Best Restaurants 2012
For our annual guide to the top dining in Seattle, we bring you both innovators and classics with strong culinary vision and deep reverence for seasons, local ingredients, and a sense of place—in short, the very best places to eat right now.
Restaurants that capture the soul of Seattle.
Seattle is a city whose story can be told through its restaurants. From their banquettes to their timber ceilings, their fresh-that-day oysters to their inspired microseasonal innovations, these 25 restaurants etch a portrait of Pacific Northwest values, passions, and quirky idiosyncrasies. Without them, Seattle just wouldn’t be Seattle.
Sitka and Spruce
1531 Melrose Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-324-0662; sitkaandspruce.com
Within the breezy urban farmhouse space in Melrose Market breathes a culinary artistry as unbound by convention as any fine-dining room in Seattle. Thank Matt Dillon (who also brings us the Corson Building) for revering the purest seasonal ingredients, then composing them according to the spare dictates of his higher vision: perhaps pristine albacore with cherry tomatoes, purslane, sumac, Winthrop rye berries, a kale-yogurt salad, and—credit his ongoing Middle Eastern fascination—the Persian crisp nan-e lavash. This rarefied, minimalist food won’t be for everyone, but no chef showcases the perfect Northwest ingredient better than Dillon.
At their noisy, breezy food lab in Fremont, chefs (and spouses) Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi pour their years of formal training into the most thrilling, unrestrained cuisine in Seattle—the Asian-fusion street eats we call sophisti-comfort food. Korean is the primary dialect, but the menu roams the Orient: corned lamb–mizuna salad with spicy nuoc cham; rice bowls with short ribs, mustard greens, sambal daikon, and a rich, velvety egg yolk; the famous pork belly–kimchi pancakes—done with exacting exuberance, a rare combo. It’s loud, frequently pokey, beautifully lubed (their very good cocktail bar, Quoin, adjoins), and best in summer (on the big patio). Where to show off the Seattle palate to out of towners.
The Legend, in its third generation of family ownership, is about as Seattle as it gets—from architect Roland Terry’s angular midcentury masterpiece to its sweeping view over Lake Union; from its singular reputation as the big night out in this town to the kitchen’s consistent fulfillment of that promise. Canlis is the rare spot where the genuine care in the front of the house matches the quality of the product coming out of the back; where enduring favorites like Peter Canlis’s vermouth-lime prawns vie winningly with chef Jason Franey’s dazzling innovations, like a foie gras terrine with blackberries and chamomile on a recent starter menu. Psst: Reservations are essential everywhere but the super suave piano bar, where drop-ins can savor perfect cocktails and order off either the dinner menu or the (more affordable) bar menu.
Before Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine put Seattle on the molecular gastronomy map and every bar went all craft-cocktails-with-effete-noshes—there was Spur, pioneering both trends in Seattle and daily perfecting them. Draped in classy grays and wood tones to soothe a Seattleite’s winter soul, Spur is comfortable in its skin; a thinking drinker’s bar conveying stylish intelligence through frank and personable servers, Sam Cooke on the sound system, original house cocktails (like the boldly refreshing West Coast Pimm’s), and a genuinely dazzling menu. The famous bar eats include shoestring fries suffused in smoky oil, and pork belly sliders with sweet onions and peach mostarda—perhaps the best of that happy hour warhorse in town. Dinner plates are full of supremely thoughtful modernist compositions like slow-cooked pork cheeks over spaetzle and mustard seeds in beery puree. Desserts, fantastical melanges of foams and meringues and flavor-rich sorbets, simply rock.
