Detail from a rendering by SKL Architects showing the proposed meeting space interior of the former Eastern Cafe space. Image from the International Special Review District.

After more than ten years, the lettering announcing Eastern Cafe to visitors will be gone. The cafe closed for a final time in September 2023.

In its place: office space for Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects (SKL Architects), and a free community gathering space and gallery on the ground floor.

Putting down roots in the CID seemed like a perfect choice for SKL, said Gladys Ly-Au Young, one of the firm’s partners, during an April 23 meeting of the International Special Review District (ISRD) Board. 

SKL’s past and present projects include many in and around the CID, such as renovation of the East Kong Yick building for the Wing Luke Museum, Hing Hay Coworks, the Station Space arts hub in King Street Station, the Wing Luke Museum’s Eng Family Homestead, the Friends of Little Saigon Landmark Project, and the Chief Seattle Club’s Salmonberry Loft. 

Office space is not preferred for that part of King Street under the land use code, which favors pedestrian-friendly retail space. But the ISRD Board approved the change of use from cafe to office space and commended SKL for adding the community space, which they hope will activate the street.

Ly-Au Young said a space for community organizations to meet made sense given that SKL, like many hybrid post-pandemic workplaces, isn’t always using its physical office. 

The old Eastern Cafe counter will stay, allowing community events to have a space for food and drink, Ly-Au Young said. The ground floor will store some architectural books and samples, and upstairs will provide space for staff work stations.

The space is scheduled to open in June.

Eastern Cafe’s struggle and legacy

Eastern Cafe was opened in 2013 by I-Miun Liu, who also founded Oasis Tea Zone, owned the former Dynasty Room cocktail lounge in the Four Seas Building, and the former East Trading Company on Pike and Pine.

Eastern Cafe closed during the pandemic in 2020 and had a short-lived re-opening in 2022 before closing for good in September 2023. 

The pandemic took a toll on Eastern’s business that never really bounced back, Liu said. 

Liu was optimistic about the 2022 re-opening at first. “I really had a passion for that cafe,” he said. “It became a real community hub and so I wanted to keep it going.”

He tried to plan for the fact that there would be fewer customers after Covid, with many city and nonprofit workers working remotely. 

The exterior of the empty Eastern Cafe in April. Photo by Chetanya Robinson.

But the reopening was like starting over again. The old regulars weren’t around, and foot traffic was down. Liu tried re-tooling the menu and opening a third time. But ultimately, back rent and utilities piled up, and business didn’t pick up enough. Finally, construction outside the building, with parking spots taken up and scaffolding covering the front, was the cafe’s death knell.

“I finally decided to just throw in the towel. It wasn’t gonna work out financially, we were just getting in a big hole.”

For a time, Eastern was one of the few sit-down cafes in the neighborhood aside from the cafe at the Panama Hotel, Liu said – but now there are other options like Hood Famous, Hello Em, and Phin.

“It’s good to see that there are still options for the community for those type of spaces,” Liu said. “I’d like to see the neighborhood come back to what it was where people knew each other, they would run into each other in the cafes, have conversations and help each other out. But I’m not really sure how long that might take to get back to those levels.”

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