‘Brutalist Ryokan Meets Coastal Dive Bar’: James Beard Winner Takes Seattle’s Tomo over the Top
Chef Brady Ishiwata Williams pays tribute to his Japanese grandmother at Seattle restaurant Tomo, where all things plant, piscine, and Pacific Northwest shine.
Chef Brady Ishiwata Williams pulls up outside his Seattle restaurant Tomo in a white Toyota Land Cruiser and something is off. Despite the fact that nobody’s in the driver’s seat, the vehicle manages to deftly park itself. Then Williams gets out, and there’s the steering wheel plain as day. On the wrong side.
Williams explains it’s a vintage import manufactured for the Japanese market where passenger and driver positions are flipped. Tricked out with an exhaust snorkel and gleaming chrome badging, the Cruiser is not only way cooler than your run-of-the-mill SUV, it turns out it’s cheaper, too. It’s the kind of considered decision—equal parts practical and delightful—that has gone into so many aspects of Tomo.
Williams took over the space in Seattle’s White Center neighborhood at the depths of the pandemic, with no small amount of hope and the dream of finally having his own place after years of accolades. Williams is one of the most decorated chefs in the Pacific Northwest, with two James Beard awards under his belt—one for Rising Star Chef and the other for the coveted Best Chef: Northwest, both of which he earned as chef at the 70-year-old Seattle fine-dining institution Canlis.
When we visit Tomo to photograph this story, the restaurant is still under construction.(It’s open now, though.) Located between a pizza joint and an adult video store, it’s a narrow but elegant space that Williams describes as “brutalist ryokan meets coastal dive bar” and a far cry from Canlis, with its white tablecloths and views of Lake Union. At Tomo there are ebonized wood walls, sleek banquettes, a black steel bar, and a patio in the back with the air of a beer garden.
The name Tomo is an homage to Williams’ grandmother, Tomoko Ishiwata Bristol, but it’s also slang for pal or friend in Japanese. “When we were developing the restaurant we asked ourselves, what does it really mean to be a friend?” Williams says.
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He lists the ways: to support each other, your neighbors, the earth, yourself, your friends. When they were building the restaurant, a gay bar up the street was arsonized and the Tomo team cooked wagyu-chile topped hot dogs for a block party fundraiser. He kept the creative team close, enlisting White Center-based ceramicist Akiko Graham to design the dishware, and friends at Graypants studio to design the space.
The wine list leans toward lighter-bodied, reasonably priced, small production wines made with regenerative farming practices. Local farmers provide produce that shows up in dishes combining Japanese inflections from Williams and pan-Latin influences from chef de cuisine Diana Mata García. You’ll find hyper-local seafood and heirloom vegetables prepared with, say, Oaxacan chilhuacle chiles or yuzu kosho, and arepas alongside beef tataki with miso broth.
On our visit, Tomo is still strewn with power tools, the furniture is in storage, and the lights aren’t quite working yet. The one bright pop of color is perched on the bar top: a gold and red Japanese maneki-neko cat statue, said to bring good luck to its owner. And today we have no reason to challenge that belief: When Tomo opened its reservation system, within seven minutes it had booked out for a month. It’s been that way ever since.
To bring you a taste of Tomo, Williams, García, and team share a few simple dishes that channel its flavors and feeling. Some require a bit of chef-y attention and skill, but the pro takeaways are surprising and satisfying and can be incorporated into your culinary repertoire.
First, the Cocktails:
This pink and frothy drink gets its richness from egg whites and its fruit flavor from tayberries, a hybrid of blackberry and red raspberry.
If you can’t find tayberries, substitute a blend of blackberries and raspberries.
This gorgeous green cocktail is on the savory side of the mixology spectrum. The restaurant trick here is using a Smoking Gun to flavor the thyme oil. The Smoking Gun is a chef’s tool that adds smoky flavor to food and drinks in seconds. You simply load it with proprietary wood chips and “shoot” the smoke onto the surface of ingredients. Oil is particularly good for cold smoking, as the smoke binds with the fat molecules.