Next time you eat dinner at LloydMartin, look down. Chances are, your food is being served on one of the many antique pieces of plateware that chef/owner Sam Crannell collects. He's been an avid collector since the day he walked into an antique shop in Chicago when he was 18-years old. Besides china, Crannell collects old books and art, two pieces of which you can find in his restaurant: one hanging inside the restroom and the other just outside in the hall. Crannell says he picked them up because they looked like something you'd find hanging in grandpa's basement, "It was that kind of art, that 70s feel of color and expression. There was nowhere to put them in my house, so I hung them in here." The very first item in Crannell's antique collection is a cookbook by Escoffier, which the menu at LloydMartin is based on.
BFF: Sam and Charlie.
The question of, "What in the world is that? What does that mean?" I think it's the questions of not knowing that were most intriguing. Food is a whole other world, so when you open a book like this, it's pretty interesting. You learn a language that you don't understand. My wife likes to call it poetry. When we first started dating I would read from this book after many drinks at the end of the night and she would say that was our poetry reading because of the way it's written. It's written so that if you haven't studied cuisine or food, you wouldn't even know. It would be a foreign language.
I got it in Chicago off Broadway. I was getting my tires changed. It wasn't something that I had normally done. I went in there and I found this [book] and then when I got more involved with cooking I figured it would be a good way for me to get more of a library to understand more about food. I went to culinary school and everything else, but on my days off I kept going into different antique shops or second hand shops and things like that. Definitely, I bought a lot of books, but then it started turning into other things.
The second piece that I bought, that I remember, is Charles [ed note: Sam goes to retrieve a large portrait of Charlie Chaplin]. This is a really cool piece. The artist is still alive, he's out of San Francisco. This became, at the same time I started cooking, my muse. I started watching Charlie's films, I started watching and reading and learning a little more about his life and lifestyle. I thought it was really interesting. It hangs in my living room.
When you go antiquing, is it mostly cooking-related stuff you look for?
Now, it's two things; it's looking for antique barware, antique knives and things like that I find really interesting. The next one is antique cooking things, but really it's become more about art that people have just kind of let go of. It's hard to find really cool good things, but if you're okay with mediocre art like I am you end up finding really cool stuff.
Are all the dishes you use here antique store finds?
A lot of them, yeah. We just got some new antique china in. 1880-1914 is the time period.
Most of this stuff people don't eat on. You can see through it, it's so thin. It's French china that's been handed down from generation to generation. And the generations now are getting rid of it because they don't want it. They want the new square plates, they want the stuff they see in Pier 1, Crate & Barrel, or the stuff they see when they go out to dinner. For this space, from the very start, I wanted everything to be antique china and I wrote the business plan two-and-a-half years ago when I really started buying china. Now, not only do I have it here, I use antique china at home.
Do you have a budget for your antique shopping?
The last purchase I made was $325 and that was for a few plates and a few bowls.
Do you use websites to find this stuff?
No! Most of it is hand-picked. I want to see it and experience it in person.
Have you ever had a diner break your china?
No, but my wait staff does from time to time.
What's your reaction?
That I'm dumb enough to put something that fragile out there. That's really what it comes down to. If you want to do something that's different, unique or special, you run a higher risk of loss. That's just the way it is. I guess I have to be, to an extent, okay with it.
Do your diners notice that they're eating on antique plates?
I think a lot of the guests, when they do eat here, notice that it's nicer than what they eat off at home. There's a sense that we're making [their dining experience] special.
Do you have a favorite antique store in the city?
The one on 24th and Market in Ballard. And the reason why is because they have such a quick and fresh rotation of products.
What these plates have seen is really interesting. If it's French china from over 100 years ago, what was on that plate? I think that's a cool connection with dining. It's the same thing with art and music. The further back you go, you're wondering what they were doing when they were listening to it--are they doing the same thing I am? It just makes you think.
I think it's more of an exploration, unless I know we need something here at the restaurant. If it's for me, it's usually about what I want. The first things I usually do look for still are books, china, interesting flatware and art. Those are the very first things that I look at.
You just see things that you don't see anymore. We're so connected that we've forgotten what it was like to be not connected. Going into an antique shop is traveling back in time and seeing things that were around before we got so connected. I think some of the stuff that's old school is so relevant today because it's really where we get our ideas and where everything came from. I don't want a plastic world because it's just not, I think, beautiful. There's not as much time put into each thing.
How do you take care of your china?
It's taken care of by hopefully everyone realizing what it is. Our dishwasher is great and he takes great care of it, but things get chipped. Things break.
Just hand wash with soap and warm water?
We have to put it through the dishwasher.
Oh, that's right. Because you're a restaurant.
Because I'm a restaurant.
Do you have a prized possession out of all of your antiques?
I think the biggest one is Charlie. Finding that and moving all the way from Chicago to Seattle, living at my dad's while I was trying to get back on my feet, and then continually moving after that--through all the moves, like eight moves, he's made it. He's made it to rock shows, he's seen the worst and the best of my life. It's something that's gone everywhere with me.
Do you feel these antiques have a soul?
I don't know if they have a soul, but when I pick something up and I fell it, there is a vibe that it was somewhere else, that someone else had it. So, a soul, I don't know. But when they crack, I do cringe.
I think what's really great about, whether it's the art that's on the wall or whether it's the art that's on the plate, is that a lot of people come through here get to experience it. That's not something you get to experience every day.
What's your next antique trip?
[My wife and I] are going to take a trip in July, because we close the restaurant for summer break, to Montana and I'm sure there will be some shops along the way.
How long is LloydMartin going to be closed for?
For nine days starting on the Fourth of July.
Well, hopefully I live long enough to collect a lot more. I hope the china ends up in a kitchen. And I hope that the art ends up in the basement of someone who wants to be a hippy all over again and the books end up somewhere where people still read things with paper. By the time I die, hopefully that's a long time from now, I don't know what's going to happen to a book. When you go into an antique shop, the smell of old books is--there's nothing else like it. Truffles have their smell. Gasoline has a smell. Books have a smell and I hope someone can experience that.
Say I'm going antiquing and I want to buy you something. How do I distinguish between all the crap and the stuff you would want?
Quality. When you pick up a fork from the first opening of Applebee's when they got rid of them and then you have a fork from a household in the 40s--you can pick them both up and one's going to be heavy and one's going to be light. I want the one that's heavy. With plates, it's pretty easy to see. I mean, you look at it and it's really there and you can tell that it was made by hand just by how imperfect it is.
For all I know, I could be buying stuff that really isn't worth much of anything, but it's worth something to me and I think that's the whole reason behind it.