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Five years of Capitol Hill high expectations at Altura

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Ask chef Nathan Lockwood of Capitol Hill’s Altura how he’s managed to consistently hit the lofty targets of the fine dining world for five years running, week in and week out, and you get a gently bemused look that says: Dude.

“It’s what I do,” he replies. “Twenty-four years I’ve been doing this. It’s just a habit at this point. It’s what I do every day.”

And every day it gets more demanding. “Guest expectations are higher. My expectations for ourselves are higher. The cooks’ expectations of me are higher.”

Nathan and his wife Rebecca, Altura’s business manager, launched their restaurant on north Broadway in October 2011, offering Italian-inspired dishes based on seasonal Northwest ingredients. A current sample menu includes the likes of Salt Spring Island mussels smoked with madrona bark, shaved matsutake mushroom with a spicy Dungeness crab brodo, and a ragu of wild boar.

Altura started out busy on opening night. Then it grew even busier.

“We did one practice service of about thirty guests, all folks we knew, friends and family. And then we opened. I want to say it was a Friday,” Lockwood says, ”but I really can’t remember. And it was crazy. It was a whirlwind.”

Enthusiastic reviews in local outlets including the Seattle Times and Seattle Met ramped up demand. Former Stranger restaurant reviewer Bethany Jean Clement wrote, “a multicourse dinner at Altura is the sort of elevated eating you’ll feel lucky to do even once in your lifetime, in Seattle or anywhere.”

Just a year later, the restaurant scored a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant. And Lockwood, who earned a Michelin star for San Francisco’s Acquerello as its chef de cuisine, has picked up three nominations for Best Chef: Pacific Northwest at Altura.

Five years is just south of forever in the relentless churn of Capitol Hill’s restaurant scene. CHS has covered the closings of newcomers and old veterans alike this year, including Erika Burke’s “Northwest casual” Chop Shop at Chophouse Row (lifespan: one year) and Asian fusion stalwart Boom Noodle (done after a decade).

Lofty prices don’t confer safety. When Altura opened on Broadway near Roy in 2011, it joined a stretch of fine dining establishments including Bako, Olivar and Poppy. Today, Bako and Olivar are gone. And in August, high-end Restaurant Marron moved out of the zone’s Loveless Building, destination TBA.

The Lockwoods have tweaked Altura over time, but Nathan believes the essence remains. “The style of dining has changed. The number of courses has changed a lot, the food is maybe a little bit less rustic,” he says.

“But I feel like, when you break it all down at the end of the day, I’m still cooking the same food.” “I’m cooking food that I think is delicious, that I want to eat, I’m cooking with ingredients that I believe in, and I think the guests see that. So, on that level, it’s the same.”

CHS reported in 2011 on the early buzz about Altura. We caught up with the Lockwoods as their restaurant took shape and covered its debut. Back then, the menu had a fixed-price structure: 3 courses for $49, 4 courses for $59 and 5 for $69.

Today, the fixed-price option is out, and a tasting menu of 5 to 7 courses plus “small bites” is front and center. Dinner at Altura costs $137 per person. Tack on $165 for a selection of wine pairings and you hit about $300 per head.

Altura’s origin story begins just blocks down Broadway at Dick’s, the neighborhood’s landmark drive-in burger joint. Nathan and Rebecca met there around 2004. “We never use the term ‘fine dining,’ Nathan says of his restaurant, and you’d expect no less from an unpretentious culinary master whose worldview has room for a Dick’s Deluxe. Your wallet, on the other hand, may beg to differ.

Looking ahead, Lockwood isn’t predicting any big changes. “I’m happy to do this forever. I love doing it in the space that we’re in. I love the relationship we have with our guests at dinnertime.”

Still, he misses some of the dishes he liked to cook from the other menu, including big plates of pasta.

“There’s a lot of things that I want to share that I can’t do in this one venue, with this one menu and this one vision,” he says.

“If I could have anything that I wanted, without having to assume any of the risks and all the cards were in place, we would have a casual place that did the other half of what we used to do. So we could continue doing the tasting menu here, and continue doing the three-course menu we used to enjoy doing, somewhere close by.”

An Altura spin-off on the Hill? Maybe one day. But for now, five years in, Lockwood is keeping his focus where it’s been from the start.

“When people come in for dinner,” he says, “we want to kind of remove them from their life, from what might have happened during their day, and just take care of them in every respect that we can. That’s always been our goal.”

Altura is located at 617 Broadway E. You can learn more at alturarestaurant.com.

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One thought on “Five years of Capitol Hill high expectations at Altura

  1. Seems absurd to lump Bako in with Olivar (and Restaurant Marron). Bako barely lasted a year if I remember correctly, and though it may have aspired to be fancy, food and service never lived up to price and decor. Olivar was there for something like 5 years. Similarly, Restaurant Marron was there for over 2 years and was recognized by national publications like F&W.