Sometimes it’s hard to recall what dining here was like before 1989, when the Dahlia Lounge opened in its original room: the narrow, lofted, metropolitan slot once home to the swanky Euro bistro by the name of 1904. Prior to that, Seattle had its share of swanky. We had plenty of Euro and more than a few bistros.
But until the Dahlia, which would ultimately take up residence in the crimson-clad space it still occupies across the street, Seattle restaurants lacked the voice of a gutsy rulebreaker. Say what you will about the bland omnipresence Tom Douglas, Inc. radiates today—the guy was the first chef in town to fuse the Asian food he loved with Western cuisines. He broke through the silly reverence that defined fine-dining by putting Oodles of Noodles on the menu and serving donuts in a paper bag. He was the first to upmarket a burger.
That all seems commonplace today—so much that it’s easy to forget that it all started somewhere, and represented nothing less than the launch of the modern era of dining. So a tip of the toque to you, Dahlia Lounge…along with a few other game-changers, still going strong, that changed the face of dining in this town:
Canlis: The first—still only—to wrap flawless quarters, fine food, and exquisite service into one seamless package, bigger than the sum of its parts.
Il Terrazzo Carmine: No current restaurant has functioned more like a private club, drawing Seattle’s fat cats by the sheer force of the late Carmine Smeraldo’s (and now his family’s) savvy hostmanship.
Le Pichet: Until this one opened its doors, we hadn’t experienced Gallic food presented with such exacting offhand elegance—the way it’s done in France.
Wild Ginger: Now it’s where the tourists and symphony-goers eat; in 1989 it introduced the first pan-Asian menu we’d ever seen.
Monsoon: Strange as it seems, it took till Eric and Sophie Banh opened this sleek beaut for Seattle to enjoy Eastern cuisines (in this case, Vietnamese) in upscale quarters. Paved the way for Tamarind Tree, for Joule, for Mamnoon.
Lark: Small-plate dining didn’t sweep the city till Johnathan Sundstrom opened Lark.
Salumi: The skinny Pioneer Square joint with the perfect cured meats and the everpresent line didn’t invent sandwiches, it just kicked off a city’s obsession with them.
Tilth: First to certify organic, Tilth put its money where its mouth was on sustainability—and made it taste very, very good.
Sitka and Spruce: What—no food choices? No reservations? Shared tables? Matt Dillon’s first restaurant (then in smaller quarters) was in fact Seattle’s first un-restaurant.
Spur Gastropub: The first Seattle had ever seen of Modernist cuisine and alchemic cocktails.
Skillet Street Food and Diner: The first in these parts to prepare comfort food to upmarket specs, then serve it out of a roving truck—the Skillet empire revolutionized populist dining.
What influential restaurants (still going) have I left out?