WALKING INTO BETTY at the top of Queen Anne, I immediately recalled my first visit to Crow —Betty’s sister restaurant at the bottom of the hill. Rarely does a restaurant explode into one’s awareness as perfect; Crow for me came close. The place, warm as a summer sunset with red walls and a sultry lack of light, bubbled and frothed like a good dinner party. A big brazen mural stretched across one wall. The food was simple and affordable, which my memory preserved in snapshots of crackling roast chicken, a sheet of lasagna draped in bright tomato sauce. The bar was too small, the dining room impenetrable, the place deafening. I could have gone every night.
So here I was at Betty, a study in cool blues and grays, with carefully placed squares of art on the walls and one cold shaft of white light spotlighting each unupholstered booth and table. Betty’s bar in back is bigger than Crow’s, sharing space with a private room that drips with a big amber chandelier. One could imagine such a chandelier at Crow, but at the atmospherically chilly Betty it feels misplaced. Owners Craig Serbousek and Jesse Thomas were going for something “a little more modern” at their new house, but they landed somewhere just north of generic. If Crow is the naughty sister with cleavage and a skirt split up to there, Betty is the goody-goody with the Peter Pan collar and the box pleats.
If Crow is the naughty sister with cleavage and skirt split up to there, Betty is the goody-goody with the Peter Pan collar and the box pleats.
Looking beyond aesthetics, one spies a glimmer of shared DNA. Open kitchens lined with bar seats in both restaurants bring the vigor of the back of the houses to the front, while laying bare the culinary purpose at the heart of each enterprise. Both houses strive to serve simple bistro fare in just a handful of permutations nightly. Crow’s is extravagantly delicious. But how does modest little Betty compare?
When I visited on opening night last May (as a prospective fan, not critic) the place was slammed with a whole lot of folks who’d been waiting as breathlessly as I had. The crowd was pure 98119—power singles, nonbreeding Dolce & Gabbana couples, the gilded advertising, law, and tech-sector professionals that give the crown of Queen Anne its patina. It was the same platinum crew as frequented Crow, only packaged a little less uptown: If Crow was their night out, Betty was their home away from home.
And steak frites, no doubt, is their usual. It’s Betty’s trophy plate, in the way of Crow’s roast chicken: a tender, loosely bound Brandt Farms rib eye glorified by the grill and oozing juices that only improve a mess of crisped fries. My daughter, who found it so tender she could cut it with her fork, kept sneaking that fork over to my plate for another stolen bite. “Eat your own food!” I finally barked, meat lust temporarily overwhelming anything remotely maternal.
The fact is, her dinner wasn’t as good. Nobody’s was. A grilled pork tenderloin came paired with a corn, Walla Walla sweet onion, and pancetta salad that lacked any relationship with the meat: It might have been any side dish. The pan-roasted chicken was tenderly prepared and dotted with morels, but not elevated by its pattypan squash and local green beans. An appetizer of Spanish ham and potato croquettes arrived in a splash of red pepper coulis with a pretty ring of chive-parsley oil, but desperately wanted flavor. These were perfectly edible dishes that never added up to more than the sum of their parts. Crow, by contrast, traffics entirely in more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts food.
It’s a fine line between food that’s simple and food that’s simpleminded. I agree with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, whose definition of hard-core porn—“I know it when I see it”—has served as my own highly scientific bore-o-meter for decades. (All right, nitpickers, make that “I know it when I taste it.” Justice Stewart was reportedly blind as a bat when he penned the opinion that outlived him in infamy, so let’s not get too literal.) Some of Betty’s dishes achieved the right kind of simplicity, revealing the acumen that arises from restraint. A two-beet salad was a thoughtful composition of musky reds and goldens with toasted hazelnuts and big chunks of sweet stilton. A robust-grained, big-flavored smoked trout rillette—original, satisfying—was served with toasted-walnut salad, horseradish cream, and a smear of good mustard. A crostini trio featured one topped with a minty pea puree, one with tapenade, and one with red pepper puree and goat cheese. A bowl of hearty Mexican posole was thick with white hominy and plenty of ham.
But here’s the qualm I haven’t been able to shake since my third visit to Betty: that our posole was good more because posole’s good than because Betty is. The cooking left no overriding impression. Only one dish, the steak frites, left us plotting a return. Desserts were unmemorably fine. The servers, hosts, and busers attending us were accommodating without rising to any level of excellence. Betty, bless her, turns out to be the original Plain Jane.
Goodness knows, it’s not easy coming up in the shadow of a popular big sister—especially one with boobs as big as Crow’s. Perhaps the little maid should borrow a page from big sis’s playbook. One reason Crow works so well is the hugely satisfying contrast between the homespun simplicity of the fare and the rich urban buzz of the surroundings. Betty, aside from its glossy clientele, offers no such contrast.
But the bigger reason for Crow’s success is that the homespun, simple fare happens to be extraordinary. The thing about Betty, to flog that sister metaphor one last time, is that she’s plain underneath it all too. Take off her Coke-bottle glasses and let down her hair—and she’s still no raving beauty.
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