SEATTLE — The red awning is bordered with twinkling lights and
“Dinette’’ is written in white cursive. That’s the precursor for the enchanting ambience inside the restaurant on Capitol Hill, where diners find a snug bar and sip rosemary cocktails by candlelight. The adjoining dining room holds 16 beechwood
tables, mostly two-tops, some four, equipped for friends’ night out. Some tables have their own mini chalkboards reading, “Ribeye steak for two,” or another special that evening. At around 5 p.m., when Dinette opens, the smell of bread pudding spills into the bar and dining room.
With gold fleurs-de-lis on turquoise columns, creamy walls, vases cradling branches and twigs, and an assortment of chandeliers, the dimly lit room is very feminine. Decor includes an upright piano and an array of gold-plated Florentine serving trays collected over 21 years. It is almost as if you are sitting at a vanity in a woman’s bedroom. The mastermind behind this look and the person turning out all of the aromatic dishes is chef and owner Melissa Nyffeler. The staff is mostly women, giving this restaurant the warmth and inviting setting that has drawn a devoted clientele for seven years.
“I like working with women in the kitchen,” Nyffeler says. “My experience is that women offer help more. Women cook because they want to feed people and are not worried about showing off.”
Nyffeler dreamed up Dinette while she was cooking in the kitchen of the Century Ballroom and hosting a monthly supper club at her apartment, which she called Dinette. She used the two kitchens as test labs, teaching herself how to cook. When she opened the restaurant, the name just fit the space. At Dinette the restaurant, Nyffeler now hosts monthly, theme-based Sunday suppers inspired by her apartment cafe. She pushes all the restaurant tables together to make one communal eating surface to replicate the large foldout dining room table of her old apartment.
She had a European tavern in mind for Dinette, featuring good wine in a carafe, bistro-style and simple food with comforting braised meats, reminiscent of her grandmother’s cooking on an Indiana farm during her childhood. When she traveled through Europe, the paninotecas in Italy and tartine shops in France inspired the “toasts” on the menu and the sandwich bar, served during the summer months only. “The toasts are something unique to Dinette,” Nyffeler says. “If I called them bruschetta, people would not be raving about them.”
The food is simple; flavors complex. When a server sporting a fiery-red pixie-cut and a nose ring approaches with tomatoes tonnato, the scent arrives before the plate. Sliced heirloom tomatoes rest on a shallow pool of creamy, lemony tuna sauce. Very thinly sliced sweet onions, capers, and parsley oil decorate the plate. At the first bite, delicate salt crystals burst in your mouth with the tender summer fruits.
A pork chop needs attention if it’s going to be cooked properly. Nyffeler brines and pan roasts this Jones Farm pork into a melty, buttery, tender chop. The meat barely needs a knife to cut; juices run from the palest pink center onto the plate. If you can tear yourself away from savoring this delectable pork, the corn pudding, paired with a smoky, stewed tomato jam, is also memorable. The golden pudding actually maintains the crunch of fresh corn.
All of the dishes emerge from a tiny kitchen with an electric four-burner stove, which reminds Nyffeler of the compact apartment kitchen where Dinette began. Two cooks execute about 75 covers an evening. The lack of kitchen space largely determines the menu for the season, requiring pates and dishes prepared ahead. Nyffeler and one other cook arrive at the restaurant mid-morning and begin making fresh pasta, and linking sausage or making savory doughs.
Dinette and Nyffeler’s food are a labor of love. She does not take days off because she says cooking and providing food is what relaxes her. “It never feels like work,” says the chef. “Because I’m a self-taught cook, my cooking and my food continue to get better.”
As she attracts more diners to her homey spot, she hopes to use the summer sandwich bar as a pilot for a real sandwich shop in another Seattle neighborhood. In the meantime, Nyffeler focuses on designing creative additions to the menu and Sunday supper themes that encourage the cozy, family-style dining that inspired Dinette in the first place.
Dinette, 1514 East Olive Way, Seattle,