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Donny’s Place brings fine dining to Hillyard

Fri., Oct. 11, 2013

Donny Hart, center, and his father Daniel Hart serve patrons at Donny’s Place in Hillyard. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Donny Hart, center, and his father Daniel Hart serve patrons at Donny’s Place in Hillyard. (Tyler Tjomsland)

‘The Escoffier” sits front and center, occupying a place of honor above the copper-plated bar.

“That’s the bible,” Daniel “Pops” Hart said of the classic cookbook, which contains 2,973 recipes by the father of modern French cooking.

Auguste Escoffier updated and simplified haute cuisine more than 100 years ago. Today – across an ocean, century and continent – “He’s the inspiration.”

The local chef and his son are hoping to make their own culinary mark in a north Spokane neighborhood known for its grit. They’ve opened an upscale eatery in an unlikely place: the corner of Crestline Street and Diamond Avenue in Hillyard.

Named for the younger Hart, Donny’s Place aims to provide intimate, elegant and affordable fine dining – think white table linens and reservations – to a part of town that might be unused to – or surprised by – the idea.

“At first, I was wondering what our customer base would be: Would Hillyard really get it?” said Daniel Hart, 58.

Since its soft launch six months ago, the bistro and wine bar is becoming more known through word of mouth. It gets some help from its Facebook page, where guests write comments like “Your food is incredible.”

The cozy restaurant has developed a small, but loyal following. Still, there are some nights – Donny’s Place only opens for dinner – when there are no customers.

The father-son team wonders whether that’s because the undertaking is new or too novel, too risky. They’re experimenting. And they’re optimistic.

“Hillyard is on a turnaround,” Daniel Hart said. “We want to contribute to that turnaround.”

The neighborhood is rooted in the legacy of the Great Northern Railway and a long-standing reputation for toughness. Its early residents, many of them immigrants, worked on the railroad.

Though the train yards have long since shut down, the neighborhood continues to attract immigrants. And, despite efforts to revitalize Hillyard, it remains one of the poorest – and most proud – working-class sections of the city.

The square, one-story, butter-colored building that houses the Harts’ bistro has been a fixture in the community since the 1940s, when it contained a dry-cleaning business. Since then, it’s hosted everything from a hamburger joint and hair salon to espresso shop.

There are bars on its windows.

“The area is not the best,” said 42-year-old Sherrie Morgan, who’s eaten at Donny’s Place twice since moving to Hillyard at the beginning of the summer. “I would never have expected what you see in here. The outside doesn’t do justice to what’s inside. It’s just really good food.”

Donny’s Place specializes in artisan Italian fare, like Naples-style pizza made from imported flour, porcini ravioli and chicken piccata.

Standalone entrées cost $15. Four-course dinners are $20.

Specialty dishes – stuffed calamari, pork or veal osso buco, lobster ravioli, cioppino, oysters Florentine, chateaubriand – require 24 hours’ notice and cost an additional $10. (The chateaubriand serves two and is an extra $20.)

“Fine dining shouldn’t mean spending $500 … and ordering Domino’s at home because you’re still hungry,” Donny Hart said.

The idea at Donny’s Place is to keep prices moderate and portions generous – and dress for dinner. There is a dress code at Donny’s Place. Hoodies aren’t allowed here. No sweatpants, either.

Donny Hart wears a tux. The 24-year-old host, bartender and waiter is the namesake and face of Donny’s Place. He mans the front of the house.

He’s also a neighbor. The 2008 Riverside High School graduate lives nearby.

His father lives on 5 acres in Chattaroy, where the pair grow herbs and vegetables for the restaurant. Daniel Hart is the chef, but don’t expect him to stay in the kitchen. The gregarious older Hart enjoys mingling with guests in the sage-colored dining room.

The capacity is 28 – there are seven or eight tables and a bar with three stools – but the Harts typically won’t allow in more than 10 or 12 at a time.

“I don’t want people to feel crowded or cramped,” Daniel Hart said. “I want to give them personal attention. I want them to sit down and feel like they are in Sienna or maybe Madrid.”

His travels through Europe influence his dishes, along with the cooking of his late grandmother, an immigrant from Slovakia, and – of course – the famed “Escoffier.”

Rebecca Chateaubriand was skeptical at first. The well-traveled 55-year-old Spokane Valley resident and vice president of Air Control Heating & Air Conditioning heard about the bistro from a friend who texted her late one night to tell her, “You’ve got to try this place.”

“The first time we drove up I was sitting there thinking, ‘Is this it? Are you sure? Let’s check the address,’ ” she said.

Since then, she’s dined at Donny’s Place about a half-dozen times and even bought out the place in August for her husband’s birthday.

“It’s one of those little hidden gems,” Chateaubriand said. “You’re not just a number. They get to know you if you’re there the first time, and you’re made to feel so welcome.”

The idea is the younger Hart will eventually run the restaurant, and his father will retire. Meantime, they spend a lot of time together.

“It can be frustrating to work with my dad all the time, but I don’t think any other employer-employee relationship would be any less aggravating,” Donny Hart said. “It’s nice to know you are working with someone who really has your best interests in mind and will be there for you no matter what.” 

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