Image: Sarah Flotard

The juice bar hidden in the recesses of Chophouse Row didn’t last, despite an ambient army of laptop creatives in need of takeaway salads and blended morning greens. The Capitol Hill counter’s next life, serving Brittany-style crepes and French cider, spanned just nine months. The brevity had nothing to do with the galettes themselves, speckly brown buckwheat parcels, sprinkled with powdered sugar or filled with comte cheese and tissue-thin ham. It seemed unlikely anything could survive here, invisible to all the passersby.

Then came Sun Hong, a veteran of Matt Dillon’s Bar Ferdinand, with his sheets of crackling nori, shimmery lengths of albacore, and an enormous rice cooker. In November 2018, he recast this covert pocket of butcher block and French blue wainscoting into an eight-stool destination for lunchtime tasting menus. Or, rather, a trio of impeccable Japanese-style hand rolls, with interstitials of whatever convergence of Japanese food traditions and his Korean heritage Hong happened to be feeling that morning—steamed egg custard, a dab of chopped hamachi and potato salad…hell, maybe some steamed dumplings.

In the erratic alchemy of a restaurant’s success or failure, sometimes the best route is the gloriously specific one. A year later, tiny By Tae has seized the attention of magazines national (Bon Appétit) and local ("The Great Seattle Restaurant Rush of 2019"). Hong and his wife, Erin, instituted a morning sign-up sheet, so fans wouldn’t have to loiter awkwardly over diners’ shoulders in order to score one of those stools.

Sitting there one Monday, receiving cigar-shaped rolls directly from Hong’s hand, summoned memories of another unlikely lunch-only restaurant. In 2011, Mike Easton fired up a few butane burners in a borrowed gelato shop and hoped his popup, dubbed Il Corvo, would sell enough bowls of pasta to make this experiment viable. “A Life Extruded: Mike Easton and the Alki Homestead’s Path to Il Nido,” chronicles what happened next.

Our Restaurant of the Year also specializes to the max, pairing pita with soft serve and Northwest vegetable adventures, all against a backdrop of ostrich wallpaper. So much of restaurant economics rewards the establishments that play it safe, but for diners the most rewarding meals happen—whether in stylized rooms, borrowed gelato shops, or a counter once feared too obscure—when chefs trespass outside the norms to let their geek flag fly.

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