Neighborhood restaurants are among the toughest to pull off, but two chef-imagined joints in the South End are making it look easy. Terrific cooking is why. Cafe Vignole carves a velvet-draped trattoria out of a homespun little storefront at the Rainier Beach curve, with a broadly Tuscan menu of dishes like sauteed calamari with beans, juicy grilled pear–gorgonzola salads, ragùs and pastas—including an exceptional gorgonzola gnocchi—and meaty mains. With family in both the front and the back of the house, it’s the sort of spot that barely knows it’s a restaurant; on the walls Italian scenes alternate with images of African Americans to warmly unite its food with its neighborhood. That food is carefully wrought and apportioned for the mighty: a groaning platter of braised pork ribs comes drenched in a red wine reduction and pocked with olives alongside roasted potatoes and broccoli. Desserts—a fine though oversweet tiramisu, a revelatory black-eyed-pea cake—love you back.
About five miles north you’re still in south Seattle, only now in the Parisian quarter of the Mount Baker Ridge. A La Bonne Franquette (across the street from Repast, land of the golden croissants) is the year-old endeavor of chef Hamed Elnazir, a French Culinary Institute-trained Sudanese whose culinary finesse yields a menu of classics: pan-seared poulet with mushrooms and roasted potatoes, lamb shank with root vegetables, trout amandine. Pates and salades vertes and a lovely starter of tartines spread with thymed goat cheese and thin-sliced, salt-brined zucchini start things off with promise; a nicely marbled, grilled rib eye with French green beans and a buttery square of potato gratin fulfill the promise handily. All in a swank and civilized spot much too pretty to be this unpretentious, with an improbable eyeful of bay, skyline, and Olympics out big back windows.