Though I’ve visited a number of times over the past 15 years, 3 visits to Seattle within a recent 7 month period has me up-to-date on restaurant and cocktail/bar newcomers as well as caught up on some classics I always meant to visit (hello, Canlis!)
Though many visits later, I don’t find myself having that “soul connection” I can feel so intensely with my favorite places around the world, I have dear friends who live here and have, over time, experienced more of the gems in many neighborhoods of the city.
This time around, we’ll talk food but here is my rundown on top Seattle cocktails and bars.
In my many visits to Seattle, there have been countless restaurants that have been disappointing. Many are overrated or some are just not memorable in the scheme of restaurants nationally and internationally.
But there is a quartet of restaurants from Renee Erickson that have been consistently amazing, three of them taking up my top Seattle recommends (the fourth is Boat Street Cafe). I visited each of Erickson’s restaurants with low expectations and every time have come away impressed and delighted, finding each to be “quintessential Pacific Northwest cuisine,” or what one hopes that term would exemplify. Wherever you live, I highly recommend Erickson’s just released (on 9/30) book, A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus, a striking tome to the seasons and the style of cooking his restaurants showcase.
None more so than Barnacle, the newest of his restaurants which had just opened during my February visit. Sitting at one long counter in an intimate space hidden upstairs across the hall from the Walrus and the Carpenter (see below), Barnacle is an intimate seafood lover’s treasure serving a short chalkboard menu of daily changing small plates, all seafood focused, and ideak parings of Italian amaro in simple but well-executed cocktails.
Think the likes of whisper-thin octopus terrine ($10), drizzled in luxurious Ligurian olive oil and lemon, or spanking-fresh sardines ($8), perked up by Calabrian chiles and thick slivers of butter (shockingly fantastic when mixed together), served with Saltine crackers.
Pair these with a bracingly bitter-refreshing Chinato cocktail ($10), mixing one of my favorites, the ultra-bitter Amaro Sibilla with Italian Chinotto soda. End the night with a Calabrian cafe ($10), an Amaro CioCiaro-based coffee cocktail laden with cream and chocolate bitters.
THE WHALE WINS, Fremont
The airy, white space of Whale Wins calls out to me at lunch, and an idyllic lunch it makes, when it’s easier to get a table due to no reservations. A big hit from Renee Erickson, it’s another restaurant where seafood shines like plump Matiz sardines on toast ($10), slathered with curried tomato paste, shaved fennel and olive oil. But vegetables likewise star. Possibly my favorite dish here? A decadent toasted broccoli ($12) yes, decadent. Doused in pine nut dressing, ricotta salata and olive oil, the greens are redolent of orange, what broccoli might taste like if it were dessert.
Cocktails ($10) are also strong here, with balanced beauties like the Resucitador, a blend of mezcal, orgeat, Cocchi Americano, lemon and Pernod for an absinthe perk, or a Normandy Old Fashioned showing off Calvados apple brandy with black tea syrup and Old Fashioned bitters. Happily, crisp Austrian and French wines dominate on the wine list.
WALRUS & THE CARPENTER, Ballard
Opening before the other two aforementioned Erickson restaurants, Walrus and the Carpenter has been a destination Seattle restaurant for years. And with good reason. Though the no reservations policy is maddening anywhere (many of us who care the most don’t have hours to wait for a seat anywhere, especially, when marathon-ing multiple meals a day), a seat at the wrap-around counter at Walrus is another pleasure of a journey through Pacific Northwest seafood, with plenty of oysters I tried Flapjack Point oysters from Eld Inlet, Boomstick & Sea Cow from Hammersly Inlet.
Perfect white anchovies ($10) taste brighter with beets and orange, while giant Weathervane scallops are luxurious raw as tartare ($14), vivid with grapefruit puree, vanilla oil and basil.
Cocktails didn’t exactly wow but they were solid and work with the food, a better option of the 6 I tasted being The Scottish Breakfast ($10), a blend of Scotch, Caol Ila marmalade, Nardini and cider.
IL CORVO, Pioneer Square
Lines form early for this small, weekday lunch-only Seattle favorite, Il Corvo, where the offerings are three daily changing pastas (generally around $9) and some antipasti options as well as vermouths on ice. Word has long been out about this classic which nails what it does with simple perfection. I wondered if the spot would be worth the lines and got there just before opening at 11am. It is one of Seattle’s unique gems that doesn’t mimic greats in another cities but stands alone as a destination pasta stop. Pictured above is a dreamy almond green pesto percatelli pasta.
RESTAURANT ROUX, Fremont
Restaurant Roux is one of my Seattle favorites not so much because it transports me to New Orleans (it doesn’t) but its New Orleans-influenced, West Coast cooking has heart and it comforts, while the bustling, ever-packed space engages, particularly around a giant, square bar that surrounds the center kitchen and bar.
