Kirkland may have had its ups and downs when it comes to a quality restaurant scene, but since 2000, the little Eastside city has played host to an amazing, award-winning establishment called .
Chef and owner Holly Smith came to this part of town a bit by accident. After working with Tom Douglas for five years at Dahlia Lounge in Seattle, Smith knew that she wanted to open her own place.
“I wrote a business plan, but was too wimpy to go out and get the cash,” she says.
Instead, she helped chef Tamara Murphy open Brasa. “It was good to watch a restaurant open. It made me realize that I didn’t want certain things,” says Smith of Brasa’s large communal tables.
About 10 months after Brasa opened, Smith got a call regarding a location near Juanita Beach in Kirkland going up for sale.
“I would never have looked at the Eastside,” admits Smith. “I was an Eastside snob like everyone else in Seattle. That night I made up a pros and cons list about the space. The first con was that it is on the Eastside.”
A small former rambler in the Juanita neighborhood of Kirkland may seem like an unlikely location for a restaurant that was recently nominated for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant, but “the space really resonated with me,” explains Smith. “For the first year that we were open, we kept hearing customers say, ‘Thank you. For the first time ever, we don’t have to go across the bridge.’”
Her accomplishments at Cafe Juanita are somewhat overshadowed by her stint on the television series “The Next Iron Chef” in 2009, in which Smith was bested in the second round by the mandatory secret ingredient, jellyfish. However, in 2008, Smith won Best Chef in the Northwest from the James Beard Foundation. Since then, Cafe Juanita has been a semi-finalist for Best Service in 2009 and 2010, Outstanding Restaurant in 2011 and another nod to Smith as Best Chef in 2011.
About her win in 2008, Smith says, “Honestly, I didn’t want to go on stage. I had on heels and had to walk all the way across the stage. I thought, ‘I’m going to fall ... on Tom Colicchio!’ It feels amazing to win, but it’s not just about me. We [at Cafe Juanita] want to be recognized for our service.”
When the semi-finalist list came out this year, Smith’s phone started beeping messages at the crack of dawn. Smith uncharacteristically checked her email, discovering she had received a Best Chef place on the list. Her first thought upon seeing the nomination was, “F***! We didn’t get nominated for Best Service!”
She later discovered that Cafe Juanita was also on the long list as a semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurant. “When I saw the restaurant nomination, tears welled up. It feels like we’ve won on some level already,” though Cafe Juanita didn’t make the final five announced Monday, March 21. Restaurants typically stay on the long list for a few years, then the short list for another couple of years before a chance to win the big prize.
Originally from Maryland, Smith currently resides in north Seattle with her 6-year-old son, Oliver, who has always been a big part of the restaurant. Smith used to cook with him in a backpack when he was young. Like his mom, he loves food. The first time he tasted pecorino cheese at a year old, he started clapping. Sometimes, when the sitter is unavailable, Oliver can be seen in his snazzy blazer greeting guests.
The cuisine at Cafe Juanita is northern Italian. And it is known for its snout-to-tail use of its animal ingredients. Smith is committed to sourcing her raw ingredients as locally as possible, with at least 90% grown organically. Though not a certified organic restaurant like Tilth, Smith knows many of the purveyors personally and stands behind their growing methods.
“We’re not certified because it can make you blindly unrealistic,” says Smith. “There are people doing great things, holding to higher standards (than certified organic). You can’t wrap yourself up in it.”
This spring, Smith is looking forward to the new crop of asparagus and fava beans. Diners can expect a fava bean burrata to appear on the menu shortly. The seasonal changes to Cafe Juanita’s menu can be subtle. The preparation on the rabbit may be altered slightly. Nettles might replace a side salad.
Because of its various accolades and the four dollar signs generally accompanying the description in restaurant guides, Cafe Juanita may seem an intimidating place to dine. However, one must take into account that Smith spends a huge amount of money on those organic ingredients as well as taking exemplary care of her employees.
“Something that sets us apart is that everybody (at Cafe Juanita) has health care, 401(k) and paid vacation. We’re a real business. I am genuinely fed by making people happy and working with happy people,” says Smith.
And when it comes to prices, it is good to keep things in perspective. At a steak house, customers think nothing of handing over at minimum $50 for a steak and nothing else. Sides of mushy spinach or floppy asparagus cost extra and the wine is marked up astronomically. Whereas, for somewhere between $30 and $40 at Cafe Juanita, diners receive an interesting organic entree complete with sauce, sides and great service.
“We strive to be in the top tier of restaurants in the nation for service ... which doesn’t mean that we won’t make appropriately inappropriate jokes with you at the table,” Smith says, further defining Cafe Juanita’s fine dining experience. “We get as close to people as they want us to get. Everybody here wants to make your experience the best.”
While there are more restaurant ideas rolling around in Smith’s brain, she’s definitely at a certain point in her life where her 6-year-old comes into play.
“I’m still driven, but I want to be home for dinner sometimes. I don’t want to go back to the 16-hour days, six days a week,” says Smith.
She enjoys eating all kinds of food, particularly sushi, with her son. But when it comes to food produced professionally, Smith insists her food will always have the Cafe Juanita vibe.
“This is the food you should pay me for,” claims Smith. “If I was going to do something else, I think it would be more casual. Not hugely different, because we’re not fussy here.”
Smith thinks that the key to Cafe Juanita’s success lies in that she opened a restaurant where she would want to go.
“I love restaurants, so I think that if you go from that real heart-centered but intelligent plan, people will come. I wanted to cook the food I believed in. I wanted authenticity, a voice,” says Smith.
Ten years ago, it was all the rage in the restaurant world to offer a little something for everyone. Today, the most successful restaurants are those that are focused, that stay true to a specific cuisine or core idea.
Cafe Juanita’s success is undoubtedly a combination of great service, fresh, organic ingredients, deliciously prepared northern Italian cuisine and chef Smith’s clear commitment to her staff and customers.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version incorrectly described how Cafe Juanita chef Holly Smith learned about her and the restaurant's James Beard Award nominations this year.