Capitol Hill restaurateur credited with creating neighborhood's unique vibe

by: Monique Ming Laven Updated:

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SEATTLE - If anyone can lay claim to getting the true vibe of the Capitol Hill scene, it's Linda Derschang, largely because she created it herself. Her watering holes, music venues and restaurants are the lifeblood that feeds the pulse of the neighborhood.

She's never been a chef, and she freely admits she can't mix drinks. However, this innovative businesswoman can dream up everything from the menu to the matchbook. Visit any of her businesses, look around at her customers and it's abundantly clear: Linda Derschang is creating experiences far more than restaurants.

"Your goal should be to become either a best or a favorite," she said. "It's really hard to be both. I realize that [most of] my businesses had become favorites, and that gave me a lot of satisfaction."

Derschang said she applauds anyone who wants to become a "best" and make a "best restaurant" list, but she personally aims to open "favorites." It's a savvy goal of a woman who has figured it out: how to tap into trendy and make it a mainstay.

Derschang has opened 11 successful places like her maritime-themed "Bait Shop" on Broadway, which has the feel of a favorite dive, even though it's relatively new. It dabbles in 1970s nautical nostalgia, even though it opened in 2012 with a straightforward menu of strong drinks and filling food.

But in contrast, Tallulah's on 19th Avenue forgets the deep fryer in favor of clean preparation for a vegetable-based menu. The drinks are lighter. It boasts a heavy dose of mid-century sophistication, without being uptight. A wild portrait of ice skater Tonya Harding right near the kitchen attests to that. That decision, like everything she does, was one part whimsy and one part business acumen.

"Restaurants are really stressful," Derschang said. "We've all seen enough reality shows ... you know how crazy things happen, but we're not saving lives."

Not saving lives perhaps, but creating a nightlife. She and the Capitol Hill scene have grown up and become established together, hand in hand.

"I love Capitol Hill," she recalled. "I've lived here the majority of the time that I've been in Seattle, and I like the diversity of Capitol Hill, the creativity of Capitol Hill, and I also really don't like to drive!"

In a wide-ranging interview at Tallulah's, she told us the story behind the restaurant's creation. She wanted Tallulah's to have big windows with bold wood frames, and an outdoor patio dining area. "Because everyone likes a patio, right?" she said.

Derschang wanted the drinks to be light, and the menu to be vegetable-driven, without being an overt vegetarian restaurant. Her inspirations were a random mix of legendary cook Alice Waters, California and Big Sur in the 1970s, and Morocco.

"I just came back from a trip to Marekesh, and I loved the Moroccan tiles," she said. "I love taking all these things that maybe wouldn't seem like they go together and swirling them all together and creating a place that is unique, that isn't quite like anybody else's."

Nothing Linda Derschang has done in Seattle has ever been quite like anything else. Her "first born" favorite, Linda's Tavern, opened in 1994. She was friends with Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, who founded Sub Pop Records. Grunge was on the map and they wanted to put it on the hill.

"Jonathan and Bruce had talked about possibly opening a bar to become a hangout for people like us," she recalled. "People who were into music and lived around Capitol Hill, because at that time there wasn't one place that sort of felt like it would be our hangout."

Poneman and Pavitt fronted the money and Derschang ran the show. She had run a coffee shop in her home state of Colorado, and a clothing store in Seattle, but a bar was new territory and she had no map.

"I had a friend that was working at the Comet [Tavern] and I called him up," she said. "It was quite a dive. At the time it was quite different than the Comet of today. I asked him questions like 'How much is a pint of beer?' 'How many pints are in a keg?' 'How many people are working every night?' Just sort of basic things, and I realized, you know, this could be actually really lucrative."

First and foremost, Derschang knew she didn't want Linda's Tavern to be a theme bar, but she wanted it to have what she calls "a look." She, Poneman and Pavitt all talked about dive bars they liked (most of which no longer exist today) and mountain bars she had visited in Colorado. They thought about mountains, fishing and outdoor life --- and how it all tied together.

