bookstorebar.jpg
With so many local restaurants worth reviewing, I rarely have the chance to re-review. But this month I returned to the Alexis Hotel, which the

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Reviewing the Review: Delving Into History at the Bookstore Bar

bookstorebar.jpg
With so many local restaurants worth reviewing, I rarely have the chance to re-review. But this month I returned to the Alexis Hotel, which the Weekly last assessed exactly 28 years ago.

When my predecessor (a term which should probably have a few great-great's appended to it) visited the hotel, the primary dining venue was the Alexis. Today, the property's only restaurant open for dinner service is The Bookstore Bar. But reconstructing the names and cuisines of the restaurants which came between the Alexis and the Bookstore Bar was an unexpectedly difficult task, proving even recent restaurant history can be frustratingly ephemeral.

The Alexis' spokesperson confirmed the Library Bistro, which now serves breakfast and weekend brunch in the space previously occupied by the Alexis, opened in 2003. The Library Bistro replaced the Painted Table, which opened in 1993. But she wasn't sure how to account for the nine years between the Weekly's visit and the Painted Table's debut.

"That is a great question...let me do some more digging," Brandyn Hull e-mailed.

Hull couldn't find anything in her company archives, but discovered a 1991 Seattle Times review that filled in a few of the blanks. Although the story was weaselly on exact dates, it revealed the Alexis was eventually leased to McCormick and Schmick's in a steakhouse experiment that failed.

"The hotel turned it into a lunch-and-breakfast spot, 92 Madison, and turned culinary attention to the cafe," John Hinterberger wrote, describing the moment when the hotel shifted its dining focus to the lounge which now houses the Bookstore Bar.

I called McCormick and Schmick's to determine the date of the transition, but a spokesman for Landry's, the Houston-based company which this year took over the chain, said he had no record of the brand ever running a restaurant at the Alexis. He spent two hours scouring files in the executive boardroom, finally concluding the chain's previous owners didn't leave behind very good documentation. It's still a mystery where Alexis Hotel guests ate in 1988.

My stymied search didn't surprise Seattle Public Library's special collections librarian Bo Kinney, who frequently researches local business histories.

"There's actually quite a lot of stuff that's not saved," Kinney says. "Even now that everything's online, there are going to be problems finding stuff in the future."

Many restaurants can be tracked through legal records, but a restaurant housed within a hotel is unlikely to leave the same paper trail as a freestanding operation. And even if there are records, Kinney says, "they tend to be generated for specific legal reasons and saved in different places for different lengths of time."

"It's not like there's an archive of these records," he adds. "Either the business will keep them or they won't. They can be really difficult to find."

If there aren't any legal records available, Kinney looks for clues in the library's card file - "literally, it was someone's job to read the paper and clip what seemed historically important" - city directories and the newly digitized Seattle Times archive, which covers 1900-1984.

"It's completely changed the way I do research," he says.

Since the digitized archive isn't organized by significant terms, it gives researchers added flexibility. If a story about the Sonics quoted a fan named Jim Levine, for example, that story might have been categorized under "basketball" in the card file, making it very hard for Levine's biographer to later locate the reference. Now researchers can get results for seemingly generic terms, such as addresses.

When Kinney entered the Alexis' address into the system, he turned up a 1993 incident and two restaurant names that didn't make the hotel's official timeline.

"Tonight customers will celebrate the return of the Cajun Corner Cafe at 92 Madison," the paper reported. "The cafe's customers rebelled last April when KIMCO, a San Francisco-based company, took over their hangout, turned it into the Volcano Cafe and changed the menu to 'Pacific Rim cuisine'."

According to the story, a group of ad men who patronized the bar persuaded the hotel to abandon its Pacific Rim pretenses and staged a brand redesign competition. I wonder if someone suggested a bookstore bar.

Interested eaters in 2050 will know exactly what folks were eating at the Alexis in 2012: They'll find the details in my review here. And Joshua Huston has contributed a slideshow to the historical record.

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