I Went to the Original Sur La Table—Here's What I Ended Up Learning
Standing smack in the middle of Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, there's almost too much going on—should you check out the fishmongers selling whole fish, snap a picture of Pier 52, or take a whiff of the irresistible flower bouquets? If you're savvy, you walk past everything (even the first-ever Starbucks with its very different logo) and head straight to the corner of Pine Street and Pike Place.
There, you'll find the original Sur La Table.
You'll spot it within a compact bungalow-like storefront, seemingly perched on the sloping hill leading towards the market, among a sea of older, brick-lined buildings. The namesake logo is painted directly on the facade.
Inside, the space is shockingly small. The first Sur La Table I ever wandered into was in on Spring Street in Lower Manhattan (it's since closed), and that store was considerably larger, despite the New York real estate dilemma.
But the original Sur La Table feels comfy, not cramped. There are vast floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with cookware. You can't help roving over the sheer number of tools, and it helps that everything is, well, just beautiful.
The space is divided into sections based on what you're looking for—the knife cabinet takes up an entire wall, for starters. But the team also organizes merchandise into gift-friendly sections and general interests, like a carefully curated wine accessories section pictured below. And yes, there's an entire aisle of Le Creuset.
And it's stayed that way—purposefully alluring and compelling at each tightly stocked nook throughout the store—since it opened in 1972. I wasn't even aware of this until I traveled to Seattle, but Sur La Table is actually relatively new on the national scene when you think about it: The Pike Place location remained a standalone store (just one!) until 1995, for more than twenty years. How did this one store expand into a nationwide presence with 120 plus locations?
Doralece Dullaghan is the director of strategic partnerships at Sur La Table, and she was a manager at the first-ever expansion store in Berkeley, California—she has helped preserve what she calls the "cachet" of the original location.
"Before I was an employee, I was a customer," said Dullaghan, who has worked with Sur La Table in one way or another for 22 years. "Like many others, I made pilgrimages into Seattle, to the Pike Place store, which is now not as jam packed as it used to be. I'd spend a lot—if not all—of my days in that store while my husband worked. I've never forgotten the ambiance."
All these years later, Dullaghan can remember the detail of the wooden floors (which are still there, and have inspired a lot of other locations, too) within the historic building. When Dullaghan first visited the store in 1985, Sur La Table was still owned by Shirley Collins, the founder of the brand who sold it off in 1995.
"People are just enchanted by the Pike Place location… and for good reason. A lot of people who have influenced cooking have touched that store one way or another, like Julia Child, for example," Dullaghan said. "It also has to do with the staff who were there in the first place."
Dullaghan launched her career with Sur La Table in 1995. When a sales associate asked if she needed help, Dullaghan asked for a job. It turned out the associate was responsible for staffing the first expansion, in Berkeley, and Dullaghan got the gig. She's been working for the company ever since.
What's exciting about Sur La Table (and this is true for every location I've ever visited), is that despite the feeling of luxury, each sales associate makes you feel welcome, regardless of your expertise. I grew up with a love for all cuisine and an interest in cooking, but I've never been to culinary school, so I often feel like a novice.
During my visit to Pike Place, I picked up a particularly futuristic-looking, U-shaped metal tool with perforated holes directly punched into it and couldn't for the life of me understand what it was for (to hold chopsticks? To measure pasta?) before one employee read the bewilderment on my face.
"It's for mincing garlic without having to touch it," she said from behind the counter, a few feet away. "Pretty cool, huh?" (It's available here, and yes, it is.)
After spending time in the original Sur La Table, it's easy to see how this location has launched all the others—and how it's still special in it's own right. You won't find a hallmark teaching kitchen within the two-story building, rather just a small nook on the second floor landing where a live demo station once captivated interested passerbys. Dullaghan shared that tiny space later spawned the brand's signature cooking classes that are now infamous in 30 plus states.
"I loved seeing the demo action in the original store, and I can remember when Julia Child did her first demo in that store with a full house," Dullaghan said, having launched Sur La Table's culinary program in San Francisco. "Before we ever added kitchens, that was the forefront. Those demos were happening in a place where foodish things were going on—because of the neighbors in the market, who were looking for new things."
But the kicker is that even here, on my pilgrimage to what feels like a holy land for home cooks, there were some killer sales. What felt like at least half of the store was given over to some impressive deals—40 percent off the entire Jacques Pépin line, $100 off a gorgeous 3-quart red Staub dutch oven, stunning floral china salad plates for under $10,a pair of cheese knives with twig handles that would look trés chic with a wooden cutting board for just $18.
In the end, the first-ever Sur La Table reminded me that there's always more to learn about cooking through the tools we use, and that understanding the craft is a job that's never quite done—sure, some tools are less essential than others (I'm still chopping my garlic with a knife), but wandering the aisles of this store can teach you a lot.
"The funny thing is that I never went into that store as a sales person. But I can that when I visited that store as a customer, as someone who loves cooking, that there's truly an "Oh my god!" effect," Dullaghan said. "There's this sense of discovery waiting in there. Walking from one thing to the next, in and out of all those spaces, to see what's around the next corner. It's a feeling that is just one of the things that we want visitors to have when they walk into our store—and it's the Pike Place location that truly helped me understand how to bring that elsewhere."