck, bro.

  11. Man, this guy’s hubris knows no bounds. I went here once. ONCE. I had heard about all his quirks (e.g., if he smells you’re wearing perfume, you’ll be seated far away from him or even asked to leave), but decided to try it anyway. The food was mediocre, but the service — ABYSMAL. Not only was the timing of the service bad, but the snottiness from the staff was some of the worst I’ve experienced in Seattle. His comments about why his restaurant(s) have failed are myopic. Those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. I, for one, wouldn’t step foot inside another of his establishments if I were paid to do so.

  12. I ate a Shibumi a half dozen times or so and always had wonderful food, the service was at times a bit off but not more so than at any of a number of fine dining restaurants around town. I grew up eating at Japanese restaurants and was impressed by the attention to detail I rarely see in Seattle. I’m sad that he is changing format but understand its hard to compete with the ever changing landscape of the Cap Hill restaurant scene.

    I wish him luck .. and look forward to trying what is next.

    • Ditto to that on the quality of the food and attention to detail. Shibumi isn’t cheap but I think it’s good value comparing it to say Momiji down the street, which I also like. And I never have to yell to communicate across the table here.

      Sad to see it go, but looking forward to trying French.

  13. Very impressed by the food at this place. The attention to detail and quality were top notch. The prices were a bit high, but the reason I never really had the urge to go back was the vibe. Something about it was just uptight and put on. I feel like this place could be salvaged by having everyone just loosen up a bit.

    One other pet peeve worth mentioning is they would always come outside to engage when we looked at the menu. That drives me bonkers. I know how to read a menu; let me do so in peace. If you need to make a hard sell at the door, then something is wrong.

  14. …E~ Hope Nell can come to the rescue again…shame you didn’t listen…wish you only the best karma bro.~Be Brave•Work Harder~

  15. Ate there last night. The food was OK but on the salty side. 2 for dinner without alcohol and the bill was about 80 bucks. OK but I think Cafe Presse is a more interesting place and better value.