The 400-Day Wonder

Up, up, and away with the Space Needle’s iconic restaurant: It’s all about the view.

STORY BY ANGELA SANDERS

Image courtesy of Space Needle and Rod Mar

First, the obvious: People don’t go to the Space Needle for the food. Critics have described its cuisine with such words as “travesty,” “sorrow,” and even “makes angels cry.” One member of the Needle’s original PR team says, “If I wanted to recommend a good dinner to someone, I’d send them to Canlis.”

That hasn’t stopped diners from flocking to the Space Needle by the thousands to drop big money on a two-top. Over its 56 years, the Needle’s restaurant has hosted everyone from George Burns and Liberace to Dorothy Hamill and Prince Philip and surely holds Seattle’s record for the most marriage proposals per year.

It’s all about the view.

The Space Needle’s restaurant — originally called Eye of the Needle — debuted April 21, 1962, at the Seattle World Fair’s grand opening. Albert Fisher, the World Fair’s television and radio liaison, describes the evening as beginning at the Opera Hall with Van Cliburn performing Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky conducting the Firebird Suite. Celebrants then moved to the Space Needle for a $6.75 dinner of crab legs, prime rib or salmon, ice cream, and a glass of champagne served in a coupe with a Space Needle–shaped stem. (Fisher’s job that night was to accompany Broadway star John Raitt and Raitt’s daughter, 12-year-old Bonnie Raitt.)

Image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives

Western Hotels — now Westin Hotels & Resorts — managed Eye of the Needle. They sent in one of their best men, Hoge Sullivan, to run it, despite his fear of heights. In a nod to the space age, hostesses wore gold lamé jumpsuits, and the cocktail menu featured the “Cloud Buster” (vodka and champagne) and the “Round the World” (fruit juice, brandy, rum, and syrup).

Thanks to a one-horsepower motor, the dining room completed a rotation every 47 minutes, giving diners a view only rivaled by helicopter. A reporter noted that the motion was so smooth, “a martini won’t even ripple.” As diners ate their crab legs, 600 feet above the fair, they took in the Olympic Mountains, downtown Seattle, and a painted sign imploring, “As you sit up there, think of Zip’s 19-cent hamburgers.”

Image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives

In 1979, the Needle’s owners, the Wright family, took over the restaurant’s management and christened the new era with a renovation. Eye of the Needle became, simply, the Space Needle Restaurant. Out went the fiberglass chairs and orange and brown color scheme, and the restaurant was divided into two spaces: a family-friendly, less expensive dining area seating 180 people, and a smaller, gourmet section seating 40, called the Emerald Suite.

The menu, too, was overhauled to focus on local, seasonal products. “At one point in the eighties, the food was actually pretty good,” says Rod Kauffman, longtime Space Needle property manager.

One guest during this era was the King of Tonga, who, at nearly 450 pounds, traveled with his own chair. The chair was so large that the elevator door had to be removed to transport the chair and its occupant, who couldn’t stand during the 48-second ride to the restaurant.

Other guests were less famous, but equally notable. Restaurant staff soon embraced retired school teacher Helen Turner, who took annual two-week vacations to Seattle from her home in Shelbyville, Indiana. Every night during her stay, she dressed up and dined alone at the Space Needle, and soon became “Space Needle royalty,” according to then-elevator operator Bob Witter. Helen even attended Witter’s wedding. (Naturally, Witter proposed at the Space Needle.)

Sylvia Washington, who managed the front of the house from 1990 to 1992, says running a restaurant 600 feet in the air posed particular challenges. “For one thing, the kitchen was tiny.” The half-moon-shaped kitchen was squeezed into the center of the Needle, with a prep kitchen between the restaurant and observation deck. The kitchen not only served the restaurant, but also the bar and snack bar on the observation deck. Refrigerators and freezers were at the Needle’s base, and only a portion of the bar’s liquor was stored at the restaurant level, meaning regular forays down the service elevator.

Image courtesy of Space Needle and Rod Mar

And then there were guests who feared heights. “We usually stuck them at the back at the elevator,” Bob said. “We made sure they sat on the inside tables, not by the windows.”

In 2000, the restaurant changed again, this time to its most recent incarnation, SkyCity. More than a quarter million diners streamed through its doors each year. One hundred and twenty staff served as many as 260 guests nightly, with numbers surging when cruise ships docked and when the weather was clear. The dinner minimum per guest — $5 in 1962 — was now $50, and the menu focused on high-end reliables, including seafood and steaks. A popular dessert, the “Lunar Orbiter,” served up scoops of ice cream in a cloud of dry ice.

Despite the fancy name and new décor, critics still disdained the menu. “The food was good, really,” Sylvia says. “People had high expectations, because of the price.”

“I don’t think the restaurant deserved its bum rap,” Bob says. “It was so expensive that people looked for something to knock it.”

SkyCity closed last spring for renovation, and the restaurant at the Space Needle is undergoing another change — this one, its most major to date. The floor has been replaced by layers of glass, and the restaurant’s interior has been completely gutted to become a wine bar and freshly designed dining room, opening sometime in the new year.

And if the food’s not any better? Well, people don’t come to the Space Needle for the food, anyway.

A Space Needle timeline

1959, The First Design — Edward E. Carlson, a chief organizer of the 1962 World’s Fair, doodles the Space Needle on a napkin

1962, Grand Opening — The Space Needle, and its first restaurant, Eye of the Needle, debut at the Seattle World’s Fair on April 21.

1979, A New Name — Under new management, Eye of the Needle becomes the Space Needle Restaurant.

1993, Two Seattle Icons — Nirvana visits the Space Needle.

1999, Birthday Wishes — On the Space Needle’s 37th birthday, the Landmarks Preservation Board names it an official City of Seattle Landmark.

2000, The 21st Century — Part of a $20 million renovation to the Needle, the restaurant becomes SkyCity.

2017-18, Today and Beyond — The Space Needle undergoes a $100 million renovation—the largest in its history.

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