Wayward Vegan Cafe, Seattle’s Vegan Comfort Food King, Is Closing
After 18 years of setting the bar high for vegan comfort food in Seattle, the University District’s Wayward Vegan Café will be closing for good on August 30, its last day of operation.
The Wayward isn’t the only restaurant in Seattle offering vegan breakfast options. But it’s the only all-vegan, all-day breakfast destination for plant-based American classics like hash, scrambles, chicken fried “steak,” stacks of fluffy pancakes, and cookies and gravy. .
And at its current sunny two-story location on Northeast 65th Street (the owners call it “Wayward 3.0” – a nod to its previous two locations), queues regularly stretched out the door and, pre-COVID weekends, sometimes down the block. A beloved mainstay of Seattle’s plant-based community, the Wayward is a favorite with punks, activists, college students, neighbors, and many people who aren’t even vegan, but love the food.
Since the announcement of the Wayward’s closure, Tami Blanchette, one of the restaurant’s four co-owners, said the outpouring of support from the community has been overwhelming, even from non-vegans. “People say, ‘I’ve been coming here for years with my granddaughter or some other family member because they love it, and I’m not vegan, but I really enjoyed it,’” a- she declared. “You will always like a farmer’s hash. You will always love pancakes. I think we’ve changed the perception of veganism a bit. It doesn’t have to be scary or inaccessible.
Wayward proudly serves up vegan versions of dinner staples like French toast, pairing creative dishes like “Ex-Benedict” and Suns over Seattle (a breakfast sandwich with scrambled tofu, melted vegan cheese and mock ham ) with hot plate combinations and bottomless coffee. It’s not diet food, but it doesn’t have to be: Seattle has no shortage of kale bowls and salads elsewhere.
Wayward never received the national acclaim or fine-dining status of Seattle’s all-vegan Plum Bistro or vegetarian Cafe Flora, but it’s long been a favorite destination for herbivores in the Pacific Northwest across the country and even around the world: an impressive feat for what started as a vegan punk collective in a U-District house. “Realizing that our reputation had spread across the states and even overseas was like we had created something great,” said co-owner Doh Driver.
But the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted that momentum. “Right before the pandemic, we were at our peak,” Blanchette said. “At our very, very high level. Already. All these sales records we had – we were breaking them all the time… When COVID hit, it came to a screeching halt.
Throughout the pandemic, Wayward has operated with reduced hours, a reduced staff and takeout only. Supply chain delays, shortages and rising costs were discouraging, and Tami and her husband Colin, who also worked as general managers, felt the clock ticking. “If we keep signing the leases and the extensions, we’ll be in our 50s,” Blanchette said. “I think now is the time to pull the train off the track for us, to see what else is in the world…it’s just about time.”
Wayward 1.0: Hey Seitan!
Before the Wayward opened, Seattle’s vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the 1990s and 2000s included the Globe, Black Cat, Sunlight Cafe (the city’s oldest vegetarian restaurant), and Café Flora, as well as many vegan options at Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Jamaican restaurants in the international district of Chinatown, Hillman City, and other South End locations.
For northerners, the U-District was a vegan hub. Longtime vegan Thai restaurant Araya’s was a staple, often letting broke students and punks eat leftovers from the lunch buffet in exchange for help with cleanup. The north side of the avenue offered Vegan Pizza Pi and a vegan grocery store, Sidecar for Pigs Peace (later renamed Vegan Haven, now closed). At one time, Hillside Quickies, a Tacoma-based vegan soul food purveyor, had an outpost on Brooklyn Avenue.
Around 1996, George Lytle opened a vegan and mostly organic restaurant called Good Morning Healing Earth in a small house at 901 Northeast 55th Street. Her grandson, Chad Ringo Bucklew, who played in Seattle punk bands Nudes and Lysol and would also later work at Wayward, remembers going to the vegan spot when they were young. “It was painted in tie-dye colors and had a huge mural of Mother Earth,” Bucklew said. “He lived out back with his dog and he always said ‘Hello!’ at any time of the day. Tons of great memories watching him squeeze his own tofu and all that.
When Lytle died in 2003, he left the cafe to his employees, who renamed it Rainy Day Café. The change was short-lived. In 2004, Rainy Day Cafe was sold to a group of vegan punks (like Jarrod Ducat and others) who turned it into a collective, renaming it the Wayward Vegan Café. The vibe was that of a greasy spoon, with lots of nutritional yeast and catastrophic metal coming out of the kitchen. (Hail seitan!) The Wayward was close to home venues and had a zine library and DIY Bike Shack community in the back.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Seattle’s vegan, punk, and activist circles shared strong overlaps. “Myself and a number of others [animal liberation] activists were moving to local venues…and that included lots of punk and hardcore shows,” said Josh Harper, an animal rights activist and former Wayward employee. “The punk kids were ready to at least listen to you [about veganism]. This has definitely led to a large countercultural contingent among the city’s vegans.
Wayward 2.0 and beyond: “Wayward is home”
In 2007, Colin and Tami Blanchette bought Vegan Pizza Pi, and when they learned Wayward was up for sale, they teamed up with Doh Driver and Dennis Buffaloe to buy it 11 months later. (Some members of the Wayward Collective also launched Georgetown’s Squid and Ink, a vegan pub, with Capitol Hill metal bar Highline a direct descendant. After it closed at the start of the pandemic, Highline co-owner Alan Threewit , took over the Georgetown Liquor Corporation in 2020.)
The Blanchettes originally met and became vegans at a Lakewood Denny’s, where they had worked for more than a decade. Each day, the two drove from South Tacoma to Seattle, where they worked at Wayward in the morning and Pizza Pi in the evening. In 2008 they moved the Wayward to 5253 University Way Northeast (Wayward 2.0), within earshot of Pizza Pi and Vegan Haven. “I was just walking around in my apron outside [from place to place]“recalls Blanchette.
Les Blanchettes sold Pizza Pi in 2011 to focus on Wayward, expanding lunch and dinner options to include more sandwiches, burgers and meal platters. In 2015, they moved to Wayward’s current largest two-story space at 801 Northeast 65th Street. Wayward 3.0 moved away from its previous greasy spoon iterations, but the fried seitan, hashes, and bottomless coffee remained the same. There was simply more room to accommodate the growing weekend and weekday brunch crowds.
The upgrade seemed timely at a time when veganism was growing in popularity, especially among climate-conscious consumers. Since the 2010s, fast-casual vegan chains have been popping up in the United States, and plant-based protein and cheese products have grown into a billion-dollar industry. But Seattle’s new and longtime herbivores and omnivores revere Wayward as an old-school classic and a connection to UDistrict history.
“I’ve been going to Wayward since it started as a cozy cabin,” said longtime Wayward customer Tasha Walston. “I could always bring carnivorous friends, and many would end up changing their ideas about vegan food entirely. As it grew…if you ever tried to contact Wayward during the day on the weekend, you know there was always a line at the door.
“My kids grew up in Wayward,” they said. “Waward is home.”
Wayward’s current ownership is poised to end that chapter, but that doesn’t mean Wayward’s legacy as Seattle’s vegan comfort food king is also over. Blanchette said staff are preparing the space for sale as a turnkey restaurant and have already generated considerable interest from potential buyers. Getting out of the Wayward for good is bittersweet, but it could just be the start of a whole new era under new ownership.
“It’s hard to think where we would be without Wayward,” Blanchette said. “It’s like losing a limb. It’s time for us to step down, and hopefully someone else will pick up the slack. Really really. The Wayward is magnificent, and it can go on. It doesn’t have to close.