The 30 Seattle Restaurant Experiences You Must Have Before You Die

Call it our Where-to-Eat Bucket List: Dining moments so special, so iconic, so emblematic of the culinary extravaganza we call Seattle…you must experience them at least once in your life.

By Kathryn Robinson With Kristin Cordova September 21, 2009 Published in the October 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Psst: See our updated list of essential dining experiences right here!


A slice of cake at the Kingfish Café

Wake Up at Volunteer Park Café

No place reveals Seattle’s small-town soul like the Volunteer Park Café on a Saturday morning. Someone’s golden retriever wags affably at the door. Sunbeams pour in soaring windows, warming flour sack–topped tables and mismatched chairs and legions of sleepy neighbors waiting (and waiting) for a cup of steaming, stunning Stumptown and the city’s best house-baked pastries, blueberry scones to pear-­cardamom muffins. There’s fancy food too, day and night, but it’s the drop-in dreaminess of morning combined with the casually exquisite food that makes Volunteer Park Café indispensable. Volunteer Park Café, 1501 17th Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-328-3155; alwaysfreshgoodness.com

Salade Composée at Le Gourmand

More chapel than restaurant, Le Gourmand is Seattle’s shrine to the edible benedictions of Cascadia, from Northwest cuisine’s high priest and original architect, Bruce Naftaly. Within the luxe white walls it’s all about the most pristine haricots verts, the perfect pattypan squash—either of which might show up with first-of-the-season chanterelles and an orange blossom–thyme vinaigrette in that individually marinated and intricately arranged French art form, the salade composée. Every night Naftaly and his wife Sara extemporize a different seasonal version; every night it shines. Le Gourmand, 425 NW Market St, Ballard, 206-784-3463; legourmandrestaurant.com

Honey from Heaven at Salish Lodge

Sure it’s cheesy, not to mention potentially sticky. Your brunch waiter lifts her honey dripper high above your plate, and just as you’re starting to wish you’d at least glanced at her target-practice credentials, it spills into a golden pool right where the butter’s melting into your buttermilk biscuit. The waterfall-routine began in 1919 when the first country restaurant opened on this spot alongside thundering Snoqualmie Falls, then faded into the mists of history when the burnished new Salish Lodge went up in 1988. Last year the savvy Salish brought the ritual back, reminding generations of former kids why they loved it so much when their parents aimed the Sunday drive in the direction of Snoqualmie. Salish Lodge, 6501 Railroad Ave S, Snoqualmie, 425-888-2556; salishlodge.com

A Slice of Cake at the Kingfish Café

Sorry, did we say “slice of cake”? I believe we meant “bigger-than-your-head-and-could-feed-four Platonic ideal of cake.” A towering three-story slice arrives supine on its plate, necessarily: Its dense, moist red velvet or chocolate fudge or spice cake crowned with icing, whipped cream, a drizzle of caramel, and a fan of strawberries. The Coaston sisters celebrate their Southern heritage through small-town hospitality and traditional family recipes at their Capitol Hill café, where a whole lot of fans ignore the soul-food lunches and dinners just to let themselves eat cake. Kingfish Café, 602 19th Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-320-8757; thekingfishcafe.com

Party for 10 at the Corson Building

Grab your squeeze and four other couples and book the big table at the most idiosyncratic dinner house in the city, perhaps the country. There it is now in unlikely Georgetown, the little nasturtium-twined Italianate villa between the freeway exit and the train tracks. Approach through a flourishing Eden—mind the rooster!—and enter a twinkling, stucco dining room filled with good energy and even better aromas. Chef Matthew Dillon (Sitka and Spruce) regards his endeavor more as a dinner party than a restaurant, so that’s how to experience it: Around a big, loud table for which he’ll throw together excellent wines and a few small plates and family-style platters from what’s freshest in market and garden. Only Dillon’s version of “thrown together”—maybe rabbit legs in olive oil and aromatics or grilled zucchini with gooseberries, pistachios, and chunks of feta—could render the term meaningless. The Corson Building, 5609 Corson Ave S, Georgetown, 206-762-3330; thecorsonbuilding.com