I savored frog legs ($12) and fried chicken gizzards ($5), crispy pig ear in Buffalo sauce ($6) and shrimp and grits ($16). In addition, cocktails are also a draw, thanks to Ian Cargill (formerly of Canon). Think Nola tributes like Battle of New Orleans ($10), mixing bourbon, anisette, orange bitters, Peychauds bitters and absinthe.
KEDAI MAKAN, Capitol Hill
Hipster, it is, but there are more than a few things about the walk-up window and bright red sidewalk stools at Kedai Makan that remind me of my months traveling around Southeast Asia. Apparently that was the inspiration from owners Kevin Burzell and Alysson Wilson who opened the place in 2012 after traveling around Malaysia.
Think Malay-style peanuts roasted with crispy anchovy, kaffir lime leaf and chilis, or murtabak, Malaysian roti filled with mint and spice-laced lamb with spicy dhal curry for dipping. It’s all fresh, alive with flavor and affordable, with little over $10.
One of the hip Asian fusion spots we’ve known for years on the West Coast, Revel stands out in Seattle for its fresh, fun food and on my visit, a rousing ’90s hip hop soundtrack, especially appealing on a sunny day on the back deck.
A cumin-heavy carrot pancake is studded with pecans and roasted lemon yogurt ($10), while dumplings get creative in forms filled with pork and coconut ($9) in green curry. Larger plates also work, like Dungeness crab over seaweed noodles ($16) in a spicy red curry cooled by creme fraiche.
FUJI BAKERY, International District
Though Fuji Bakery is a bakery and thus should belong in my bakery section below, I include it here because it is one of my favorite Seattle stops (with another location in the Bellevue area of Seattle).
This humble shop is a gem of a bakery serving Asian-inspired pastries done in French (read: buttery) style. There are savory curry buns, classic French croissants and matcha azuki, which is sweet matcha dough filled with red bean paste, drizzled in sesame seeds and Italian salt.
MAMNOON, Capitol Hill
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Mamnoon is a chic, Middle Eastern restaurant on Capitol Hill that doesn’t so much wow as consistently please, particularly on the small plates and on the lunch front with dips like shamndar bi tahini ($7), a vivid pink-purple dip of grated beets, yogurt, garlic and tahini paste (pictured right).
It’s hard to resist cilantro and aleppo chili-dusted harra frites ($7) dipped in house ketchup and za’atar-spiced mayonnaise with a refreshing mint lemonade ($4). I like Mamnoon best as a stop for snacks and shared small plates rather than on the entree side.
MOMIJI, Capitol Hill
Dining at Momiji with food/drink industry friends from Japan certainly made it a better experience. I wouldn’t put it close to a favorite sushi meal among my global favorites but it was all-around a gratifying meal with Japanese whiskies and sake to savor alongside monkfish liver (ankimo, $10) dotted with citrus ponzu and cilantro aioli and yellowtail hamachi sashimi ($13) in garlic, jalapeno and yuzu ponzu.
The U-District’s (University District) Bahn Mi Unwrapped was one of my under-the-radar Seattle gems awhile back, especially as someone who spent a month in Vietnam and is surrounded by countless spots for authentic bahn mi in SF.
For $4 or less, their bahn mi is hefty and pleasing in classic pork pate and duck forms, but my top choice is their delicious catfish bahn mi with a Vietnamese iced coffee it drew me back multiple times.
Greasy spoon it is, but Beth’s Cafe, a greasy diner in Phinney Ridge since 1954, famous for their ridiculous 12-egg omelette, is a memorable stop for 3am cravings of scrambles and hash browns.
La Cocina Oaxaquena does not even come close to scratching the itch one has for real Oaxacan food after traveling in Oaxaca (instead, try Agave Mexican in Healdsburg, CA, La Oaxaquena in SF, or Moles La Tia in East LA), but its warm, familial welcome and affordable dishes give it some cheap eats appeal, even if the mole negro is a bit flat or essentially not as multi-dimensional as the great moles of Oaxaca are.
Although the mole negro still didn’t wow, I prefer Mezcaleria Oaxaca (I visited the quirky Queen Anne location) both for its mezcal selection and its more authentic nods to Oaxaca in its straightforward dishes.
Though there wasn’t a standout dish during my two visits two Taylor’s Shellfish Farms, I love its plethora of fresh oysters, geoduck, clams, crab and seafood swimming in tanks, fresh for the picking all day long on Capitol Hill, best savored with a crisp rose or white wine.
In the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, Kisaku is pretty nondescript when it comes to sushi. You won’t experience anything here you haven’t had before as a sushi lover, but its lunchtime deals work (even sashimi combos are no more than $11.95), its dated atmosphere mellow and its fish fresh. Wild sockeye salmon sashimi (pictured left) is a silky, local highlight.
Also on the affordable sushi front, I like Tsukushinbo in the International District, though the fish offerings are basic.
You won’t find any surprises here, just hunks of raw fish in a tiny, crowded space (there are often lines so go early for lunch or right when they open, as lines are not worth it). The sweet staff make the whole experience better.
