A trip to the dense jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was the final inspiration for Seattle’s Manolin. Two of the restaurant’s three founders, Rachel Johnson and Joe Sundberg, trekked through thick brush, battled pesky bugs and navigated the terrain without a map to find a popular eatery locals spoke highly of. As they approached the end of the jungle’s treeline they glimpsed a beach, adorned with an outdoor kitchen where wood-fired fish and fresh ceviche greeted them.
“That trip was really the catalyst,” Johnson says. “We knew we wanted to use seafood and have that beachy vibe, and traveling to Mexico really helped us find that inspiration.”
The four-year-old Wallingford neighborhood spot, owned-and-operated by Johnson, Sundberg and third partner Patrick Thalasinos, incorporates the food they fell in love with in Mexico, but combines it with a variety of other influences. Johnson says this was key in making the restaurant its own, and avoiding simply becoming a cevicheria; they didn’t want to feel they were appropriating a culture so inspiring to them.
Dishes such as the grilled black cod and rockfish ceviche evoke those influences, but feature special touches that make each unique to Manolin. The cod is accompanied by celery root, cilantro crema and mole, while the ceviche pairs rockfish with sweet potato, avocado, lime and chili.
“There is nothing on the menu I don’t love,” Johnson admits. “Our menu rotates all the time, we always want to keep food fresh and seasonal.
A veteran of the Seattle culinary scene, Johnson has worked in many restaurants and in various positions. Trying her hand at both back-of-house and front-of-house jobs, it wasn’t until she spent eight years at The Dish in Greenlake, that she realized she too could own her own restauran. Owned by two women, Johnson says The Dish’s leadership treat employees with respect and make their food with care, helping to show her the right way to run a restaurant.
In a field predominantly dominated by male restaurateurs, Johnson says she has noticed an increase of female restaurant owners in Seattle throughout the years. Renee Erickson, of Seattle restaurant group Sea Creatures, being one of the higher-profile success stories, who Johnson worked for at The Whale Wins until opening Manolin in 2014.
Johnson doesn’t do it alone though, stressing the restaurant is a total team effort, noting that both her partners and staff have been invaluable in making Manolin the success it has been.
Working in the industry for so long has helped her narrow down the hiring process, she says, and has allowed them to hire a staff that works well with both the customers and other employees.
“One thing I learned is when hiring to always ask yourself, ‘Would you go out to dinner this person?’” Johnson says. “If you answer ‘yes,’ you better take them into consideration.”
The cocktail program at Manolin is largely inspired by another restaurant Johnson and Sundberg visited on the Yucatan Peninsula, Hartwood, focused on fresh drinks heavy on the fruit juices. The Eldorado is a great example of this, combining pisco, batavia arrack, lemon, lime, pineapple and green tea.
The Yucatan’s role as the muse doesn’t stop at the food or the drink though — Johnson says many people in the Seattle area have told her Manolin can be quite tricky to find. “I guess we carried that part of our Yucatan trip over to the restaurant too,” she laughs. “The hidden nature of the experience.”