Want your lemonade in a mason jar? Your waiter in a plaid shirt? A side of fennel tater tots or caramelized grapefruit? Then pop over to Skillet Diner, the breakfast nook of Pike/Pine that grew out of an Airstream trailer (the original mobile dining operation in Seattle) to become the sunny chrome-and-lime love child of an old-school soda fountain and a microseasonal culinary innovator. Here, after waiting in line at least 30 minutes—amid every conceivable style of Capitol Hill facial hair—you choose among comfort carbs like burgers with bacon jam, garam masala–spiced lamb sloppy joes, fried chicken with beguiling honeyed crusts, and all-day breakfasts like griddle cakes with lemon butter. Don’t expect exacting execution, perfect experimentation, or swift service. Between the crowds, the coffee (Fonté), and the cocktails—do expect a buzz.
The classy sophisticate at the viewy lake end of Madison Street has found its footing, with a youthful kitchen that’s slyly broadening the palates of the Madison Park establishmentarians that use the place like a private club. The menu, once impetuously novel, now has its old reliables—the crab deviled eggs, the impossibly tender grilled beef tongue. Even the novelties shine more dependably than they once did, as in a recent wood-roasted quail wickedly confited in foie gras butter, lavished with huckleberry sauce, and complemented by sweet corn pudding. Both the twinkling twilit main room and the cozy upstairs bar make swell date spots.
Can we just declare Renee Erickson a civic treasure? No chef in town spins a more storybook ambience or crafts a more charming menu—at Boat Street Cafe with Provençale-kissed meats and seafoods; at the forthcoming Whale Wins with innovations from her wood-fired oven. But only her Walrus and the Carpenter, the Ballard oyster bar from whose patio you can smell the tide, embodies Seattle’s soul. The quirky assemblage of not-quite dinners in the magical whitewashed room features pristine crudo, house-smoked seafood, fruit--garnished cheeses, and artisan cocktails; the crowd (and I do mean crowd) is all hipster locavores and tourist pilgrims, for whom W&C just nails Seattle’s je ne sais quoi.
Here in this closet-size nook in an Eastlake strip mall with a blackboard menu and an ’80s pop soundtrack, chef Charles Walpole (former chef at Anchovies and Olives) lets his freak flag fly
on whatever’s freshest that day: perhaps a lemony salad of tender baby turnips with mizuna, pine nuts, and mint over chickpea puree; perhaps crackling pork belly with anchovy aioli, corn puree, and chorizo hash. Sometimes experiments don’t work—a price food sophisticates willingly pay for the kind of low--overhead, high-innovation food labs one finds all over Portland. What always works is the chocolate crémeux for dessert: dense mousse sprinkled with sea salt and Turkish pepper and served in a puddle of olive oil.
Seattle does a better job with Vietnamese food than any other ethnic cuisine, and you can’t do much better than here in the geode of Jackson Street. Expectations are low from the sloping and potholed parking lot, but once through the bamboo entry you’re in a sleek, sophisticated room, in shades of dark wood and mango, with a patio for sunnier months complete with burbling fountain. The menu surveys the rolls and rice balls, the phos and salads, the rice dishes and curries of Vietnamese cuisine. Go with the crispy Tamarind Tree salad rolls, the char-grilled la lot–lemongrass chicken, any of the bountiful salads, or the beef seven ways—seven courses for a ridiculously cheap $33. Perky cocktails complete the experience.
115 Broadway E, Capitol Hill, 206-323-1300. 500 Queen Anne Ave N, Lower Queen Anne, 206-285-5155. 9208 Holman Rd NW, Broadview, 206-783-5233. 12325 30th Ave NE, Lake City, 206-363-7777. 111 NE 45th St, Wallingford, 206-632-5125. 21910 Hwy 99, Edmonds, 425-775-4243; ddir.com
It opened in 1954, all windows and stainless and acreage of Wallingford asphalt, with milkshakes made of ice cream, fries cut from potatoes, and ketchup-and-mustard-topped burgers for 19 cents. The ensuing six decades has seen Dick’s colonize five other neighborhoods and raise the price of its ridiculously craveable burger to a whopping buck-twenty-five—but the ice cream and the potatoes are still in the house, and so is a cityful of rabid faithful from across the tax brackets. Sure, you see plenty of change scroungers at the most democratic restaurant in town—but legend has it Bill Gates once tried to pay for his burger here with a thousand-dollar bill.
