When Primo Grill opened in 1999 off Sixth Avenue, it was just ahead of a period of openings that turned Sixth into Tacoma’s destination for dining and nightlife. If you call Primo Grill anything, it should be the patriarch of Sixth Avenue. That makes husband-wife owners Charlie McManus and Jacqueline Plattner the parental unit of that neighborhood. Their broadly interpreted Mediterranean restaurant – home to a display kitchen and fruitwood-fired oven and grill – is a mature eatery nestled in a newish eating district big on dining choices and frenetic nightlife, but light on restaurants that appeal to the wine-and-dine-me crowd the way Primo Grill does.
In 1999, Tacoma was hungry for chef-owned restaurants, and Charlie McManus was ready to go rogue after his tenure at Tacoma’s former Sheraton Hotel working as a corporate hotel chef (first at Altezzo, then in a broader role at the hotel; he was a chef in Seattle before that at Il Bistro and Ponti Seafood Grill). If McManus was going to make the move to chef-owner, it would mean longer hours, and that drove Plattner’s decision to leave her career working with the developmentally disabled and make Primo Grill her primary job, working alongside McManus managing restaurant operations. At the time, they researched University Place, Stadium, Proctor – none felt right. Sixth Avenue was a busy road that funneled drivers on a route toward the Narrows Bridge, so it had good potential and McManus liked that the road was well traveled. They had watched as Metropolitan Market (then called Queen Anne Thriftway) opened in nearby Proctor and it drew just the right audience they were hoping to attract from the North End. But back then, Sixth was a neighborhood home to a tiny trove of restaurants, among them the long-gone Lorenzo’s and Engine House No 9, a brewery-restaurant now owned by the group that operates Asado and Masa, the two restaurants that helped Primo Grill cement Sixth as the destination neighborhood for dining that it is today.
While Primo Grill really does feel like a destination restaurant, it still carries the bid of a neighborhood eatery. It’s sophisticated, yet doesn’t feel stuffy. It’s a restaurant where you’re likely to see regulars greeted with familiarity. Diners are older than those visiting sister establishment Crown Bar, the nearby pub that McManus and Plattner opened in 2007. Like Gordon Naccarato’s Pacific Grill in downtown Tacoma, Primo Grill draws diners as much for its food as it does for its service and atmosphere. The 85-seat dining room appeals with vibrant washes of color from a changing display of artwork – Lakewood artist Susan Russell Hall’s work is on view now – and splashy tabletops painted by art students from Tacoma Community College, which has benefited from a decade-long scholarship partnership with the restaurant.
During my four anonymous visits over six months, servers were among the most assured I’ve seen in Tacoma. Like the wine-centric Brix 25 in Gig Harbor, servers at Primo Grill carried the rhythm of staffers schooled in wine chatter that will resonate with food-focused diners as much as oenophiles conversant in wine vernacular. In a phone interview, McManus and Plattner described an encyclopedic wine training program, and a monthly staff meeting where local distributors or winery reps lecture.
The cuisine might remind you of something out of San Francisco’s North Beach, a neighborhood nationally known for its Italian eateries. That Italian style of dining with an American sensibility was what McManus absorbed while visiting the San Francisco headquarters for Sheraton’s corporate parent. But don’t think of Primo Grill as simply an Italian restaurant. Its menu represents a broad swipe of the Mediterranean: Lebanese, Moroccan and Spanish dishes appear on a menu that changes occasionally.
Primo is one of few restaurants in town that has long sought local purveyors for produce, fish and meat. While restaurants such as Marrow and Green.House once touted and then retracted a focus on cooking local, McManus is the chef who has been the most consistent in that trendy mantra. Tacoma farmer Cheryl Oullette, whom locals might know better as Cheryl The Pig Lady, supplies McManus with a pig about one Friday a month, which McManus cooks overnight in his wood-fired oven and offers as specials all weekend. He buys produce from farmers Terry Carkner of Terry’s Berries and Tahoma Farms’ Dan Hulse, who worked at Primo while he was in college. Mussels come from Kamilche Farms near Shelton. Chicken comes from Mad Hatcher Farms in Ephrata. McManus and Plattner are more microlocal than anyone I’ve written about – they have a certified backyard habitat where they raise bees that produced honey used in Crown Bar cocktails last summer.
