Go Eat! Seizing an opportunity

Go Eat! Seizing an opportunity
It's a career that seems to have chosen Holly Smith.

The talented chef and owner of Cafe Juanita has been drawn to restaurants since she was a child growing up in Maryland.

"Where I got to go for my birthday when I was seven was huge to me, and I picked a really nice fine-dining restaurant -- the best that I knew of at that age," says Holly, who years later would take odd restaurant jobs to pay her way through college.

"I like the chaos of restaurants; I like the buzz and the hum; and I like being around people. I genuinely like being in the service industry."

After moving to Seattle in 1993, Holly worked at a string of esteemed restaurants, including Place Pigalle, Dahlia Lounge and Brasa.

"I was there for a year and then this opportunity just happened."

That opportunity was the sale of Cafe Juanita -- a two-story-rambler-turned rustic Italian, fine-dining joint that the owners were getting rid of after 20 years. Holly kept the name.

"I kept the name hoping someone would show up because I had always been behind people, but nobody knew who I was. And I wish I had changed the name a little bit, because it would have been fun."

What's ironic, is that in between her time at the Dahlia Lounge and Brasa, Holly was writing a business plan and turning out Italian menus, not knowing Cafe Juanita would soon be on the market.

"So, it was just the oddest thing that of all businesses to be for sale at that time (2000) was a restaurant that was known as an Italian restaurant."

Holly quickly gave the place a much-needed facelift and tried to create a more relaxed vibe.

"You should be able to wear what you want to wear and order what you want to order without the fear of being judged. That's the kind of restaurant I want to have."

Regardless, she still can't seem to shake the "fine dining" rep.

"I mean, yeah, we're expensive, but I just went to X restaurant and they had the feel of being more casual, but I spent as much, if not more, that I'd spend here and my portions were smaller. So, I would really like people to see the value that we give them because we do put the money on the plate."

And what's on those plates consists of mostly local ingredients filtered through a Northern Italian eye.

"The cool thing is to go to Italy and go, 'Oh yeah. That's almost exactly what we did with octopus three weeks ago.'"

Holly just celebrated the 8th anniversary of her restaurant.

"There's days where I'm sure that it's the most foolish endeavor, but I'm hooked."

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