Restaurants are supposed to be refuges from the world outside, but eaters in many of Seattle's finer dining rooms might have trouble stowing a physical reminder of wet weather and workaday concerns. Coat storage is neglected in a startling number of local restaurants, so heavy winter coats commonly hang over the backs of chairs, while woolen hats, scarves and gloves end up piled in otherwise sophisticated-looking booths.
"Too often, even in our projects, we don't put in coat hooks," says Jim Graham, principal and founder of Graham Baba Architects, the prestigious firm responsible for The Kolstrand Building, which houses The Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Fremont Collective, where the restaurant space is split between The Whale Wins and Joule. While eating at the latter, I asked my server whether there was anywhere I could put my bulky coat: He offered to hang it on a puny wooden coat stand in the bar which was already mushrooming with shed outerwear.
Graham says architects and restaurant owners are still wrestling with the security, aesthetic and logistical concerns posed by providing space for customers' coats. He's not sure anyone's yet devised the ideal solution to the problem which pops up every time it rains.
Hooks can reliably be found on the underside of bars, but coat checkrooms - once ubiquitous in upscale restaurants - have virtually disappeared. According to Graham, planners fiercely debated whether to install a coat checkroom at Cuoco, Tom Douglas' South Lake Union salute to northern Italian cooking.
"If you have a check, it's a burden," Graham says. "It sends a different message to patrons."
Once, the message conveyed by a staffed coatroom was "Relax. We'll take care of you." Now, the same service makes guests think the restaurant's going to gouge them.
Few customers are willing to surrender their coats to unguarded closets, but Graham says what really worries many restaurant guests who don't carry purses or bags isn't the specter of theft, but the certainty of being temporarily separated from what they keep in their pockets. And this is where the problem assumes a uniquely Seattle dimension: While men typically stash their keys, wallets and phones in sports jackets, it's the rare local eater who shows up for dinner in a suit.
"There are times where I keep my coat," Graham says.
Still, Graham suspects restaurants could coax patrons into giving up their coats, which have an annoying tendency to fall to the ground and block servers' paths when perched on chair backs. He envisions a set of coat hooks "seeded" with interesting coats which might remain hanging through warmer months. If coats are considered an affordable design element, rather than a distraction, "it adds texture to the décor."
The right hook can function as a "little bit of jewelry," Graham adds, pointing to the boat cleats he's used for the purpose.
"It needn't be something that's a typical coat hook," he says.
Or restaurants could look beyond hooks to accommodate their coat-burdened guests.
"How cool would it be if you moved a restaurant into an old dry cleaners and you kept the old dry cleaning rack?," he asks.
From my perspective? Very cool indeed.