Our family style feast at the Whistle Stop in downtown Renton almost always begins with a mound of cheese nachos and the requisite accompaniments: hearty corn salsa, guacamole and sour cream.
I tow the sauces to the side to make way for the delivery of Amelia’s favorite chicken wings sans Frank’s hot sauce on the side.
Next in line is my Misty Isle organic beef burger grilled into art deco perfection beside a perky side-salad of superfood greens dressed in a light coat of balsamic-walnut vinegar and polka-dotted with cranberries and gorgonzola cheese.
Fingers fly to the crispy brown sweet potato fries that are a caramelized-orange.
Robin, our server, returns carrying steaming boats of homemade mac and cheese that would give Beechers brand (deemed an Oprah favorite) a delectable run for its money.
Another Ossorio feeding frenzy begins as Paul and I sit back and delight over our chilly-willy Linenkugels as toddler Ty (the non-committal-human-lint-roller) glides through plates—a fry here, a toasted corn chip there. But his real goal is collecting all the little Oreo cookie packets that come with the kids meals.
The art on the wall is local. The atmosphere welcoming and like a familiar child it’s hard to believe that the Whistle Stop is all grown up. March 13 marked the 17th anniversary of the Whistle Stop Ale House in Renton.
Melinda and Jeff Lawrence are the owners of Whistle Stop. They have four kids — their oldest is 11 and the youngest 4. And they have definitely created something special here in Renton. It truly is a neighborhood family pub. That’s what makes us keep coming back for seconds.
But what prompted me to sit down and talk with Jeff the other day was his work on Facebook.
As a “Facebook friend” of the Whistle Stop, I’ve been equal parts intrigued and impressed with Jeff’s promotion of the Whistle Stop and other restaurants in the downtown core.
According to Jeff after meeting Dennis, the owner of the Berliner German gastro pub in Renton, on the eve of its opening night he was struck with inspiration and something he called “the Celestial Body” conception.
“I went home that night after meeting Dennis and built this visual.”
Jeff pointed to his phone and I saw the familiar clustering of Renton restaurant logos.
“We’re all unique. When you look at the Big Dipper in the night sky, you need all seven parts. I don’t want the pressure of being everything to everyone,” Jeff said. “I see downtown Renton as a destination, like Pioneer Square . . . not just one place.”
“Over there you’ve got an Irish bar called A Terrible Beauty! Over there you’ve got a German bar called Berliners! Over there you’ve got the best steak house in the Pacific Northwest . . . Melrose Grill! Over there the Red House that offers the best wines and tapas.” Jeff shouted passionately wearing the boyish expression of one who perpetually views the glass as half full as he pointed to coordinates in the air.
And though we were actually miles from the DTR sitting at a local Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard, I felt like I had a prime seat in Jeff’s vision of the DTR Constellation Observatory.
As a restaurateur and bartender, Jeff loves talking to people.
“2011 has been better than the past three years. More parties, more get-together’s and people sitting together and utilizing the Whistle Stop to touch on ideas.”
“What do you think caused the shift?” I asked.
“Boeing gave the biggest gift I’ve ever seen when they committed to building the 737 MAX in Renton. It was an immediate “ahhhhh” exhaled and people were at peace for the first time in years.”
“So why aren’t we attracting more businesses to the downtown core?”
“Slum landlords.” Jeff said matter-of-factly. “We need to replace these old farts.”
My furious pen stopped.
“I don’t care what you write.” Jeff said. “I just want to speak honestly and clearly about what I feel the truth is. I have ideas — don’t judge the ideas.”
These days voicing an opinion about downtown Renton feels like opening a can of worms. Just the other day I asked a business owner his opinion about the library situation in downtown Renton; his response was, “I wish it would just burn down.”
Of course, nobody wants the library to burn down.
But I think people are tired of the struggle between the idea of progress and “business as usual.”
“Thousands of people drive down Third Avenue and they don’t ever come back because of the slum landlords. The city needs to put pressure and “incentify” these slum landlords who have not updated or taken any pride in their properties. They are taking business away from our downtown.”
“What has been the reaction from the other restaurants about you promoting them on Facebook? Some might think it odd that you are promoting your competition.”
“It’s odd for them, I think,” Jeff said. “But I believe you must give in order to receive.”
“The city of Renton is a prime place. I would love to be known as the “science city” an innovative city of the future . . . with citizens who embrace change and adapt to new technologies and keep moving forward. It’s not out of the realm of possibility if we have the will to do the right thing.”