ghost town @ St. Helens Cafe, (but packed at Doyle's in the same bldg). They just opened, but this is not a good sign. What is it? The food?...ambiance? Sound's like someone has missed the boat at St.H. somewhere. If you have been there and were going to help them remedy this right away, what should they change to get customers in the door? [St. Helens Cafe] needs some very good advice and very quickly.
-- an Ed's Diner regular
I'm not a restaurant doctor. (He lives in Gig Harbor.) But I've been thinking about St. Helens Cafe since it opened last Monday. I ate there twice. Here are two observations:
It's too big. It's too limited.
The space is cavernous. Seats more than 100. Walk in. Look around. Hardly anyone in the place. Even if there are people in the place. Know what I mean?
Never miss a local story.
The decor is nice. There's art on the walls. The open kitchen looked clean. St. Helens cafe would be comfortable at about one-third the scale.
I won't suggest three times the number of menu items, but how much fried fish can folks eat? It's the best thing on the menu.
Mushy chips need work. Sirloin burger wasn't worth the extra buck-fifty; you can get better burgers elsewhere. Lobster bisque and chicken gumbo tasted pre-fab; wait another month for the fresh-made soups that are coming up the street at tiny Infinite Soups. Pasta didn't tempt me.
St. Helens Cafe's prices are right (most things under $10). You're not paying for service. You order at the counter way up front. Take a number. Some friendly young person brings your food.
Fend for yourself on soda, napkins, ketchup, malt vinegar ... Remember: the room is huge -- so it can be a hike from your table to the soda/utensils/condiments.
Speaking of malt vinegar, three bottles aren't enough to go around in the first place; in the second place, I wouldn't clean my drains with Heinz.
Speaking of hiking (vis a vis parking) ... there's not much St. Helens Cafe can do about that. I visited on a night when there was something going on at the nearby Temple Theater. Doyle's buzzed. Stadium Bistro –- which now has art on the walls but still suffers the same too-big-for-its-customer-base spaciousness downstairs as St. Helens Cafe does upstairs –- looked livelier than I've seen recently.
As I predicted last week, I was happy to hunt for parking in downtown Tacoma. It happened Friday at The Matador. I circled twice, settled on A Street and walked two blocks. The Matador and Paddy Coyne's hopped.
Speaking of The Matador and Paddy Coyne's, except for the new-paint fumes at Paddy's and the suspicious Earl Gray flavor in The Matador's coffee that suggests the staff is brewing tea in the same machine in which it brews coffee, I haven't experienced any egregious start-up snafus at either one.
We still tend to go to Seattle for dinner whenever possible.
-- an Ed's Diner patron
Of course, The Matador and Paddy Coyne's are both knock-offs of successful Seattle restaurants.
Is that what this is all about, a lingering inferiority complex?
I'm calling the doctor.
UPDATED 2/13 Here's a second helping of my 2 cents:
St. Helens Cafe will find its footings and pack the place a couple of nights a week. It's only been open a week, critics.
I recommend owners and staff read "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate them at Your Own Risk." It's worked for me.
Jon Holt: Send your staff into the neighborhood with flyers. Plaster every parked car and put one in every hand. Offer an incentive.
Hang a huge, temporary banner on the side of your building. Declare you're there.
Put a menu on the wall inside your restaurant. If customers must order at the counter, customers must be able to read the menu large and clear.
Are there any caberet-permit issues preventing you from bringing in local bands? Give the next Neko Case a shot at doing her gritty chanteuse thing in the corner. Or let an acoustic-country combo play for fish, chips and beer.
Offer take-out and delivery service to the demimonde downstairs at Doyle's.
Keep up the good work on the fish.
PS: Wrapping and serving your fish in old newspaper would be a good publicity-getting gimmick.