Donna Moodie laughs as she tells me how her friend compares their two lives.
“It’s like we’re both at an all-you-can-eat buffet and I’m stuffing myself while she would be happy just having an entrée.”
A fitting metaphor for this restaurant owner, though if she’s stuffing herself on life, she’s also giving out equally ample helpings – of hospitality, friendship, service and love.
Donna’s already full life is hitting the accelerator right now. About a year and a half ago she lost the lease on her wonderful Belltown Restaurant, Marjorie’s. “That was traumatic but I look at it as done, something I can’t change. It marked a point for pivoting forward. I can either sit there and mire in the past or say I’m here so how am I going to do this.”
‘Here” is preparing for opening the new Marjorie’s, this time on the edge of
It was sad seeing the old Marjorie’s go.
I don’t get out much, but Marjorie’s was a place I chose for a long talk with a girlfriend or decompression time with my husband. Stepping into the restaurant from the loud and often wet streets was like walking into grandma’s warm embrace, coming to greet you from the kitchen while wiping floured hands on her apron. Donna was there to welcome you with a warm but not cloying smile as if to say, we’re here to give you what you want but not to mess in your stuff. It was the kind of place where I never felt the need to order but just to wave a hand at the wait staff and say, I don’t know, you pick, knowing whatever came would be wonderful.
So, for the community of diners Donna established during her time in that cozy Belltown corner, rejoice. Marjorie’s rises again.
Much of the old will travel to the new space. “We’ll still have the same level of service – that’s our brand. Personalized, like walking into someone’s home. Clearly, a restaurant involves a business transaction, but it doesn’t have to be uncaring.” Donna sets the service expectations for her staff and acknowledges, “fortunately, in this economy we have the ability to find staff who are better informed and committed to our vision. But if I make a mistake and hire someone who’s not, I don’t hesitate to let them go.”
Also coming to the new restaurant is a similar menu, “eclectic, with quality ingredients, mostly organic. We’ll have a good, modern rendition of things like black eyed peas and pork chop or ham hock and grits; Steak Frites; an Italian pasta dish; or a Moroccan cous-cous.”
Donna holding fresh, organic produce for her restaurant
And finally, making the trek across town will be the name, Marjorie’s.
The restaurants are named for Donna’s mother, who was a very good but “very informally trained cook and gracious hostess. She was a great mentor growing up.”
Donna and her family moved to the south side of
Into this came Marjorie with her penchant for entertaining, and “she would naively invite people to our house from both sides” of the racial Maginot line. And they would come. “Nobody had dinner parties then, but my mother did. I remember looking at this beautiful mix of people. Sometimes there were so many we would be sitting on the floor.”
It’s clear that these images shaped Donna’s development of Marjorie’s, “my first time being out on my own.” Her previous restaurants, Marco’s Supper Club and Lush Life were cooperative endeavors with her ex-husband. The two worked together well but his issues with alcohol began to take over their personal relationship. With the eventual divorce, she took over the Lush Life space, and made changes she had always felt were due. “Marjorie’s defined me as a solo businessperson.”
In addition to her new business identity, Donna had taken on a new personal role as well – that of mother. During a period of separation from her ex-husband, Donna had a relationship with the man who is her son’s father. “Max (her son) helped me open my own eyes.” After he was born Donna squarely faced the reality of her husband’s addiction to alcohol. “For some reason I could compromise my own safety but I couldn’t compromise Max’s.”
“Part of the reason Max and I have such a close relationship is because we went through this hard thing together. Max is great. He’s very intuitive, very observant, perceptive and pretty smart – he’s just a sensitive kid. He loves food; loves eating in restaurants. He’s always suggesting we go here or there. He’ll say, ‘we haven’t been there for a while, haven’t seen our friends.’ He really appreciates the whole experience.”
Donna’s ex-husband is not involved in the parenting equation but his dad is. They’ve got a regular schedule that allows Donna to be in the restaurant during peak hours. “He has Max on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and I have him Sunday through Tuesday and Thursday nights.”
As the top dog at the restaurant, Donna works hard doing a good helping of whatever needs to be done, “except cooking in the kitchen (although I will sometimes bring in something I made at home, or share recipes). I find it really helpful to let people who have worked hard to become chefs feel some sense of authority. I make lots of commentary, but I respect the need to be creative, and feel some freedom -- that isn't to say the next chef doesn't have to make plantains.” There are some bottom lines.
The other thing that came with being on her own was Donna’s reflection on community. “I started looking into different community activities I could get involved in. Part of it was setting a good example for Max. Helping him understand that it’s a responsibility to being part of a community.”
She pushed to get appointed to the Mayor’s Century 21 Committee, working to create the new long-term Master Plan for
And through one of her patrons she learned of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas (www.cdforum.org). She offered to host a fundraising party for them “which still to this day is one of the most remarkable parties I’ve ever attended or hosted in Seattle – it was definitely the most diverse group of people I’ve ever had in my dining room.”
Mama Marjorie, who passed away before seeing the restaurants named for her, would be smiling.
Today, Donna serves on the Board of the Forum and is a huge booster of their work to present and produce Black cultural programs that encourage thought and debate for the greater
And her interest in people’s relation to space affects the sensitivity she brings to the design of her new restaurant. “It will be warm like the old space – I can’t do cold. But it’s smaller. We have our eye on every inch to make sure it works well.”
Living small is something Donna has become adept at. “Mid-way through Marjorie’s I sold my house. Max and I have been living in really small environments for the last two and a half years. I’m intrigued by American’s desire for such large amounts of space, which then seems to drive this need to fill it.” Instead, Donna prefers the idea “that small can be creative. It makes you look at what you have and ask yourself, do I really need this? I’m always thinking about things like that.”
Living small physically, but living large in every other way. Loading her plate at the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet of life.
Look for the opening of the new Marjorie’s at 14th and
Unionsometime this spring. Stop by for a meal and let her know you read about her at “How Does She Do It?” And check out the upcoming “Food as Art” – a fundraiser for the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas April 10, 2010 at the Bell Harbor International Promenade. Information at www.cdforum.org
Donna’s (not so) secrets for how she does it:
- Donna works hard all week, “but I take breaks for yoga, lunch, time with Max, etc. I try to have one complete day off each week, and start each day with a moment just for me. I love the idea of working hard to play hard (great vacations, great dinners, supporting the arts, when something strikes my fancy). And I am completely committed to exposing Max to as much of art and life that I am able to.”
- Donna has a group of African American women friends with whom she enjoys an indulgent dinner once a month. Their fellowship supports and adds richness to her life.
What books has Donna read recently?
- Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
- The Mysterious Benedict Society Series (aloud with son Max) by Trenton Lee Stewart
- Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler
Whom does Donna want me to interview next?
- Stephanie Ellis Smith, the Founder of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas "for being the inspiration to me for finding a way to balance community service into my schedule."