JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES Meredith Molli, co-owner of La Medusa (center), tends to customers at her Columbia City restaurant. Tuesdays are big nights for regulars, she says, but with a growing influx of newcomers to the neighborhood, most nights, “50 to 60 percent are first-time diners.”
WHEN Meredith Molli moved with her boyfriend from Minneapolis to Seattle in 2008, they made a beeline for Ballard, aware of its reputation as a restaurant mecca.
“When we lived there, we never left there,” says Molli, save to head to the University of Washington for grad school (him) and commute to a job cooking at Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island (her).
It didn’t take long for them to realize “Ballard wasn’t our scene. We wanted something that felt more small town, more homey — with restaurants within walking distance.”
Hello, Columbia City.
Five years later, Molli is co-owner of La Medusa in the heart of Columbia City’s Historic District — where history is clearly repeating itself in one of the most ethnically and economically diverse ZIP codes in the nation.
“For me, it was a bit of a rash decision,” says Molli, 32, who was sous chef under Gordon Wishard when the two bought the restaurant last year from their former boss, Julie Andres.
Andres was sous chef when she purchased the place from its original owners, chefs Lisa Becklund and Sherri Serino.
As owner, Molli manages the front of the house. Looking out onto Rainier Avenue South — and back into her dining room — she sees a generational shift: “It’s getting significantly younger.”
She ascribes that, in part, to the availability of the “trendy” new condos and apartments that may soon have Columbia City looking more like Ballard.
Gordon Wishard, executive chef/co-owner of La Medusa, presides over the kitchen. He and his business partner, Meredith Molli, bought the restaurant from their friend and former employer, Julie Andres.
Trendy is not the word her landlord, Mark Hannum, would use to describe the Columbia City he moved into in 1992. Back then, he worked at Grazie restaurant in Southcenter. In his newly adopted neighborhood, “there was no place to eat.”
No Columbia City Ale House. No Tutta Bella. No Lottie’s Lounge, Geraldine’s Corner or Island Soul. Not even a Starbucks.
“Why don’t you open a restaurant?” his neighbors asked.
“We were a little ahead of ourselves,” Hannum laughs, recalling the decision to open his short-lived bistro Rutabaga, now La Medusa. But he and his former partner were savvy: They’d bought the building.
The mid-’90s were a low point for retail, though, with rampant closures in Columbia City’s center. But with the debut of the landmark Columbia City Bakery a decade later, says Hannum, the neighborhood took off.
For a business district to remain healthy, it must have a broad mix of restaurants and retail, insists Hannum, now a mortgage loan officer and former chairman of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board.
“Everyone has to eat, and there will always be a strong market for restaurants. But attracting — and keeping — independent retailers in the small buildings that define the historic district remains a constant challenge.
“If it was someplace else in Seattle,” he says, “they’d probably mow the buildings down and build a six-story mixed-use.”