Down home Seattle soul lives at Voula’s Offshore Café

When I first came to the Northwest in the ‘70s, after growing up on the East Coast and going to school in California, I noticed that this corner of the U.S. stood out for its great breakfast places. I became familiar with the culinary delights of omelets stuffed with a multitude of ingredients accompanied by piles of hash browns, stacks of toast and coffee cups that never stayed empty for long.

I speculated it was all about the natural resources economy of the region. About the need for a hearty breakfast before going out to run chainsaws, heave fishing nets or herd cattle. All the logger’s and rancher’s breakfasts listed on the menus were a pretty good clue.

It was definitely the case with his place, says Sikey Vlahos, owner of Voula’s Offshore Café, located just off Lake Union at 658 NE Northlake Way.

Voula's entrance

Voula’s entrance

“This place was supported by fishermen and the people who worked on the boats. They needed hearty meals, to escape to a restaurant to get good food.”

The fishing industry is not the force on the lake that it once was and many older landmarks have shut down under pressure from higher rents. But Voula’s continues to attract a steady clientele from local residents, the university and a still active business community on the Lake. In a Seattle that is rapidly gentrifying Voula’s remains a genuine expression of traditional Seattle soul, a down home diner serving ample, tasty breakfasts and lunches in a friendly setting rich with recollections of local history.

Voula's mural

Voula’s mural

There’s the mural that covers the entire east wall of the front dining room. Depicting Portage Bay circa 1957, it was done by an artist named Gene Buck who needed a place to stay. The restaurant, just opened two years as Rose’s, had a room off to the side. So as a trade Buck spent his evenings painting the still bright image centered on University Bridge.

And there’s a piece of the original SLO-MO-SHUN IV hanging on the wall. The history-making hydroplane was built by Anchor Jensen of Jensen Motorboats, still just down the street from Voula’s on Boat Street.

Piece of the demolished SO-MO-SHUN IV

Piece of the demolished SO-MO-SHUN IV

Hydroplane historian Fred Farley tells the story: “In the early hours of June 26, 1950, an event transpired that caught the racing world by surprise. An Unlimited Class hydroplane with the unlikely name of SLO-MO-SHUN IV set a mile straightaway record of 160.323 miles per hour on Lake Washington near Sand Point, which raised the former standard by nearly 19 miles per hour . . . SLO-MO-SHUN IV was not the first Unlimited hydroplane to ‘prop-ride’ on a semi-submerged propeller. But she was the first to reap championship results in the application of the concept . . . For the next twenty years, boats had to pretty much use a SLO-MO-type of design to be competitive.”

The hydroplane broke to pieces in an accident on the Detroit River in 1956. Heartbroken owner Stan Sayres died three weeks later. But the memory of this piece of Seattle heritage lives on as part of a hydroplane display on the rear dining room wall.

One of two paintings by Chihuly

One of two paintings by Chihuly

A catacorner wall reflects another famous Seattle connection with two paintings by Dale Chihuly celebrating Voula’s. Chihuly’s Lake Union glass blowing shop is a nearby neighbor and Chihuly was another Voula’s regular when he lived there in the 1980s.

Voula’s has yet a further claim to fame. In 2007 Guy Fieri of the Food Network made the restaurant one of the original features for his show, “Diner’s Drive-ins and Dives.” The crew came in for a two-day filming session. The Voula’s episode still repeats and has made the restaurant an attraction for tour operators.

“It doubled our business,” Sikey said. “We had to expand.”

Guy Fieri's book features Voula's

Guy Fieri’s book features Voula’s

Despite all the fame and attention Voula’s remains totally down to Earth. It is the good old neighborhood gathering spot with many daily regulars. A bulletin board full of friendly messages, a wall of pictures of customers’ children, even a shelf of toy cars donated by customers – originally for kids to play with, are all evidence of how much a community place this is.

Sikey and his mom, Voula, took over the place in 1984. Then the Offshore Café, they added Voula’s name, and it has stuck ever since. Voula herself is officially retired, but she is often in providing a warm, Greek-style greeting. The other day when I was in for breakfast she led the house in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for a customer.

The entire family migrated from Greece in 1971 when Sikey was 7. Dad worked as a tailor. Voula started working at the Little Cheerful Café, which is now the Portage Bay Café at University Motor Inn. In 1983 the owner sold the Little Cheerful.

“My mom was upset she wasn’t offered it,” Sikey says. “So she started looking for restaurant to buy, and she bought this one.”

Recently Voula’s expanded again. A classic diner where mounds of hashbrowns cook on open flat stoves behind the counter, the café has now added a much larger rear kitchen in a space that was formerly Tony’s Coffee warehouse.

“We have five times the kitchen that we had,” Sikey says.

The menu “all started with the classic American breakfast,” he notes. Creative weekly specials are offered and become regulars if popular enough. As you might expect, there’s a lot of Greek influence in the menu, like one of my favorites, the Freagy Greagy omelet with feta, spinach, Greek sausage and onions. Voula’s does a lot of its own meat and fish smoking. One of their signature dishes, the Pinata Benedict, features their own smoked pork, though I like to switch that out with their smoked salmon.

New buildings are popping up around Voula’s North Lake location. The university is slowly devouring the neighborhood. Will Voula’s survive or be swept up in the development wave as have so many classic Seattle institutions? Fortunately, no.

“We own this place,” Sikey says. “We’re in control of our own destiny. With the huge investment we just did that is not in the foreseeable future. This block is owned by three different families. We are all on the same page.”

What is the toughest part of running Voula’s?   “Working 12 hours a day for 6 days a week. Sometime it’s seven,” Sikey says.

And the best?

“It makes me happy to see people eat a meal and make a comment such as ‘the best thing I’ve ever had’ or ‘that was extremely delicious.’ It gives me great gratification to make people happy.”

The family has indeed made this Lake Union tradition a place of happiness. Next time you’re hankering for a classic Seattle breakfast diner experience try out Voula’s Offshore Café. You’ll be happy you did.