Reporter's Notebook

After 100 years, Shanty Café says goodbye


I had lunch (a French-dip with fries) at the Shanty Café last week and said a sad farewell.  By noon, every seat was occupied– even the lunch counter stools — and there were more than a dozen devoted customers still waiting outside, also intent on saying goodbye.

The Shanty, the buff-shingled diner on Elliott, the one that occupies its own tiny triangular block, is closing its doors for the last time on Monday, Nov. 28.  Closure comes after 102 years of serving hearty comfort foods – hash browns and scrambles, Reuben sandwiches and hand-cut fries, chicken-fried streaks and apple pie — to the working stiffs of the city.

In its century of life, the café has had only a handful of owners, all of them women.  The small building began life in 1908 as a “pay house,” a place for workers to pick up their week’s pay after toiling in nearby shipyards.  Food was first served at the 350 Elliott Way address in 1914 by Violet Horman, who had acquired the pay shack.  Back then the diner was known as Violet’s Hamburger Shanty.

Owner in the café’s middle years was Jackie Philbrick, one of Seattle’s favorite earth mothers. Rare was the day when Jackie wasn’t bantering with the regulars, feeding the down-and-outers and plotting ways to fill empty shelves at food banks. If you were a regular, she’d greet you with a bear hug, maybe grab a cup of coffee and sit down at your table, chatting about life and times while you ate. Most days you could see a table of nuns and maybe another one filled with police officers, special guests of Jackie’s.

It wasn’t unusual to spot local celebrities. The city’s mayor or the county executive sometimes stopped by. Farside Cartoonist Gary Larsen was a regular and so were writers, artists and musicians.  Must days you encountered sports staff from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, then housed in a building topped with a neon globe and its revolving message: “It’s in the P-I.”

Her customers liked to swap Jackie stories. They would tell about the Christmas morning when, unbidden and unexpected, Jackie rose at dawn to deliver donuts and hot coffee to a group of half-frozen Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild members. They were picketing outside the P-I building because Hearst management had refused holiday pay to staffers working on Christmas Day.

Jackie always sided with the working stiffs.  When the Legislature had considered raising the minimum wage, other restaurateurs rebelled saying it would put them out of business. But Jackie was already paying her employees more than the minimum. And they stuck with her, some like Waitress Leslie Sumita for decades.

After Jackie left the Shanty to help her husband Phil Philbrick with his contracting business, the café was acquired by a pair of locals, Ginger Crowley and Theresa Schmet. When in high school, Crowley had  waited tables for Jackie. She remembered her as “a crazy lady,” a second mom and as a “gambler with a beehive hairdo.”

The two owners – school classmates — bought the place in 1998, even though they didn’t have a clue about what it took to run a restaurant. They learned on the job and made do. Ginger baked pies. They both pitch-hit at times as electrician, roofer and plumber. When they replaced the old siding a few years ago, they discovered two of the windows had been constructed atop old door frames, confirming that the building had indeed served as a pay station. Workers had entered through one door and walked out the other.

Progress has often threatened the Shanty. In Jackie’s day, Martin Selig, the well-known Seattle developer, once tried to buy the place. He was building a new commercial building to the South and wanted to add the Shanty block to his property, vacate the street and erect an even grander development. Jackie told customers that she had said, “No way, the Shanty’s not for sale.”

However, the Shanty today is finally being sold. Ginger has confirmed that, after 18 years of ownership, she and Theresa are moving on.  The building is going to be reborn as El Charro Mexican Food and Cantini.  Last Tuesday, Ginger circled the crowded room, taking down names from customers waiting at the door for a table. Harried but calm, she sighed, saying regretfully, “I feel guilty.”

On each table there was a note that,  in part, read, “Dear Shanty Customer, With heavy hearts Ginger and Theresa and the whole Shanty crew will be wishing you a fond farewell. We have sold the business . .  .We will be having an open house from 3 to 9 p.m., Nov. 28, our last day. Thank you for all the memories and laughs.”

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