In this week's restaurant review, I conclude that Ethan Stowell restaurants are a lot like teriyaki joints: The one nearest your house is probably best.
I was terrifically excited to eat at Rione XIII, the latest addition to Stowell's portfolio of "new Italian" restaurants. So were my most reliable review companions, many of whom endured mediocre meals at miserable restaurants in exchange for my promise of a seat at a Rione XIII table. But if they were hoping for novelty, they went home disappointed: Under Brandon Kirksey, who previously cheffed at Tavolata, Rione XIII feels generically Stowellian. Somewhere in its development, the restaurant even ditched its antipasti carts, perhaps the most intriguing element mentioned in early press reports. Rione XIII is a fine restaurant, but - to use a phrase rooted in ancient Rome - it's hardly sui generis.
Repeating a restaurant isn't a crime. The best cauliflower I ever ate was served in the Dallas location of Craft, then one of nine Craft-branded restaurants across the country. The Crafts in Dallas and Atlanta have since closed, a demise that might be partly attributable to the plurality of venues. "The assumption is that it's a chain, and that dilutes the brand," owner Tom Colicchio told Crain's in 2010.
But the compaction of Craft - and failure of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Vong, which served French-Thai cuisine in four cities - hasn't discouraged celebrity chefs from opening additional branches of their flagships. Sean Brock this month announced he plans to open another Husk in Nashville, a city in which he used to cook (and, relevantly for Brock, a city that's much closer than Charleston, S.C. to pork conjurer Allen Benton's homeplace.)
Like Colicchio before him, Brock plans to reuse his restaurant's name in a faraway city while making allowances for local specialties, ingredients and kitchen talent. Stowell's taken the exact opposite tack, flinging new names at the same concept -- and staying close to home. Stowell's six-restaurant empire stretches across just four neighborhoods.
As I write in my review, Tom Douglas has also clustered his restaurants in a small area, but their menus and atmospheres are often radically different. "That's just my nature," Douglas told the Seattle Times' Rebekah Denn when she recently asked the restaurateur why he's planning to open an old-style coffee shop, bakery, cafe and market. "I like new stuff."
What Stowell likes is bruschetta, beet salad, shellfish and pasta. Fortunately, so do most Seattle diners, which is why Stowell's restaurants are always packed. From a business perspective, Stowell's following the exact right course. But should eaters who care about the city's edible culture fret about the perpetual replication of a single formula? I honestly don't know.
A detractor might argue that Stowell is draining a limited pool of dining-out dollars. And I suppose it's somewhat worrisome that eaters might visit various Stowell restaurants instead of genuinely diversifying their restaurant diets. But I believe restaurant success is generally good for a culinary community: With each new restaurant, Stowell is creating another space for cooks, bartenders and servers to gain experience and learn the skills they need to eventually influence the city in their own ways. So I don't begrudge Stowell for doing the same thing six times - although I am looking forward to the day when he tinkers with the formula.