THROUGHOUT THE '80S, Gretchen Mathers owned this town—its insatiable palate for gourmet takeout, that is. What started as a little storefront in Pike Place Market in 1979 expanded to five locations over the next decade, and with it Mathers' reputation as the Martha Stewart of the Northwest burgeoned. Certain salads just bore her imprint—chicken tarragon most famously—as did certain lush desserts, like her chocolate cheesecake and a fruity little marvel called berry crunch. Mathers and her string of Gretchen's Of Course shops became the darling of Seattle's young establishment: those conspicuous consumers formerly known as yuppies. Gretchen's Cafe at Benaroya Hall
Third between Union and University,
Mon-Fri 11:30-2; dinner on performance days only, from two hours prior to performance through intermission
AE, MC, V; full bar Now that these formerly young have become mauppies, even ouppies, it makes perfect sense that their caterer of choice has set up shop in the new symphony hall. Gretchen's grown up, too—in the late '80s she joined forces with Schwartz Bros. Restaurants to form a catering concern/bakery called Gretchen's Of Schwartz. This Gretchen's Cafe, tucked into an alcove on the Third Avenue side of Benaroya Hall, is currently the only place in town bearing her formidable name. And as ever, it does a brisk lunch service. Though Gretchen's Cafe was commissioned to service the pre-symphony crowd—it opens two hours before performance time, performance nights only—Benaroya's position smack in the middle of downtown makes it a natural lunch stop as well. Lunch runs to salads and sandwiches, give or take a soup or a quiche, with an array of baked desserts. We came at noon and ordered one of a whole lot of things, thank you very much. A ham and pepper Brie sandwich ($4.49) featured the meat and the cheese inside a delicious baguette, moistened with honey mustard. Brie in a sandwich sounded novel and exciting; one bite told me why I'd never seen it done before: the cheese isn't assertive enough to carry it off. A sandwich with a pedigree like this shouldn't be boring. Others were not, particularly a roasted chicken sandwich on peasant bread ($4.29). Slices of the meat, piled quite high in the middle, were accented with pepper-jack cheese, balsamic caramelized onions, and a spunky salsa verde sauce. Very nice. Also fine was the turkey sandwich ($4.79) on peasant bread with bibb lettuce, Roma tomatoes, and a slathering of tarragon mayonnaise. Though the tarragon flavor in the last grew relentless after awhile, I could have used a little of it in the grilled chicken breast and roasted pepper sandwich ($4.49) with homemade aioli on a seed-encrusted baguette. The fancy bread was asked to provide nearly all the interest, the aioli being too bland. But picky, picky, picky—these are sandwiches, after all, and after dispatching them we suspected we might have missed the winner of the bunch, a delectable-looking m鬡nge of grilled vegetables served with hummus on ciabatta bread ($4.69). Indeed, one of the salads we sampled on the Indecision platter ($6.99), the antipasto, featured loads of veggies, very flavorfully roasted. Oh well. The remainder of the Indecision plate was little servings of several other Gretchen's salads, including a flavor-free pasta primavera and that famous chicken tarragon. The last was good, unquestionably, but too heavy on the tarragon mayo. Indeed, given Mathers' history I was surprised to discover that salads are not this cafe's finest hour. A Caesar salad ($3.99/ $5.99) was way, way overdressed. A field greens salad ($2.99) was marred by too much vinegar in the sherry dressing. I was not surprised to find, however, that desserts starred. Peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies ($2 each) were big and moist; a thick wedge of dense devil's food cake was outlandishly good; Gretchen's famous berry crunch ($2.49) was . . . well, Gretchen's deservedly famous berry crunch. By contrast with these successes, one indistinctly flavored lemon bar ($1.69) seemed inferior, but I'm not sure it would have had it played solo. THE TRUE TEST of a place like this, of course, comes an hour before curtain, when the lobby is teeming with unfed sophisticates keening for their cioppino, their big, lusty chardonnay (or, for that matter, their big, lusty gin and tonic—this cafe is fully licensed). Can Gretchen's accommodate? Our lunchtime service had been unusually helpful and efficient. Tonight—with a 25-minute line snaking through the lobby toward Gretchen's and proper symphony patrons all but diving for free tables—would be the real test. But for the tedium of the queue, it went without a hitch. The pros working the line made this slam look like good choreography, even willingly boxing up food for the neighborhood types who wanted theirs to go. And the food was great. We began with an earthy cup of pasta fagiole soup ($2.99/$4.29), with large chunks of vegetables and a resonant back vibe of sage. A thick rod of Parmesan focaccia toast ($.99) made a swell dipstick. (We also couldn't resist sampling Gretchen's Parmesan potato chips—89 cents—which are Tim's with a cheesy topping. You can skip 'em: they taste just like regular Tim's.) A wedge of vegetable quiche ($7.99) was delicious, thickly studded with bits of asparagus and roasted peppers and built on a wonderful flaky crust. Pastry was also toothsomely done in the chicken pot pie ($9.99), which featured big, meaty shreds of chicken along with plenty of peas, carrots, and pearl onions in a creamy gravy, ever so respectfully peppered. Delectable. The surprise of the evening was a serving of vegetarian cannelloni ($9.99), an often insipid dish that was impressively rich and garden bright, with a fine b飨amel and tomato basil sauce. Chef Jack's casserole of the evening ($9.99)—cheesy scalloped potatoes with chicken-apple sausage—was a creamy little carbo load, just right with a little salad and a glass of chardonnay. "Chef Jack" is Jack Pan, who as Mathers' "recipe guy" for the past 16 years is to be thanked for more than just the casserole of the evening. Mark Manca is the fellow who makes their visions fly at Benaroya Hall, night after performance night. Longtime Seattleites will recognize his name as well; his family's restaurant, Manca's, is another Seattle legend. They've a nice little duet going, Manca and Mathers, on a pretty tight little operation showcasing pretty darned good food. That's not half-bad for a woman working on her third decade of serving this town.