McCracken & Tough: 'There's a Difference Between Rustic and Not Being Able to Cook'


Photo by Kristin Zwiers
Tavern Law's upstairs bar: Needle & Thread.
Three years ago, Brian McCracken and Dana Tough opened Spur , a gastropub concept


McCracken & Tough: 'There's a Difference Between Rustic and Not Being Able to Cook'

  • McCracken & Tough: 'There's a Difference Between Rustic and Not Being Able to Cook'

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    Photo by Kristin Zwiers
    Tavern Law's upstairs bar: Needle & Thread.
    Three years ago, Brian McCracken and Dana Tough opened Spur, a gastropub concept they developed while working together at Earth& Ocean many moons ago. Since then, they've spawned Tavern Law and now The Coterie Room--next door to Spur in the old Restaurant Zoe space on the corner of Second and Blanchard. (If we're lucky, it'll be open in time for this week's Sunday supper.) In a very short time, these two friends have grown not only as chefs, but as businessmen. And then there is the other kind of "growing" that involves tasting the delicious food coming out of your kitchens every night.

    In part one of this week's Grillaxin, McCracken and Tough talk about how they've changed since becoming restaurateurs, their surprising source of inspiration for their new French brasserie-esque restaurant, and why they put a six-pack of Rainier beer on the menu.

    Drink it all in . . . after the jump!

    SW: What have the last three years been like?

    Tough: I think we've each aged like 20 years.

    McCracken: I can summarize the last three years by the 20 pounds that I've gained.

    Tough: It's been really fun.

    McCracken: It's fun to challenge yourself and see what you can do and see where you can take things; what you can actually get done when you work hard and push yourself.

    How have you two changed in the last three years as business owners?

    Tough: Like anything else, as you make mistakes you learn from them and you grow--and I think we've made our share of mistakes along the way.

    McCracken: I think that something we've been smart at as business owners is assessing ourselves and the situation very often so that we can catch mistakes and change them before they're too damaging.

    Tough: Something we say often is that one of us will be the more logical one at any given moment. The other person will be the dreamer. It works out for us because you never know who's going to be which, but it will always be one or the other and that's a good thing.

    Photo by Julien Perry
    Now with your third concept [The Coterie Room] getting ready to open, are you doing stuff people haven't seen before?

    Tough: I wouldn't say that. With this concept, it's recognizable. The food is going to be variations on American classics done our way so it'll be recognizable flavors that we've done in the past.

    McCracken: Plated in a very approachable way. Everything here is meant to be a little bit more approachable than what we've done in the past as far as not seeming very "out there" or scary, which it has to some people.

    What else can you tell me about The Coterie Room?

    Tough: We want it to feel like you're coming into someone's home for supper. That's what we want. A lot of our food will come out on platters or cast iron skillets. There's going to be some family-style stuff, along with some small plates and large plates. It's going to be a much larger menu [than Spur].

    You describe your food as rustic. What does that term mean to you?

    Tough: Rustic doesn't mean there's no room for elegance or refinement.

    Do you think the word rustic is thrown around too often?

    Tough: Yeah, I think there's a difference between rustic and not being able to cook.

    McCracken: That's actually something we tell our cooks a lot, that there's a difference between rustic and sloppy.

    Tough: You know who does a really good job of rustic? Daniel Boulud in New York City. Rustic to us is charcuterie and dry-cured meats and food that is hand-crafted. There's no extra fuss added.

    McCracken: You know, you look at your grandma cutting up vegetables and they may not be a perfect dice, but they're going to be the same size and it's going to be cooked properly.

    Photo by Julien Perry
    What in your mind is not rustic?

    Tough: I always come back to burnt pizza because it comes down to understanding how to stoke your wood-fired oven with the proper amount of wood running at the right temperature compared to somebody who buys a $6,000 oven from Italy who doesn't know how to use it. Especially if they're building an entire concept around it. That pisses me off because other people who can afford it would probably use it correctly and understand how to use it before making that purchase. I've eaten way too many burnt Neapolitan pizzas in this town.

