At Brimmer & Heeltap, Jen Doak Shows the Virtues of Experience
Jen Doak is a respected veteran of the Seattle restaurant scene. Born in nearby Newcastle, she attracted a loyal clientele managing The Tasting Room and working some shifts at Maria Hines’s now-closed restaurants, Tilth and Agrodolce. So, when Bruce Nafalty announced plans to shutter Le Gourmand (and its adjoining bar, Sambar), it eased the heartache when Jen Doak bought the beloved Ballard spot, and in 2014 opened Brimmer & Heeltap in the space.
About the quirky name: Doak found the terms “brimmer” and “heeltap” in a book called “Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany,” a collection of random culinary factoids, terms, and trivia. A “brimmer” is a glass that’s almost overflowing, and “heeltap” is the last dregs in the bottom. The idea is about everything a dining experience may embody between a full glass and that last sip.
We caught up with Doak to hear how things have been going at the bistro with its garden patio and iconic penny-tiled floor, what’s changed during the pandemic, and the importance of community.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Resy: You’ve been a fixture on the local food and wine scene for decades. What initially inspired you to open your restaurant?
Doak: Having worked in wine for so long, I was captivated by the connection that formed around a bottle of wine. I loved seeing community around a meal and a shared experience like opening wine and passing it around. Wine became synonymous with connection and community. Over time, I wanted to create a space that didn’t involve the pomp and circumstance that was often associated with wine. I’m not sure I ever imagined that asking, “How could drinking wine be more fun?” would lead me to open a restaurant. Finding this space was the differential from having a small neighborhood wine bar to running a full-fledged restaurant.
How did your days serving wine at The Tasting Room prepare you for owning your restaurant?
The owners gave me the autonomy to run their business. Over time, I think it’s natural to just want more. Despite working for people my entire professional career, I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. In many of the establishments [at which] I worked, people would often ask if I owned the place. Really showing up, learning more, and stretching my skillset was something I craved. My mentor kept my hand close to the flame of accountability and finally got to the point where we had a “sh-t or get off the pot moment.”
The Tasting Room gave me the most honest assembly of a tiny yet mighty community, and I later discovered that would be the future pillar for opening my own space.
Opening Brimmer & Heeltap was a labor of love. So what’s been the biggest challenge (as a female restaurant owner)?
There is so much you don’t know when starting a business. You try to arm yourself with as much experience, awareness, and business acumen as you possibly can, and as it turned out for me, I didn’t know sh-t or as much as I needed to. I was turned down for countless bank meetings; even my own family questioned if I had the chops to do this. I felt like a new actor or model trying to get gigs but only to be denied again, and again, and again. I think the experience taught me about resolve. How bad do I really want this?
Along the way, I’ve had to keep asking until someone would say “yes.” Now, as a result, I have amassed a beautiful and intelligent network of people who know more than I do, and I am so OK with that.
What’s been the biggest reward?
Building community. Bar none. We have every kind of polarizing human interaction in a restaurant. First dates, break-ups, anniversaries, weddings, funerals, business meetings, employment termination, solo diners, friends out for a meal, strangers out for a drink.
Sometimes we are just witnesses, and sometimes we have a heavier hand in the interaction. As time passes, children are introduced, grandchildren, partner turned spouse, being able to drive or have their first drink. It’s insanely humbling.
And behind every interaction is a labyrinth of people across the globe that made it all happen — an olive oil producer in Italy, a winemaker in France, a local farmer, countless other vendors, and our talented crew.
Can you tell me about the wall of menus?
What a fun way to commemorate a meal! Over the years, I have been fortunate to enjoy many meals out and about. As a way to remember the meal and think about it fondly later, I invite anyone who was a part of it to leave their mark on it. As a result, I have collected too many to count, and our designer encouraged me to decorate the wall with some of them.
And the penny floor?
The internet is to blame. A million years ago, I saw a cool post about someone who made a floor of pennies. When I started going down the path to open my own place, I started collecting pennies and writing a blog about the collection and those kind enough to give me theirs. As a result, I amassed tens of thousands of them. When we were remodeling and needed a floor for the room off the garden, it became obvious how I would utilize all 75,000 of them.
It’s your night off. So where do you order takeout from, or where do you go?
Union Saloon is my favorite neighborhood spot that has everything I want. Savory, sweet, cocktails, wine, and more. Homemade and delicious! Delancey is dangerously close to my home, and I make use of that proximity all too often. King Noodle is worth the drive to the ID [Chinatown-International District], and I could eat it weekly without getting tired of it. The shaved beef salad with cilantro, peanuts, and chile oil is life-changing.
Where’s your favorite place to go for a glass (or bottle) of wine these days?
Le Caviste will always be my first choice for everything wine and perfect snacks to accompany!
You’re a total people person and pretty much the city’s most ubiquitous hostess. So tell me about one of your favorite regulars.
That is absolutely impossible. We have such an awesome loyal following that it warms my heart. Repeat clientele is the highest form of flattery. I’ve married some of our dearest regulars tableside. We’ve been privy to surprise engagements. The bottom line is the characteristics that embody our favorite regulars are humor, reciprocity, kindness, and a touch of vulnerability.
Tell me about your favorite dishes coming out of the kitchen right now?
Mac [chef MacGregor Tadie] is so thoughtful with his food choices. These are the epitome of seasonal comfort right now. Some of my favorites now include the chicken liver pâté (sourdough, pickles, and chile paste); the pioppini mushrooms (with spring onion, ginger, and egg yolk); the potato dumplings (with porcini cream, stinging nettles, and wild herbs); and the fried wild rice (with spicy lamb sausage, house labne, and herb salad).
Ditto for your favorite cocktail. B&H has always had such an outstanding cocktail program.
We are so lucky to have Chris [bar manager Chris Engstrum] behind our bar. He’s a staple in our local bar scene and has a delightful classic palate. My favorite at the moment is the Wish You Were Here, made with Tequila, Ancho Reyes liqueur, Lucano amaro, lime, and grapefruit.
The pandemic has been hard on all restaurants. So what’s kept you afloat?
Having a crew I get to show up for and a community to serve. I employed the same grit when opening the restaurant and just kept telling myself, “Get your ducks in a row, and the only option is to get on the other side of this.” I know I worked really hard at making pivots that made sense for our business, and I’m extremely proud of that. But, all the while, I recognize that my college-educated, Caucasian status gave me opportunities that others did not get, and for that, I will always have a pit in my stomach.
Coming out of the past few years and a whole lot of change, what sort of trends do you want to see from the Seattle dining scene?
Taking care of the crew! I love how many establishments have made changes to benefit their team. For example, we have given four-day workweeks to our salaried crew, and 100% paid medical. For the hourly crew, we pay 50% of their medical.
Outdoor dining year around is here to stay! Everywhere else in the world, it’s perfectly acceptable to bundle up and enjoy the elements.
I also love how much attention there is on neighborhood development. I wish it weren’t at the expense of the downtown suffering, but it’s great to have a vibrancy all around us.
How do you find work/life balance?
Can you spell that for me? LOL. I have a wonderful life partner that brings me so much joy that we try to balance our crazy schedules by cooking together, hanging with his awesome kids, and taking day trips — anything but work.
Where do you find inspiration these days?
I’m opening a new space on the Eastside near my childhood home. I’ve been so inspired by doing something different in a totally new area.
Sitting on the Ballard Food Bank Board also has me intrinsically connected to people that are food insecure. I’m trying to be a better community member and help as many people as I can while I’m on this earth.