Delancey / Essex Bar / Pantry
Delancey, 1415 NW 70th St, Ballard, 206-838-1960; delanceyseattle.com. Essex Bar, 1421 NW 70th St, Ballard, 206-724-0471; essexbarseattle.com. Pantry, 1417 NW 70th St, Ballard, 206-436-1064; thepantryatdelancey.com
Three enterprises—pizzeria, artisan bar, and family-style dinner venue—share a single kitchen, just one of the trendy bona fides that makes this Ballard triumvirate the poster restaurant for Seattle gastronauts. At the popular Delancey it’s not unusual to find among the hordes young tourists photographing their flavorful crackling-crusted-and-sparsely-topped pizzas, a function of co-owner Molly Wizenberg’s fame as author of the food blog Orangette. Even better is the urbane wallpapered Essex Bar next door, where modern-day apothecaries wielding house-aged spruce bitters spritz ice cubes with just that much smoky Scotch, then pull soft beer-boiled pretzels out of the pizza oven to serve with artisanal accents like sweet red onion–currant chutney. A lineup of cooking classes and dinner parties are served at Pantry in back, the endeavor of Wizenberg’s husband and partner, Brandon Pettit, and two associates, melding a gently educational tone with gusts of joie de vivre and simply exuberant food.
Yes, the Portlandia quotient is high in a lunch bar where you ponder long over the waste bins determining which of your throwaways is bioplastic and whether those chip pouches qualify as paper. Still, what the earnest young Homegrown guys call “sandwich environmentalism” rides Seattle’s favorite wave—not just in environmental sustainability but in breakfasts, sandwiches, and salads made from real food for vivid flavor. Big love to the pork sandwich with apple butter and sage aioli, housemade breads, and genuinely inventive seasonal sandwiches: zucchini, sweet corn, green bean, tamari onion, and sweet pea pesto being one recent home run. Adding a lineup of home-baked desserts to the three locations was sweet.
Maria Hines was a culinary force even before she handed Iron Chef’s smoked Pacific cod to him on a platter. This humble Wallingford house restaurant is why. By prioritizing perfect ingredients—sometimes listing their provenance on her menu—Hines maintains Oregon Tilth’s supremely high-standard organic certification. (Only eight other restaurants in the country have attained it, one of which is her Ballard Middle Eastern restaurant, Golden Beetle.) None of which would be enough if not for Hines’s flawless ability to conceive a dish. She’ll intelligently partner a beautiful hunk of Skagit River Ranch pork belly with salted peach, black garlic, and farro, for example, to add up to a rounded whole of keen, balanced flavors. This place just keeps getting better.
Recipe for a cult favorite: Divide one underrepresented cuisine (Cuban) between two mostly takeout huts in very residential neighborhoods (Fremont and Ballard). Add a menu of meats and shellfish in exotically fruit-kissed sauces, and feisty Caribbean sandwiches like the Caribbean roast: hunks of tender pork shoulder in a crispy baguette with aioli, cilantro, pickled jalapenos, and big chunks of caramelized onion. Season with a few Annoyances Fans Willingly Overlook—line ever present, cash required, sandwich goo ridiculous, stains inevitable—and one Insider Tip guaranteed to make those fans feel part of the club: The Paseo Press sandwiches always sell out. Serves several zip codes full of slavering, in-the-know foodies.
Twenty-six years and there’s still nothing like the Woodinville tour de force that invented farm-to-table dining. Yes, the themed nine-course meal is an outlay (around $200 per person, including matched wines) that takes a while (plan on five hours), in a room too floridly overwrought. Thankfully the food is another story—the quintessential seasonal, sustainable Northwest story—brought to us by owners Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck, who decided that their perfectionist oversight was a better bet than a name chef. They’re right. As ever, expect a guided garden tour, a speech about the meal, the most fascinating salad of your life, a couple of breathtaking marvels, some creative flights of fancy relating to the theme of the dinner, and the most awe-inspiring wine list in the region. All brought off with the same down-to-earth integrity that has distinguished the Herbfarm since a gardener named Lola Zimmerman found herself with a few extra herbs and an empty garage.