Breakfast & Bakeries
Biscuits ($3.25-6.50) in the morning at Morsel in the U-District are a pleasure. From friendly staff in a tiny storefront with long lines, order buttery biscuits under the names Gravy, Cheesy (roasted garlic butter, local Beecher’s cheese curds, roasted tomato jam) or Spanish Fly (proscuitto, fried egg, manchego, arugula, mama lil’s pepper aioli). They’re all delightful and Morsel serves top notch coffee to boot.
For a bit of Parisian charm in downtown Seattle, I like Belle Epicurean. Coffee (espresso, etc.) veers old school Italian-style, while I love tarts like the Walla Walla feuillette ($6.95), which plays like a classic Alsatian tart but with local, sweet Walla Walla onions, layered with bacon, Gruyere cheese and fresh herbs.
Up Capitol Hill way, go off hours to avoid lines at grab-and-go bakery, Crumble & Flake, a gourmand’s favorite, with daily changing offerings like chocolate lavender or True North Coffee & Irish whiskey macarons. On the savory side, there might be the likes of smoked paprika cheddar croissants.
Hippie, it may be, but when in the U-District (plus two other locations), Chaco Canyon Organic Cafe offers vegetable juices and the likes of avocado toast on dense bread for breakfast, a welcome, healthy antidote when I’ve been judging/tasting spirits for days nearby.
Mighty-O Donuts they’re organic but still gratifying sans lard. I like flavors like grasshopper, peanut butter chocolate or a tart lemon poppy seed.
Thanks to my Seattle friend Rocky Yeh for numerous reliable Seattle recommendations, including Belle Epicurean and nearby, classic Seattle, top notch coffee at Cafe Fonte, one of my favorite stops for coffee in the city.
Though coffee in Seattle is a whole other subject that could call for a more in-depth exploration (as many have done before), I’m going to stick to food here. A couple other regulars for me as I stayed in various parts of the city in my last 3 trips: a Capitol Hill mainstay for over a decade is Victrola (which I much prefer to Caffe Vita up the street). Try Analog if you love espresso and cold brew.
A Mixed Bag
Places I Can’t Quite Recommend
I wanted to love La Bete. Atmosphere-wise, I do. It charms with a quirky-chic (yet relaxed) setting, cocktails in vintage glassware and friendly service. The dishes likewise sounded like an easy win but whether a plump merguez sausage or a mole verde braised beef shortrib, I found myself recalling more interesting versions in other parts of the country (same with the ok-but-not-great cocktails). The one dish that did jump out was a starter of piquillos rellenos ($12) stuffed with albacore tuna and squid ink rice in lively tomato pepper sauce.
Miller’s Guild follows (a couple years later) the open fire cooking approach of places like Saison and TBD here in SF (my take on the trend in the London Times in Feb. 2014), but without the delicate, creative vision. It’s more straightforward grilling here. I wanted to love Miller’s Guild with its urban vibe that feels like a bigger city as do the high prices for solid but not amazing food.
Pricy steaks whether Niman Ranch bone-in ribeye (service for two is a whopping $135), bavette, Okanagan beef, Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork chop ($32) or shell-on, wild Alaskan coon-striped prawns ($18), it doesn’t feel worth the hefty price tag. This extends to elegant-sounding cocktails ($8-13) that don’t quite sing, including what sounded fantastic but was a bit nondescript, a Remolacha ($13): Dos Armadillos Silver Tequila, Rossbacher herbal liqueur, red beet juice, lime, agave and golden beet foam. Surprisingly, house Turkish coffee ice cream ($8) to finish is the gritty (with grounds, like proper Turkish coffee), sweet standout.
In theory, Staple & Fancy, one of Ethan Stowell’s popular restaurants (housed in the same building as Walrus & the Carpenter – see above) is a notable Italian spot serving house made pastas, sardine appetizers and killer fried oysters, whole grilled fish. It is solid but far from superlative (other than those fried oysters) many dishes later. Since this rustic-gourmet Italian format has long been popular in many cities (including my own) and with my frequent travels to Italy, it fails to entice when many others work in the same category to more memorable effect.
Tanglewood Supreme, in the removed, residential neighborhood of Magnolia, is described as a “fisherman to table” experience. I valued the warm service in the cozy space and the inventiveness of the dish concepts. Not everything worked, including rather imbalanced cocktails, but the $45 seven-course tasting menu is a steal and when it works, it works, as in the case of cinnamon-laced rutabaga apple beginets ($6) with baby kale and cranberry aioli.
The famed Sitka & Spruce has made so many top restaurant lists over the years and has been a pioneer of Pacific Northwest cuisine in Seattle for some time.
That is why I was even more disappointed in having its clean, fresh, highly seasonal food (a concept that has been a Bay Area standard longer than I’ve been alive) to find every single dish I tried, from marinated summer squash ($9/15), to wild chamomile cured salmon ($16) was surprisingly bland, understated to the point of irrelevant and not one dish was memorable.