Image: Amos Morgan

A TERRIFIC RESTAURANT IS LIKE a starlet who debuts to fawning adoration only to get kicked to the curb when the next “It” girl comes along.

From the moment Ponti opened her doors in 1990, her sun-drenched palette and grandstand view of the Fremont Bridge attracted admirers. And her kitchen’s enthusiastic way with seafood—a dash of Pacific Rim, a soupçon of Mediterranean, a bushel of Northwest freshness from Tom Douglas protégé Alvin Binuya—devoted them. Owners Richard Malia (the Snug, Mrs. Malia’s) and Jim Malevitsis (Adriatica) were well seasoned in the biz and steered the tidy canal-side ship like shrewd captains through the heady ’90s, that bet-a-million decade when nobody went downtown for dinner and the hotel concierges all had Ponti’s reservation desk on speed dial.

Time passed, downtown sprouted its own restaurants, Belltown exploded. One of the restaurants to open there in 1997 was Axis, Malia and Malevitsis’s second collaboration, which peeled both Malevitsis and chef Binuya away from Ponti. Big chain eateries invaded downtown, while stunning independents turned heads away from the pretty gal by the Ship Canal. Somewhere along the line the “It” girl had become…Kathleen Turner.

Such is the predictable arc of restaurant popularity—remember when Campagne, the Hunt Club, Flying Fish, and Brasa were all scorching hotties?—until the place either goes irrelevant or is forged into a classic. So when a press release arrived announcing a new executive chef at Ponti, a 24-year-old named Giles van der Bogert, I wondered which way the old girl had gone.

Considering it was summer, which at Ponti has always meant delectable food on a balmy patio overlooking impressionist Paris—I concluded it was time to find out. And considering it was Seattle—it was dumping rain when I arrived. I dropped my car with the valet and huddled in through the stucco courtyard entrance, where a greeter asked if I would like a seat in the bar. The restaurant, she explained, had been booked for a private party.

For a watery town, Seattle remains oddly shy of waterside restaurants, especially along the Ship Canal. Perhaps that’s why when I walk into Ponti I can never quite believe I’m in Seattle. The canal meanders below like the Seine. The bridge looms above, angular and blue.

The main dining room was still every inch the looker, with burgundy banquettes and mottled butternut walls that reach like outstretched arms toward the view. That triangular configuration, along with the curving bay windows in each of the four rooms, registers subconsciously as an embrace. For all its sophistication, Ponti is one of the coziest restaurants in Seattle.

Likewise the bar: a snug two-room enclosure with butter yellow walls, glossy dark wood, café tables, a fireplace, an affable barkeep, a couple of TVs tuned to sports—and a posse of regulars. “Just brought a boat down from the Aleutians!” barked a strapping Nordic blond who looked like he’d spent his life commuting from Ballard to the Bering Sea, and who was making quick work of a $4 wild king salmon slider. I had arrived during Ponti’s happy hour, a Seattle institution featuring $5 bar noshes and $4 well drinks every day at 4pm. Across the way a handsome fiftysomething couple nursed highballs the way they’d doubtless been doing since courting here in their 30s. They were carving into $5 plates of Caesar salad: romaine spears reposing under snowdrifts of Parmesan alongside tangles of grilled bread, red onions, Spanish white anchovies, and a leggy dressing all but bubbling with garlic.