    What exactly will be on the menu at The Coterie Room?

    Tough: The food and the restaurant itself is very much inspired by a French brasserie, but it's a New American version of that. So, you're going to see an array of small plates that can be shared, but they're classic American as well as French-inspired. Like, the poutine is our version of poutine with smoked pork shoulder gravy and fried Beecher's cheese curds. There's some decadent dishes on the menu as well as some light fare, like the marinated beets, heirloom carrots, endive salad and some fresh seafood items. All around delicious food that we keep saying is naked, stripped down to just quality of ingredients and execution.

    Wait. I see on the menu you can buy the kitchen crew a six-pack of beer for $10. Really?

    Tough: That's kind of our way of saying, "Would you like to tip the kitchen?" So, whether or not the $10 goes towards a six-pack of beer or not, it gives them a little something to go get a nightcap after they get off work.

    What kind of beer?

    Tough: Rainier, probably. That's what we like!

    Photo by Trevin Chow
    Before you decided to open this place, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the concept to be - or has that all been fine-tuned since you started?

    Tough: Like anything we've done, everything kind of shifts; decisions are made as we go, but the base concept is there. We don't say, "Okay, this is how it's going to be" and carry out that vision because there's always better ideas. We like to have the philosophy that good is not good enough.

    Where did you get inspiration for the space?

    Tough: Social clubs.

    McCracken: Yeah, early 20th century social clubs and grand hotels. We went to Chicago and stayed at Palmer House. We had a lot of drinks in the Polar Bar at The Arctic Club here in Seattle and the Olympic Hotel.

    Tough: Earlier on, we did a lot of research. I don't know if you knew this, but the Olympic Hotel was named in a city-wide contest in the 1920s. It makes you think how social marketing has grown.

    McCracken: At one point, we were thinking of doing that here. Letting people name the restaurant. Having a contest.

    So, where did you get the name?

    McCracken: It was a long effort to figure out a name. We were very driven with the space and the design of it, but we had a tough time figuring out what we wanted to call it. We were going back and forth from trying to name it after something about the space, something about the food, something about the service and kind of going all over the place. Early on a word we liked, at least the meaning of, was cotter, which means peasant farmer. We liked the word but couldn't figure out a way to incorporate it into a name. Kind of elevated peasant food is what we're going for here.

    Tough: This is a good story, actually. We were up in the Seattle room of the downtown library, on the fifth floor. It's filled with old registries and atlases of early Seattle.

    McCracken: And we were looking through a registry from like 1895 and we were looking at a list of all the social clubs and there was one that just stood out. We liked the word. We liked the way it sounded. It was called The Coterie Club.

    Biscuit-colored hex tile in the entry.
    That actually existed in Seattle?

    McCracken: For a long time! From the 1800s into the 20th century. As far as we understand, it was a women's social club, but we liked how it sounded. So then we looked up the word coterie because neither of us really knew the word at the time. Coterie, long story short, is derived from the word cotter and so it brought it all together.

    Tough: Coterie is a gathering of like-minded people. That's what we want. To gather a bunch of people together. The reason why we named it The Coterie Room instead of just Coterie Room is because we wanted the entire concept, even the design, to feel really established, like it's been here forever. Everything down to the hex tile in the bathroom is original biscuit color. It looks aged. Biscuit is the first hex tile color.

    What restaurants are on your bucket list?

    Tough: Noma in Denmark. I've still never been to The French Laundry.

    McCracken: I'd like to go to The Fat Duck.

    Tough: I'd like to go to the newest three Michelin star Meadowood.

    McCracken: Speaking of pizza, there's a pizza place that we missed out on one time that I want to try. It's Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.

    Tough: Oprah says it's the best. She has her own television network, so she probably knows about pizza.

    Check back tomorrow for part two of this week's Grillaxin with Brian McCracken and Dana Tough.

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