Talk about Seattle’s dining scene and it’s impossible to not mention Chef Tom Douglas and his 15 restaurants.
He arrived in Seattle in 1977 after embarking on a solo cross-country road trip from Delaware. The original plan was to be away for a month or two, but with no money left by the end of his journey, Douglas had no choice but to find work in the city. He built upon the six months of cooking experience he gained back in Delaware, and in 1989, he and his wife, Jackie, opened their first restaurant, Dahlia Lounge. It marked the start of their dining empire, which now includes a cooking school, packaged spice rub products, a farm, several cookbooks and a weekly radio show.
In this edition of “My Famous Five,” Chef Douglas describes five dishes from his restaurants that have come to define him and his brand.
Triple coconut cream pie from Dahlia Lounge
The most famous dish
“It has been for 25 years the best selling dessert on the Dahlia menu and it’s now the best selling dessert on pretty much every menu, even where it’s not on the menu. People just ask for it for some reason, so when it’s not on the menu at one of our places, we walk across the street and get it from the other place.
I think the biggest unique quality is that people eat it and then they savor it for a bit, and you can just see their eyes, and they start to taste it and they realize that it doesn’t taste like suntan lotion and that it tastes real. They’re used to buying it at the grocery store or having it at some bad diner where it tastes like what it’s made from, chemicals, whereas when it’s just eggs and real coconut and cream and coconut milk … it tastes like real coconut. I grew up with butterscotch pies and pies in general that my grandmother made, so my link is the homemade quality, the homespun nature of the pie.”
“Rub with Love” salmon from Etta’s
The most meaningful dish
“Probably the most meaningful dish is one that helped spawn a whole new business, which is Etta’s spice rubbed salmon. I was judging at the Jack Daniels World BBQ Invitational, and at the same time I was thinking about my idea for my new restaurant, Etta’s. This was 20 years ago. And when I was down there and I was meeting with all the BBQ teams, doing the ‘charcoal stroll,’ as they call it, I just thought, ‘I wonder if I could somehow do BBQ’d salmon.’
I didn’t have a wood fire. I did have a smoker, and so I figured out how to cold-smoke it and made this classic spice rub for it. Mine was a little bit sweeter; I’m more Asian-influenced in my cooking than say the Texas-style rubs, which are more salt-based. So I made this little sweet BBQ rub and I cold-smoked it and I put ice over the smoke so that it wouldn’t cook the fish. Then when you ordered it as a customer, I cooked it on the grill. My goal was to have someone say it was the best salmon dish in Seattle, and within six months, it was declared that in the monthly regional magazine. It’s been on the menu since day one … people always wanted to know how to make it. It’s always been our bestselling entrée, and so we decided to try to package our rubs about 15 years ago and that’s where our Rub with Love brand came from.”
Rotisserie roasted five spice duck from Dahlia Lounge
One of Chef Douglas’s personal favorites
“It’s a five spice duck marinated for three days and cooked low and slow over an applewood fire for five hours until it’s almost fall-off-the-bone tender. Then, I bone it out and then I put the skin side down when you order it to get it nice and crispy. It gets really black; people sometimes send it back thinking it’s burnt, but they haven’t tasted it. I really like that dish. It combines a lot of my favorite things: duck, wood fire, slow roast, well-done. I’m not your classic chef that likes everything raw or rare, rare, rare.”
Crab cakes from Dahlia Lounge and Etta’s
The dish that put him on the Seattle food map
“I’m from the Mid-Atlantic area, Delaware, near the Chesapeake, and of course crab cakes are on every menu there. So when I came here, I would walk through Pike Place Market in 1977 and there were mountains of Dungeness crab in all the fish stands, but there wasn’t one restaurant with a crab cake on the menu here in Seattle. And so I did it, I put it on, people thought it was kind of crazy. Of course, there were plenty of East Coast transplants that saw crab cake and thought, “Wow, I haven’t had one of those in awhile.” It got written up in every magazine, every newspaper, and next thing you know, it was on every menu in Seattle so it was kind of crazy. We do all sorts. I make crab foo yung, I make Chesapeake style, I make Etta’s style, Dahlia’s has its own style.”
Tom’s Big Breakfast from Lola
The wackiest creation
“I think the one that’s considered the wackiest is Tom’s Big Breakfast at Lola, which is a red-wine braised octopus on wood-fired toast with smoky bacon and fried eggs. It’s our bestseller and it’s delicious, but people think it’s wacky.
Lola is a Greek-spirited restaurant. My wife is Greek … and I was just thinking of something that was going to be interesting, Greek style, and that’s where it came from. I also knew that if you put something like that on the menu, it would get written about, and sure enough, it did. Still does. I didn’t expect it to become a bestseller.”
Dahlia Lounge, 2001 4th Avenue (Belltown); new American, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Etta’s, 2020 Western Avenue (Downtown); seafood, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Lola, 2000 4th Avenue (Belltown); Greek, breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, brunch and dinner daily.
Photo credit: Jerad Knudson
Tom Douglas is now looking to start from “the ground up” after temporarily closing all his restaurants.