Union Stables Building Connects the Past and the Future for the New El Gaucho Flagship in Seattle
“And as night fell, you’d see them together again in the kitchen, with the fire well alight and a hundred things to talk over – they’d be happy, chatting together till after the evening meal. And with your belly well filled it was a fine thing to go to sleep the way things should be, in the arms of love – and so to next day, to begin the work from the day before.” From El Gaucho Martín Fierro.
This stanza from the 1872 epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández describes the glory days of the Gaucho way of life and perfectly captures the spirit of the Pacific Northwest’s steakhouse legacy, as a new era begins at El Gaucho Seattle.
The legendary Argentinian Gauchos were known as skilled horsemen and believed that “a man without a horse was a man without legs,” so it is fitting that that the new El Gaucho home is the historic Union Stables building which once housed 300 horses used for pulling Seattle’s streetcars and fire engines. Built in 1910 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was considered the most modern building of its kind west of the Mississippi. It got new life after an award-winning 2015 LEED Gold certified renovation and historical preservation which retained many of its unique features. The weight-bearing wood beams were reinforced but retain the markings from horses brushing against and nibbling the wood, and original brick walls were exposed to capture the look of an earlier era.
Mike Skidmore and Allison Schmid, of Seattle-based architecture and design firm Skidmore Janette, say that honoring history was a fundamental creative force behind the design of the new El Gaucho flagship. The traditions and treasures of the two prior locations, the legend of the namesake South American cowboy, and the unique original features of the building itself, each played a role in bringing the space to life. When asked for his first impression of the new space, Skidmore replied “History! Stunning timbers, expansive space, beautiful exposed brickwork, and the wood ceilings and columns were incredible. We knew immediately we wanted to preserve as much as possible.”
What Defines Gaucho 3.0?
CEO Chad Mackay gave the design team two main objectives in creating what he calls “Gaucho 3.0” to mark the restaurant’s third home and future direction. For the guest experience, Mackay wanted to ensure that the space was recognizable and familiar but with a fresh perspective. Secondly, he wanted to refine the working engine of the Gaucho kitchen. To that end, architects spent hours with the culinary team to ensure that every element was perfectly positioned and served a specific purpose. As a landmark building, they were limited in the ability to impact the exterior. Because each Gaucho kitchen includes a live fire grill which must exhaust to the outside, they ensured early in the process that they could get the kitchen to work before lifting a finger towards the design and layout of the restaurant space.
Once the kitchen plans were set, Skidmore and Schmid turned their focus to working with Mackay to discern what defines El Gaucho and how to bring that to life. Skidmore says, “El Gaucho is known for its comfortable elegance, beautiful finishes, intimate lighting, and tableside service so we wanted to retain that atmosphere, while embracing and celebrating the history and rusticity of the new space.”
In order to accomplish this intentionally subtle juxtaposition of blending the new and old, all new finishes are clean, refined and meticulously selected to contrast and highlight the history and rusticity to make the restaurant feel like it has always been there. The space incorporates many of the red, blue, and yellow hues and patterns derived from the traditional outfits worn by the Gauchos. Other familiar touches include the curved upholstered bar, grand piano, large triangular booths, wide aisles to accommodate the signature tableside service carts, an open kitchen, and beautiful wine displays.
When asked to describe some of his favorite new elements of the design, Skidmore says that introducing a dramatic and welcoming fire table just outside the bar will greet guests and invite them to enjoy a cocktail, conversation and a bit of warmth as they settle in for memorable dining experience. “The glow of the fire had to be central and visible once you entered the space and from the street outside. It creates an impactful first impression and can be seen and enjoyed throughout the restaurant.” They also created four private dining rooms surrounding the main dining room, including the unique and intimate private tasting room adjacent to the kitchen which features views of the live fire grill and into the cold storage area where the famous steaks await their turn on the grill.
An Unexpected Treasure Connects the Past and Future
One of the most magical elements in the new space was the discovery of one of the intricately carved wood and antique glass front doors from the original El Gaucho location at 7th and Olive (1953-1985.) About five years ago, Chad Mackay received a call from a guest who had found one of the original doors in her father’s storage location. No one knows how it got there or where the other door might be, but Mackay was delighted and waited for the just the right moment to figure out how best to use it and surprise his father, El Gaucho founder Paul Mackay. The door is a beloved part of the new space, serving as the entry to one of four private dining rooms and with the carved “El Gaucho” on one side and “Adios, amigos” on the reverse. In addition, the iconic original oil paintings by Seattle artist Nina Mikahailenko will grace the walls of the new location with their colorful depictions of the Argentinean pampas and legendary individuals from El Gaucho’s past.
The new El Gaucho location was thoughtfully and intentionally designed to honor the warmth and camaraderie shared by the Gauchos on the Pampas, as well as the decades of reveling and celebrating life with our community, team and guests. We invite you to join us when El Gaucho Seattle opens its doors this fall.