In Primo’s kitchen, McManus produces minimally fussy food tinged with the sweet smoke of fruit wood (mostly apple, some cherry and pear). That wood fuels an oven and grill that are showpieces in a display kitchen that provides theater for the entire dining room. It’s on view from every table, but seating is available right at the kitchen bar.
From that grill, the surf-and-turf menu tasted pleasingly flame licked. The fire-grilled shrimp ($22.50) snapped; a bed of spinach-threaded risotto tasted earthy-creamy with more smokiness from heat-blasted cherry tomatoes. A medium-rare New York strip ($35.95) carried a steakhouse treatment of a butter bath, a slight tip to the Mediterranean with a parmesan-garlic topper. Potato gratin and broccoli completed that steakhouse feel. Seared Alaskan Sea Scallops ($25.50) steered the menu Northwest; the creamy, sweet scallops were paired with a buttery citrus-tarragon beurre blanc.
The appetizer and happy hour menus feature a broader Mediterranean palate. The Eastern Mediterranean popped onto the menu with smoky Lebanese eggplant ($5, happy hour) with a creamy tang of yogurt flavored with mint and lemon. McManus dipped into Morocco with an appetizer of grilled shrimp ($5, happy hour) supported by a Moroccan pepper puree with preserved lemon. McManus occasionally merges the Northwest with flavors farther abroad. Kamilche farms mussels ($5 happy hour, $12.50 appetizer) came with a cream Thai-style curry sauce.
Primo’s pizza is the finest of its style in town: A trip into the wood oven blisters the thin crust. McManus starts his dough from a biga, an Italian version of a French poolish that is a slurry of flour, water, salt and yeast – something like a sourdough yeast starter that’s fed and fermented until it imparts a tangy complexity to the crust. While McManus said mushroom ($14.25) is the most popular pie, I crave the sausage ($13.95), made with fennel-flecked crumbled sausage and a restrained smear of tomato sauce (over-sauced pizzas are a peeve – this one was just right; and there was no pizza flop). A fig and prosciutto pie ($14.95) will appeal to a mature palate, the rosemary possibly overwhelming for some.
Pasta makes up a third of the menu. The mushroom lasagna ($15.50) layers roasted mushrooms between squares of pasta that looked as if they were approaching burned, but tasted nothing like that, a trick of that fabulous wood oven. Housemade pumpkin ravioli ($14.95, no longer on the menu) was served with an assertive sage butter sauce that tamed the pumpkin’s sweetness. Bolognese sauce ($14.50) was thick and chunky, richly clinging to spaghetti.
Save room for dessert. Try the chewy hazelnut brownie topped with Olympic Mountain vanilla ($7.50), or the sticky toffee pudding ($7.95). The lemon cream tart with raspberry coulis ($7.50) made me wistful for the warm summer visit when I first tried it. Lucky for you, it’s still on the menu.
READ MORE: An interview with McManus and Plattner giving a deeper look at Primo Grill can be found here.
Where: 601 S. Pine St., Tacoma; 253-383-7000, primogrilltacoma.com
Hours: Serving happy hour beginning at 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, open for dinner daily. Closed for lunch.
Noise: Comfortable at half capacity, distracting at full capacity.
Children: Welcomed. Small children’s menu, elevated young palates will find plenty.
Vegetarian menu: Plenty to please a vegetarian. Look to appetizers, pasta and pizza.
Wine list and spirits: Heavy on Washington wines. A list of nine wines by the glass, equally split between whites and reds ($7-$10). For by-the-bottle choices, the selection skewed in favor of reds with 42 reds to 13 whites ($31-$89). Every Wednesday is half-price bottle day. Top-shelf spirits in the bar, the barkeeps nailed every cocktail thrown their way, even tricky ones.
Extras: About 20 cooking classes a year. The $5 menu is one of the best happy hour deals on Sixth Avenue.
Prices: Spendy, but not outrageous. A flexible menu means diners can spend as little as $13.95 for a pizza or $15 for pasta. Seafood is in the low $20s, and big-ticket steaks run around $30.
Also try: Crown Bar, Primo’s sibling pub and eatery with a menu of some of the best burgers on Sixth. Prices $10-$15. 2705 Sixth Ave, Tacoma; 253-272-4177, crownbartacoma.com
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.