1997 Herbfarm Restaurant Fire
Wednesday, January 8, 1997
Section: News, Page: B1

Northwest epicures started to get the bad news yesterday. Their reservations at The Herbfarm have vanished along with the four-star restaurant.

A fire Monday night started in a corner containing electrical appliances and gutted the restaurant after firefighters found that a nearby hydrant had been turned off. One valuable that firefighters managed to save was The Herbfarm's reservations book.

After telephone service returned to the farm and its gift shop, prospective diners were alerted. ``We have people who have reservations who are just going to be heartbroken," said Carrie Van Dyck, one of the restaurant's owners.

Customers, however, will not suffer nearly the heartbreak of Van Dyck, husband Ron Zimmerman or his parents, Bill and Lola Zimmerman, who started it all in 1973 by buying an old dairy farm to grow herbs.

Nor will diners feel quite like chef Jerry Traunfeld did yesterday near what remained of his kitchen. Suddenly, he had more time than he ever imagined to produce The Herbfarm cookbook due at the end of the year.

``It's been my whole life for the last seven years. It's just starting to sink in," Traunfeld said of the restaurant. ``This is something you can't replace."

Still, Van Dyck and the Zimmermans will try to re-create the little restaurant that left critics so agog. ``At this point, it's our intention to rebuild," Ron Zimmerman said.

But he is worried about whether insurance will be sufficient to cover rebuilding costs. More vexing, he said, might be the permitting process for building a new restaurant.

In the 11 years since the restaurant opened, the neighborhood and its zoning have changed. Zimmerman said he wasn't sure how a rebuilt restaurant on property that also includes an herb farm and gift shop would fit into the county's zoning.

The fire was the culmination of a rough couple of weeks for the restaurant and surrounding farm. Snow caused a greenhouse roof to collapse, and a basement on the property flooded, Zimmerman said.

The fire, which investigators believe had an electrical origin in a corner that contained a coffee maker, refrigerator and ice maker, tripped a burglar alarm at 8:31 p.m. King County Fire District 27 got the call five minutes later.

Firefighters were having a meeting, so nearly every hand was available, said Chris Connor, a fire district spokesman.

It took three minutes for firefighters to arrive. A fire hydrant is across the street from the restaurant at 328th Way Southeast and Southeast Issaquah-Fall City Road.

But the Fall City Water District had earlier turned the water off, Connor said. The water district would say nothing about the hydrant yesterday.

``We expect hydrants to work. When they don't work, it's a surprise," the fire district's Connor said.

Zimmerman said it took 10 to 15 minutes before the water district turned the hydrant on. In the meantime, firefighters used water from a tanker truck.

It would be difficult to say whether the restaurant could have been saved had the hydrant been turned on, Connor said.

Yesterday, the burned building looked little like a place where one could spend a family's food budget in one night.

But it had been.

Dinners were nine-course, six-wine, five-hour affairs. Prices ranged from $129 to $150 for each diner. Food writers and diners who could pay the tab raved about the rustic place in the middle of fields of basil, chives and other herbs.

A food critic with Gourmet magazine wrote about the restaurant in a May 1995 review, concluding, ``It was a superb meal - a fine example of regional American cooking's coming of age - and, as I left and looked out at the fragrant forest all around, my pleasure was complete."

Seattle food consultant Jon Rowley yesterday called The Herbfarm ``a benchmark expression of the best of Northwest cooking, in terms of a very high understanding of local ingredients and seasonality."

P-I food writer Gregory Roberts contributed to this report.