David Cohn, 85; top restaurateur, major booster of UW athletics

David Cohn's career as one of Seattle's premier restaurateurs started with The Barb, a post-World War II, times-of-plenty embodiment of what was good and straightforward about American cooking.

At the first location in 1951, at Fourth Avenue and Seneca Street in Seattle, that meant cafeteria-style eating and barbecue sandwiches, a place where the chef wouldn't carve the next slices of ham or turkey until the customer gave the word.

Soon there were better and bigger Barbs, a dozen or so in the Puget Sound area, with a coffee shop open for breakfast and lunch, complete with a counter for those eating alone, and a carpeted dining room, adorned with a trickling fountain for those who preferred a little atmosphere with their prime rib, roast turkey and fish and chips.

In the years that followed, Mr. Cohn, who died Monday night, started fried-chicken and seafood restaurants, grabbed hold of the 1970s and '80s steak and salad-bar craze, launched a Polynesian showplace on the Seattle waterfront with every umbrella drink imaginable, unveiled a disco in Bellevue, and with his sons, opened two of Seattle's more talked-about restaurants, The Metropolitan Grill and Union Square Grill.

Mr. Cohn, who also helped bring professional baseball back to Seattle and served as a University of Washington regent, died a week after suffering a heart attack on his way home from the office. He was 85.

His restaurants — and there were at least 40 of them over the years, according to those who worked with him — reflected changing tastes, changing times and a businessman's savvy for timing investments to meet those demands.

"He had an understanding of the budget process, he knew business," said Jim Aitken, who started as a restaurant manager for Mr. Cohn in Olympia in 1968 and is now a vice president at Consolidated Restaurants, the business Mr. Cohn started.

Never a cook himself, the joke went — over and over — that Mr. Cohn could not fry an egg, maybe not even boil water.

In 1983, Mr. Cohn retired, sort of. He became chairman of Consolidated and advised his sons, Ron and Steve, as they took over. Ron Cohn now heads the company, which along with The Metropolitan Grill and Union Square Grill, includes Elliott's Oyster House, DC's Grill, Steamers Seafood Cafes, and Quincy's Chargrilled Burgers. (Hiram's at the Locks closed this year.)

Steve Cohn now develops his own businesses.

Mr. Cohn continued to come to the office every day, Aitken said, and Ron Cohn never hesitated to knock on his father's door to get advice.

"For the last 20 years, his strength was mentoring Ron and me," Aitken said.

While Mr. Cohn made his name principally in the restaurant business, he was well-known in the Seattle sports community.

In the 1970s, he was credited with helping bring professional baseball back to Seattle after the Seattle Pilots left after one season. Mr. Cohn was involved with the investment group that eventually bought the Mariners, an expansion team, and participated in talks with then-baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

Mr. Cohn was also among those pressing for a stadium to house Seattle's pro teams and traveled the country, in an official role for King County, to assess other stadiums before the Kingdome was built.

He headed the Tyee Board of athletic boosters at the University of Washington, where he was a major donor.

"He has purple blood for the Huskies," Aitken said, noting Mr. Cohn's love for the UW.

Mr. Cohn was a university regent from 1980 through 1995.

His affection for UW was unusual in that it was not his alma mater. He grew up in Indianapolis and attended the University of Indiana.

He served in World War II and during the war married his wife, Ruth. On a 1947 trip to Seattle, the couple decided to make the city their home.

Mr. Cohn is survived by his wife, two sons and six grandchildren.

A public memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Temple de Hirsch Sinai, 1441 16th Ave. in Seattle. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Temple de Hirsch Sinai or the UW Athletic Department.

Staff reporter J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report. Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or bkaiman@seattletimes.com