"We just knew that we wanted it to be really kind of woodsy, and very much connected to music," she said.

The taxidermy was not far behind.

"We just liked it," she remembered. "When Linda's opened there were some people who were really surprised that we used taxidermy because it just hadn't been done. It was a different time."

It was certainly the beginning of Derschang's time, though. Linda's Tavern became a solid neighborhood favorite, followed by places like the Capitol Club, the Baltic Room, Chop Suey and Rob Roy, which she sold for one reason or another. Creations like Smith, Oddfellows, Little Oddfellows, King's Hardware, The Bait Shop and Tallulah's are still part of her restaurant roster at her company, "The Derschang Group" which employs 250 people. Each restaurant is unique -- not so much restaurants as they are experiences.

"Someone once wrote that I design stage sets, and at the time I wasn't sure that I liked that, but now I think that this person was probably right to a certain degree," Derschang said. "I was really glad that she didn't say 'theme bars' because, I really am not trying to do something that's too theme-y or Disneyland. I want them to look really natural."

Her goal is never to walk into a theme, but a feeling. The Bait Shop on Broadway looks, feels and sounds like a quintessential Seattle dive, but it is far too new for such a rich distinction.

"Dive with a wink, because it's really not a dive," she describes. "You have to sort of grow into becoming a dive."

In her dark and dingy bar, Derschang's creativity shines. To get decorators, cooks and staff to share her vision for the Bait Shop, she spun a tale, generations long, and she created a backstory to bring it all together.

"This fellow was a fisherman in the late 1940s and he was probably in his late '40s when he was ready to retire," she starts. "He'd always dreamed of owning a bar-- a neighborhood hangout. He asked some of his fisherman buddies if they would help him build the bar of his dreams. They were not carpenters but they did their best. They put up the knotty pine paneling. They built this soffit around the bar and they laid the linoleum floor. They did it all and they were super proud of what they had done. It wasn't too polished, but they all loved the bar and this fellow ran it for many years."

The next part of her story explains how the Bait Shop spiraled into a downward dive.

"He was ready to retire in the 1970s and his son said he wanted to take over the bar," Derschang said. "But he was a little bit of a screwup. He ended up crashing his 1966 Firebird, and all that was left behind was the hood that's hanging on the wall [today]. He also wanted update the bar so he bought these '70s-era light fixtures to kind of modernize it and a few other details to kind of make it more of his bar, and here it is!"

There lies the magic: Her fib makes it authentic. Derschang used her tale of the Bait Shop to make sure everything from the appearance of the employees to the presentation of the food tied together and told a story.

"This is not light food," she admitted. "However, it's really delicious and there's a lot of care in our kitchen. We use good ingredients. The philosophy about food in our company is that we believe in simple, lovely food."

Linda Derschang is proud of her food, but she's proud more of the business she has built and the culture she has created.

"I'm also really proud that I've gathered so many interesting people in my company," she beams. "I'm really proud of what they [her restaurants] mean in each neighborhood. I'm hopefully adding something to each neighborhood into the city...and that makes Seattle an interesting place. I know that I'm one of many doing it, but I guess I'm proud of my part in that."

But for the woman who wants to open "favorite" restaurants and not "best" restaurants -- picking her own favorite is sort of like "Sophie's Choice."

"That's like asking about my favorite child!" she exclaims. "Oddfellows is definitely a favorite for me. It was quite a challenging business [when she opened it] and I think because it was so challenging, I was so determined to make it work. But if you walked into Linda's Tavern, you would see this expression on my face [nostalgia] of like 'Linnnndddaaa's.' It's my, you know, my oldest. I spent so much time there from the beginning when I was doing everything. I was beertending. I was the bar manager. I was the general manager. I was the bookkeeper. There are many memories at Linda's."

Linda Derschang gets to have it both ways. She truly can't pick a favorite, and that makes her the best.

"We have a saying in our company that is: 'We create places that aren't for everyone, but everyone is welcome."