WESTWARD ROLLED UP ITS FLOOR-TO-CEILING DOORS at the glorious end of this glorious summer, and for a few weeks there Seattle was lost in a Hamptons fantasy. Diners would glide in by boat, tying up two at a time along Westward’s north Lake Union dock, then snagging the Adirondack chairs lined up resortlike along the shore, to choose among beautifully shucked local oysters and sip shandies and pink champagne. These balmy afternoons would ripen into long twilit evenings of roasted branzino and quick-fried squid and fish stew alongside the oyster midden bonfire, and people would speak of them afterward in terms typically reserved for lost Paris weekends and first love. Ahhh, summer!
Well snap out of it, Bub. It’s December out there, and now arriving at Westward is a matter of figuring out how to park along Northlake without causing a six-car pileup, then walking along that dark and busy road without becoming a pedestrian statistic. (Helpful hint: Try for a spot across the Burke-Gilman, then descend the stairs and cross the street to Westward.) Old-timers who remember this building’s distant past as the Lakeside restaurant will be surprised to find Westward in its basement, rendering this building’s genuinely breathtaking view—right up the barrel of Lake Union onto the prettiest skyline on the West Coast—something you must, from a number of Westward’s seats, contort yourself to see. (You have to wonder if the person who built the high portal to the dock was trying to obstruct the skyline.)
Using the Bill Murray film, The Life Aquatic, Henderson and the crew he assembled to manage his growing empire—the Huxley Wallace Collective—transformed the back bar into the hull of a ship. All dangling lights and sailcloth shades and waiters in French sailor stripes—the room is winkingly nautical. To the left of the entry, an enterprise called Little Gull Grocery operates as a bizarre hybrid of a high-end mercantile (you know, your average imported-rolling-pins, wool-blankets, and sun-visors kind of market) and an oyster bar. To the right, the open kitchen and full bar line up behind a curvilinear dining counter—featuring a blazing hearth oven alongside what is easily the weirdest back bar in town: a fanciful cross-section of a ship’s cabins, with dolls and toys depicting goings-on in each. In one, a yeti. In another, Hulk Hogan wrestles Randy “Macho Man” Savage.The key to enjoying Westward in winter is to forget, for the moment, its outdoor appeal—and get a load of this basement. Owner Josh Henderson (the Skillet empire, along with the forthcoming Hollywood Tavern in Woodinville, Parchment in SoDo, Cone and Steiner in Capitol Hill, and undoubtedly more) wasn’t looking to put a restaurant here until he saw the space and “didn’t want someone else to do it wrong.” For Henderson that meant throwing out the dated, self-serious template of the iconic Seattle waterside restaurant—and to go instead for whimsy.
Toto, we are so not in Ray’s Boathouse anymore.
BETWEEN THESE TWO EDGES ROARS THE RESTAURANT, the province of chef Zoi Antonitsas, late of Cormac Mahoney’s Madison Park Conservatory. Three and a half years in and she was feeling the ceiling; hankering for a spot of her own. Enter Henderson, who had long admired Antonitsas’s obsession with pristine ingredients and her unfussy culinary aesthetic. In his new role as empire builder, Henderson’s approach was to staff his restaurants with chefs he trusted, then stand back. So what to do when the chef you want says she’ll run your restaurant—but only if she can serve Greek food?
The answer is Westward, where the wine-dark sea shows up not as a light salt spray, but as the heave and swell beneath nearly everything the kitchen produces. Bar snacks might be cumin-marinated olives or fried chickpeas, which crackle on the palate to a dust of fenugreek and Aleppo chili.
Potatoes are roasted in the hearth oven and breathe lemon and oregano. Ours were mealy in texture. A better potato treatment is the skorthalia, a thick, garlicky Greek spread, which, when made of spuds as it is here, eats like liberally oiled mashed potatoes. This very lemony version is the bed for a heap of squid, lightly battered and fried just right. Even better—best item in the house, by my reckoning—was the Moroccan fish stew, where potatoes, lightly caramelized cauliflower, clams, and cod crisped in the fire swam in a complex ras el hanout curry; as ingredients melted into the soup, each lent its own texture and flavor and brine. The waitress who suggested it was, like everyone we met here, down to earth and well informed.
Sometimes Antonitsas extemporizes oddly, as in a starter of grilled halloumi cheese accoutered with warm watermelon, pistachios, mint, and fiery Urfa biber chili—none of which cohered. More often the takeaway is that unfussiness of hers, which is her food’s hallmark and, at times, its downfall. I loved a whole wood-roasted branzino, salted skin crackling from the fire and flesh tender as bechamel, with just a couple hunks of roasted fennel and a pitcher of tart avgolemono sauce as accompaniment. While it was a lark pouring the sauce on the fish and fennel, the same three flavors grew tiresome before we were finished. An octopus Bolognese risotto featured the cephalopod put through a meat grinder to form the backbone of the sauce, then mixed into risotto shot through with black swirls of squid ink aioli. Swell idea, well executed, mondo tasty. And I was done way before it was.
So you should order a few smaller plates for variety—though the menu, which lumps all starters and mains into “Meat and Poultry” and “Fish and Seafood,” doesn’t make this easy. Indeed, look closely at the menu and you’ll see that, oyster bar notwithstanding, Westward isn’t really that much of a seafood specialist. The short menu lists six mains—half of which are meat. Of a recent Saturday night, besides the oysters, only seven kinds of seafood were offered, many of those as smaller parts of larger compositions.
So Westward’s not a classic Northwest seafood house? Nope, unless you count the few dishes like the spectacular fried Pacific Oyster roll—its plump, lightly breaded bivalves poking out of crusty baguette between fried pickles and a feisty remoulade—served during happy hour, between 2:30 and 5pm. This is the kind of craveable fried food Henderson originally envisioned here, until his chef went all fenugreek on him. So does Westward register primarily as a Greek restaurant? Or does it feel mostly like a loudly fashionable oyster-bar-and-cocktail scene? Is it a Gatsby dream of sunshine and crew shells and champagne? Or a hipster lair with foodie cred and ironic decor?
In fact Westward is all of these places—and thus home to more crashing tropes than I have ever encountered in a single business. This isn’t a criticism; it’s the way the next generation of restaurateurs is shattering fusty prototypes. It’s the wave of the future and, to restaurant geeks like me, rife with postmodernist intrigue. The question is: Will it satisfy you?
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Met.