TNT Diner

Out of limbo: Two restaurants (finally) reopen in Tacoma's Freighthouse Square

For years, Freighthouse Square has been an incubator for fledgling restaurants. Some restaurants come and go in a matter of weeks. Some stick around for years - Paya and Mediterranean Palace, for instance. Others sprout business plans and duplicate themselves elsewhere - such as Wendy's Vietnamese. Then there are businesses that grow so successful, they flitter off to bigger locations. Celebrity Cake Studio just moved from its longtime Freighthouse home to its own building on East 26th Street.

But what's coming next for the mall and its collection of unusual retail shops and restaurants? That's anyone's guess.

Freighthouse Square has been under the direction of a receivership since last August after the owners defaulted on their loan. Loan holder Union Bank asked in court that Bellevue-based JSH Properties be appointed to oversee Freighthouse, an iconic Tacoma Dome neighborhood shopping mall that is a collection of unusual shops and restaurants. Because the building now is for sale, what will become of the shopping mall is uncertain. Ernie Velton, managing broker for JSH Properties, said many repairs were needed on the building and since his organization started making those repairs, they've also focused on filling the mall with tenants and are doing so with an on-site leasing agent.

Getting businesses operating is a priority, he said. That makes at least two tenants happy - Boxcar Grill and Seasonal Delights recently reopened after both closed for about six months due to building woes. Here are their stories.

Boxcar GrillWhere: Freighthouse Square, west entrance, 2501 E. D St., TacomaInfo: 253-503-0098, theboxcargrill.comHours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Opening day for Boxcar Grill owners Liz Gilham and her mother Velda Gilham was last July. They closed a few days later. They were open a few more, then they closed. That pattern continued for weeks as they struggled with repairs needed to the hot water, then the walk-in cooler and the heating system. Liz Gilham thought about walking away from her dream of opening a restaurant. "There were times when I woke up in the morning and wondered why I'm even going down there, " said Liz Gilham. She found herself asking on every visit, "What problem am I going to encounter today?" Considering what she's endured, Gilham is good-natured about the closure and its inconvenience. She said she sympathized with the receivership struggling to fix all that needed to be fixed in the aging building, but she said the process was slow.

Boxcar Grill finally reopened Jan. 12 and has remained open since.

Gilham and her mother designed the appropriately train-themed Boxcar Grill to be like the food they loved from a diner where Gilham's aunt worked - Mr. Ed's in Kent (now called Sara's). When Gilham was a child, she told her mother she was going to be a waitress someday. Her mother told her it would be "a good first job." After Gilham graduated from college with a business management degree, she worked for corporate restaurants and then decided she wanted to open her own place. It always was her mother's dream to open someplace where she could bake.

The 143-seat restaurant is much larger than any other in Freighthouse. While most restaurants operate in or just off the food court, Boxcar Grill is in a large corner space facing East D Street. Inside gauzy black and green curtains hang floor to ceiling, the black-and-green motif is duplicated throughout the cute restaurant that concentrates its seating near the windows with a view of the train tracks.

The menu is pure diner - think patty melts, Monte Cristos, meatloaf and corned beef on rye. But don't think of Boxcar Grill as a greasy spoon. The restaurant has an emphasis on scratch cooking - and the proof is in the execution. Sandwiches are made from ham and turkey cooked in-house. Gravy is made from scratch. Desserts of the day are baked by Gilham's mother, who also makes the tart raspberry freezer jam that is served in plastic cups at breakfast (just like Carr's in Lakewood).

Corned beef hash at breakfast ($8.99) was a noteable tangle of peppers, onions and soft potatoes, threaded with hunky - but too chewy - pieces of house-made corned beef that tasted of caraway and mustard seeds. A chicken fried steak ($8.99) was no ordinary cube steak - the ribeye was pounded thin and hand-coated with a rosemary-speckled crispy jacket and a thin, rich, sausage gravy - served with buttermilk cakes and three eggs on the side.

The same housemade rosemary-speckled coating showed up at lunch on snappy, delicious onion rings that came with a patty melt ($7.99). On grilled, buttered sourdough with Swiss, grilled mushrooms, onions and what looked to be at least a third of a pound hamburger patty, the patty melt was a finely executed monstrosity. A lunchtime corned beef Reuben ($8.59) was a bit too chewy, but was gooey with pepperjack on thick-cut, caraway punched marbled rye. House-made thousand island sauce was bright orange and puckery. Purple slaw stood in for 'kraut. The thin-cut fries on the side were not bad for being one of the few things there from the freezer.

Seasonal Delights Cafe & Espresso CafeWhere: Freighthouse Square, off the food court, 430 E. 25th St., TacomaInformation: 253-503-6361Hours: 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.- 7 p.m. Saturday, noon- 5 p.m. Sunday

Nine months after opening in January 2011, improperly anchored trusses caused the ceiling to cave at Seasonal Delights, leaving owners Tonya and Wade "Scott" Reynolds without a storefront. On March 1, with the ceiling repaired, they finally moved back into their cafe. Reynolds repeated what Gilham said - the new managers have been easy to work with and responsive, although slow. She noted that JSH Properties has increased foot traffic by attracting community events. Velton confirmed that there is a push to offer the mall's event area, in most cases for free, to community members looking for space.

This is a first restaurant for Reynolds, whose sons previously operated Bagel Boyz Bakery in Puyallup.

The menu at Seasonal Delights is a mix of sandwiches, salads, soups, savory and sweet crêpes, espresso and a range of baked goods. It's a bargain lunch destination with menu items in the $6-$8 range. The quiche, carrot cake and bread pudding are all from scratch. She recently added focaccia to the menu.

It's the cinnamon rolls that keep me returning to Seasonal Delights - I first wrote about them last April. The rolls are Tonya's grandmother's recipe. They're dense and yeasty, but not overtly sweet. They are topped with a tart cream cheese frosting I like because it is light on the sweet.

THE FUTURE OF FREIGHTHOUSE? Freighthouse Square was built in 1909 as the Western stop for the Old Milwaukee Railroad line. The 100,000 square foot two-story building has more than 50 tenants at the moment, with potential for many more. So what happens next at Freighthouse?"The short version is that sometime this year, Freighthouse will have a new owner. We've been charged by the court to sell the property, " said Velton. It's impossible to say before a buyer materializes what may happen to the mall, but Velton said the leasing agent has been filling vacant spaces - eight leases have been signed since the beginning of 2012. Expect to see more restaurant tenants soon. I'll keep you posted.

READ MORE ABOUT RESTAURANTS AT FREIGHTHOUSETwo years ago, in our series called 10-in-One where we review 10 restaurants in a single neighborhood or location, we turned our forks on Freighthouse Square. Read reviews of 10 of the mall's restaurants here. Read more about Freighthouse Square here.

Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at: 253-597-8270, or on Twitter: @tntdiner