Underpriced, underheralded, and cozily undersized—the homespun house restaurant of yoga master Colin Patterson goes toe to toe with the best in town…and it’s vegan. The setup is that Seattle darling—the prix fixe, chef’s choice, communal table, set-time four courser—with dinner preceded by a gentle gong to signal a moment of gratitude. Grateful you shall be when Patterson’s clever, sometimes stunning, always wordy dishes begin to issue from his open kitchen: perhaps mung bean crepes stuffed with shiso, cashew cheese, and smoked broccoli, or red quinoa and -elderberry-chili mole. The counter, where you can watch Patterson work his transfixing magic, remains the best seat in the house.
Packed, youthful, and deafening—like, hearing-loss deafening—the brick-and-timber Brave Horse in the Amazon complex embodies all the buzzing, caffeinated, high-tech energy that created South Lake Union and defines Seattle for the world. Culinarily it’s Tom Douglas’s most down-market project—think impeccably sourced Super Bowl party food—but conceived to his culinary standards: sliderlike burgers with smoky sauce on Dahlia Bakery’s sensational buns; chewy-yeasty housemade pretzels in burly dipping sauces like smoked peanut butter with bacon; deviled eggs; brats; fried cheese curds; and an encyclopedic array of boutique brews. Where frat partiers segue into their shuffleboard years.
Yeah, it’s early yet. But this new tribute to the singular delights of Roman cuisine from Seattle restaurant machine Ethan Stowell hit the Capitol Hill corner of 15th and Harrison so old-souled and vibrant it already feels essential. It’s urban cozy, with medieval notes—stone walls, clerestory windows, warm wood-burning hearth—that strike a winning contrast with the mod mix of Hillsters who pop in for lunch and dinner. They’re chewing golden pizza crusts topped with housemade ricotta, roasted tomatoes, charry padron peppers, and pickled red onions; they’re spreading terrific salted housemade mozzarella and peach mostarda onto crusty toasted baguettes; they’re swooning over toothsome bucatini pasta with smoky guanciale and not just a little chili pepper. Also on the card are big meat plates, terrific Roman-style (made with semolina not potato) gnocchi, and a fried artichoke appetizer that’s already sparked a fan club.
Sure, Seattle is known for its seafood and coffeehouses. But its soul resides in the mom-and-pop neighborhood restaurants that dot the city like a starry constellation. Jerry Corso’s Beacon Hill pizzeria provides the blueprint for how it’s done. The sleek storefront has terrific food—its blistered, pillow-crusted pizzas topped with combos like chanterelles, caramelized onions, cherry tomatoes, and crisped coppa; its Italian side dishes like ripe, barely dressed panzanella salads, or the fried risotto balls called supplì. But what fills it with soul is the happy burble of neighborhood esprit: the invariable wait for a table, the family-friendly demographic, the affable service, and the chatting-across-tables vibe that turns a restaurant into something so much more.
Long before everyone saw last year’s documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, over four decades’ worth of Seattle cognoscenti already revered Shiro Kashiba, who apprenticed with Jiro in Tokyo before opening the first full-service sushi bar in Seattle. At Maneki, then Nikko, and now Shiro’s, he consistently presents immaculate cuts of the freshest fish—Hokkaido scallops to Hood Canal geoduck and every edible stop along the way. His tidy little Belltown box is understatedly elegant, but to score the sublime immersion that is the omakase experience you’ll want a seat at the bar—for which you’ll have to wait on the sidewalk at least a half hour before opening. Shiro-san works Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays but every chef behind the bar (including another Jiro alum, Daisuke Nakazawa) is a maestro—and a far sight more twinkly, it must be said, than a certain taciturn octogenarian in a Tokyo subway.
