Alcoholism isn’t a topic that restaurateurs have historically acknowledged, let alone shared openly with their customers, which makes the environment the duo has cultivated all the more impactful. Though Nichols’ food has been getting recognition – he was a semi-finalist for Best Chef Northwest and Pacific in this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards – his openness about his personal journey has made his restaurant more than just a place to eat. It has become a safe space for those looking for a place to belong.
Nichols owns Eight Row with his brother, Ian, who lives in London but visits Seattle several times a year to harvest cherries and spend time at the restaurant. Ian crafts the wine list via Zoom each week, alongside in-house beverage manager and sommelier Janice DeWitt. And while Nichols says he and his brother have a strong partnership, he admits it took a lot of time to get to where they are today.
“Ian was always fascinated with food, wine and hospitality, and we ate out a lot when we lived together in New York,” recalled Nichols. “But he hated living with me at the time. He’d lock himself in his room because he knew I was going to get drunk.”
The first time Nichols went to rehab, his brother and other family members had staged an intervention. He was working for famed New York restaurateur and chef Mark Murphy, who paid for him to attend an outpatient program.
“I wasn’t ready to get sober,” Nichols admitted. “I didn’t do step work or call my sponsor. I lied to my therapist. I thought I could have a beer and wouldn’t get screwed up. Then a bottle of whiskey is gone, then a bag of cocaine, then [I’m on] a bender for two months. I knew if I wanted to open a restaurant, live until I’m 40, have a relationship… I had to stop drinking.”
He credits his involvement with Ben’s Friends, an addiction and substance abuse support group for those in the food and beverage industry, as the start of his life in recovery. He and Willman Nichols are co-founders of the Seattle chapter and host weekly in-person meetings at Eight Row, along with a Zoom option, where anyone across the world can join in fellowship.
After one of those meetings, when the restaurant was closed, Willman Nichols brought out three NA cocktails for me to try alongside a large tray filled with NA spirits, homemade syrups and garnishes. “This is what it took to make these drinks,” she said. “This is not soda and flavoured juice. It takes just as much effort to make these as our cocktails, and they’re the same price.”
The craftmanship was evident in the garnet-hued cocktail, Envy, whose slightly sweet and tannic notes reminded me of a Negroni, with warm spices and bitter botanicals lingering on the back of the palate. The drink was made from a combination of small-batch NA spirits, like Wilderton Earthen, Giffard Aperitif, Pathfinder and Kentucky 74 whiskey.