Moving an 8-year-old biga — a fermented dough starter — across Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue was like walking a kid across a busy intersection. The caregivers moved carefully and hoped nobody lost their footing at the wrong moment.
For years, that biga has been a bubbling mass of yeasty dough, a continually fed entity living in the walk-in refrigerator at Primo Grill, which opened on Sixth Avenue in 1999.
The restaurant’s owners — husband-wife duo Charlie McManus and Jacqueline Plattner — joke that the biga’s practically become a staff member. Its job is to form the base of Primo’s pizza dough, known for its tangy complexity.
Last week, that vat of biga — and the restaurant itself — relocated a few blocks away to its new home at Sixth Avenue and Oakes Street in a building owned by McManus and Plattner, who also own another restaurant in that building, Crown Bar (they opened that restaurant in 2007).
The biga’s daily feeding — and subsequent move — by two chefs was symbolic of the meticulous legwork that McManus and Plattner put into their relocation. It’s been more than a year in the making. Detailed planning meant the restaurant’s closure was brief. It closed after dinner service July 26 and reopened Aug. 8.
Much of the restaurant will appear familiar to those who knew Primo Grill — all the way down to the restaurant’s signature yeasty pizza dough. The menu continues to cover a broad swath of the Mediterranean region — from Italy to Morocco. The menu, too, covers broad territory in its scope, from shareable appetizers and pizza pies to handmade pasta dishes and heartier surf-and-turf entrees.
Decor changes and a new kitchen have injected Primo Grill with a different energy. The decor shifted from a restaurant outfitted in vibrant tones and Tuscan hues to a more muted palette that the owners call “Northwest modern.” Reclaimed wood covers tabletops and floors. Rustic iron frames the dining room. Oversized windows roll up garage-door style, giving diners an al fresco experience without leaving the restaurant. The restaurant’s signature open kitchen is still there and so are the staff members from the previous location.
Take a look here at a few changes — and similarities — for the new Primo Grill, now serving dinner daily.
Kitchen equipment: I incorrectly reported a few weeks ago the new Primo Grill will come with a new wood-fired oven. While that originally was part of the plan, McManus said they scrapped the oven because of environmental concerns about the amount of wood required and the smoke produced by the oven. Instead, they’ll cook with wood on a smaller scale.
Said McManus, “We’ve added a smoker — we wanted to do smoked items for Primo and for the Crown Bar. The real impetus for the smoker was Crown, but there are things we’ve wanted to do. I’ve wanted to do a smoked trout and I’ve wanted to do smoked pork chops; I’ve wanted to do whole pork ribs — smoke them and grill them.” McManus got his wish — the opening menu included smoked pork chops with a peach relish. Expect to see more smoked pork cycling through the menu at Primo and Crown Bar.
New grill: The restaurant is equipped with a grill that has a smoker box where wood chips can be added at far much less an amount required than was required by the restaurant’s old wood-fired oven.
More environmental considerations: McManus and Plattner added environmentally friendly features, such as draft-wine service, translating into less waste than bulky glass bottles. They’ve partnered with Washington wineries and distributors that provide kegs of wine.
Dinner and a show: A signature of Primo Grill’s dining room has been its on-display cooking line with little separation from a seating counter. That same display kitchen and dine-in counter are at Primo’s new home. At Primo’s previous location, the dining room was centrally anchored by the wood oven and display kitchen; while the new location shifts the working kitchen to the rear of the narrow restaurant.
Seating: The new dining room comes with fewer seats, and it’s also configured differently. A long banquette provides a more communal dining experience, with a similar feel to nearby Asado’s dining room. The result is a more vibrant room, which does come with a bit of clamor - but I'd describe the volume increase as energizing, not annoying. At capacity, it didn't feel too loud, presumably because those garage-door windows were flung open, allowing noise to waft out onto Sixth.
Northwest wood: “The floors are long, recycled Douglas fir planks from telephone poles — it’s got a really great grain. The tabletops come from fir that’s been reclaimed from large beams. It’s just a beautiful look,” said McManus.
Artwork: Wood and exposed brick form the foundation tones, but vibrant color comes from artwork. The restaurant’s partnership with Tacoma Community College’s art program is on display in the form of a 30-foot mural painted by TCC art students and TCC art chair Marit Berg. The mural represents a colorful agricultural corridor spanning the Puyallup Valley to urban Tacoma.
Ingredients: McManus and Plattner continue to focus on produce and ingredients from South Sound farms. Salad greens are grown by Puyallup’s Terry’s Berries and additional produce comes from Tahoma Farms. Kamilche Sea Farms still provides the mussels.
Menu changes: “We’ll change the menu a lot more than in the past,” explained McManus. As fresh produce changes, so will side dishes, accompaniments and specials. “It may change every two to three days.” Of the core menu, he said, “I imagine in a three-month period, 50 percent of the menu will change.” See below for photos of the new menu - but note that it might change by the time you visit.
Primo GrillWhere: 2701 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-383-7000, primogrilltacoma.comHours: Serving dinner daily.