Full Tilt Ice Cream
9629 16th Ave SW, White Center, 206-767-4811. 5041 Rainier Ave S, Columbia City, 206-226-2740. 4759 Brooklyn Ave NE, University District, 206-524-4406. 5453 Leary Ave N, Ballard, 206-297-3000; fulltilticecream.com
If there were a dive bar for kids, it’d be Full Tilt. These scoop shops are a bit dingy around the edges, buoyant with neighborhood energy (in the White Center, Columbia City, and Ballard locations; less in the teensy U District location), loud with occasional live music, and chock full of the two things children love most: ice cream and pinball machines. For the soccer parents there’s beer, really great beer, like Maui Brewing Coconut Porter, Stone IPA, and Pike Kilt Lifter; it’s what you drink between licks of Full Tilt’s sensational ice cream, with its luscious, almost fondue-pot consistency and all-natural ingredients, many of them organic. Flavors (some vegan!) are vivid and ethnically inspired; two greatest hits are the butterscotchy ube, a purple yam popular in the Philippines, and horchata, Mexican cinnamony rice milk. Prices are too low for ice cream this good; lower still since its richness means one scoop may just do you.
Cascina Spinasse / Artusi
Cascina Spinasse, 1531 14th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-251-7673; spinasse.com. Artusi, 1535 14th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-678-2516; artusibar.com
Piedmontese rusticity and European sophistication wow side by side at Seattle’s two essential Italian restaurants. At his swank and minimalist Artusi, chef Jason Stratton delivers
a lineup of amari and grappas and brilliant bitter cocktails to complement vivid Euro nibbles like tripe with corona beans or velvet tuna mayonnaise over new potatoes; next door at the twinkling farmstead Spinasse, the dewy rabbit chicory salads and braised duck legs with plums and olives and—swoon—otherworldly rich and reliably stunning tajarin pasta, with ragù or butter and sage, that comprise dinner for people who really know how to eat dinner.
The classic Seattle fish house that food snobs long since relinquished to anniversary celebrators and visiting Kansans is smooth and masterful—the main downstairs restaurant, that is—and newly energized under the helm of chef Wayne Johnson (late of Andaluca). If the decor feels a little stodgy, no one’s looking at it anyway, what with the whole pewter panorama of sea and sky just outside the glass. No one’s saying these Mediterranean- and Asian-influenced fish preparations (Dungeness crab cakes with coriander cream, mussels in Thai red curry) break new ground. But the kitchen’s careful execution and avid commitment to sourcing more than compen---sates, delivering the rarest quality there is: consistency. The Chatham Strait sablefish in sake kasu remains one of the finest plates of fish in the Northwest.
Fixed in the heart of Pike Place Market and lined with demi-lune windows framing quintessential Seattle eyefuls—the market sign, the fish flingers, a ferry on the bay, the craggy horizon, and now that skyline hogger of a Ferris wheel—Matt’s ranks as Seattle’s iconic restaurant. The view’s not bad on the plate either, where fiercely local meats and fish get vivid, global treatments, like gorgeous purple grilled octopus and pork belly over eye-popping kimchi. Prices that sting at night ease up by day for crowd-pleasing sandwiches like a terrific crusted catfish. Beneath timber rafters, upon checkerboard floors, the place crackles with urban energy.
With its crowded urban fizz, Pike/Pine location, smart seasonal menu, and something-for-everyone versatility, Scott Staples’s second iteration of Zoë makes Seattle’s all-around best night out right now. Wherever you wander in the menu—a nectarine prosciutto salad, a chicken breast with pancetta and medjool date puree, a grass-fed and wood-fired cheeseburger, a killer steak tartare—you will be dazzled with both the gorgeous compositions and the fact that all this modern and all this Euro still add up to food this delish. Different sections provide nice atmospheric variety: Napalike at the entry, Boho-farmhouse in the sunroom, neo-industrial stylish in the main room. Service is careful and terrific.