Dinner Out of the Fish Tank at Sea Garden

You walk right past them on your way to your table, trying desperately to avoid eye contact with the tilapia and spot prawns and lumbering Dungeness that are about to become dinner. It’s a beloved tradition in Chinatown’s seafood restaurants—well, beloved for humans—and one best worth savoring at longtime haunt Sea Garden, where you can walk right up to the tank and point out the very lobster or geoduck you prefer. Or leave the choice to the chef, who will pluck the creature out of the brine and bring it squirming to your table for your approval. Your heart may bleed a little, but one garlicky bite of Sea Garden’s signature black bean crab will restore your killer instincts immediately. Sea Garden, 509 Seventh Ave S, International District, 206-623-2100 

A Night at the Herbfarm

Say what you will about four forks, five hours, nine courses, $179. Urp. For a deft, deep survey of the freshest local bounty (with one of the nation’s jaw-dropping wine collections), no place can touch the floridly decorated farmstead in Woodinville wine country. Every Northwesterner must visit at least once—either in foodie fall, when summer meets harvest meets mushroom rains meets seafood runs, or when whatever big anniversary or dividend check justifies the expenditure required to do it right. Meaning: Spend the night. The boutique Willows Inn is just stumbling distance across the courtyard. Cryin’ shame if you were the designated driver when owner Ron Zimmerman broke out the 1795 Madeira. The Herbfarm, 14590 NE 145th St, Woodinville, 425-485-5300; theherbfarm.com

Lunch in the Heart of Pike Place Market

You can find white tablecloth dining all over the Market. But to feel its throbbing pulse, head for the lunch counter at the Market Grill in the clogged artery of the Main Arcade. There, across from historic Pure Food Fish and just a trout’s toss from the pig, a couple of fellas sling terrific chowder and blacken salmon sandwiches, delectable ones, with fresh fixings and fragrant sauce and swimming-just-yesterday fish. Humble? The point exactly. Market Grill, 1509 Pike Pl, Pike Place Market, 206-682-2654

Dessert on the Deck at Ray’s Café

The good news: Ray’s Café’s stunner of a view deck extends out over pewter Shilshole Bay where the Olympic Mountains pin the sunset to the horizon. The bad news: Ray’s Boathouse downstairs has way better food. The solution: Head for the Ray’s Café deck—for dessert. Marcia Sisley-Burger, the insanely talented pastry chef for both Boathouse and Café, crafts swoony tarts of seasonal fruit with rummy frangipane; she fires her signature chocolate soufflés with ancho chilies and cayenne, then crowns them with lime sauce and vanilla bean ice cream. Views and chews will compete for your devotion. Ray’s Café, 6049 Seaview Ave NW, Ballard, 206-789-3770; rays.com/cafe

Just You and ‘The Economist’ at Café Presse

There are folks out there who don’t understand the bliss of an unregimented day, a solo meal out, something smart to read, something potent to sip, and the perfect platter of steak frites. To the vast majority who do, the casual all-day drop-in Parisian café with the magazine rack and the irresistible casse-croûte menu and the Caffé Vita—and the all-day cocktails—is simply the quintessential spot in town for such folly. Café Presse, 1117 12th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-709-7674; cafepresseseattle.com

Shock Your Palate with Joule

Joule is the mousy librarian who moonlights as a secret agent. In this civilized Wallingford storefront, full-throttle culinary fearlessness happens on the quarter hour. Under the bold steerage of chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, continental and Korean influences collide into a dynamic fusion. With abandon and aplomb these chefs scatter cubes of acorn jelly in a cucumber salad, smear fig marmalade over a kasu-brined pork chop, and fire poussin with Korean chili rub and pickled Asian melon. Nowhere in town is East-West fusion this brainy, this exotic. For Seattle gastronauts Joule is the thrill ride of the moment. Joule, 1913 N 45th St, Wallingford, 206-632-1913; joulerestaurant.com

A Burger and Fries in the Parking Lot of Dick’s

This city’s devotion to its homegrown burger chain surpasses even its love of coffee. Why? Dick’s is about floppy fries flecked with real potato skin and burgers that taste like nostalgia and sweet pickles, paid for with couch-cushion coins and dispatched in three bites with a chaser of car exhaust. You come on a July afternoon hanging out of a convertible or at 1am the night before a hangover, then leave wondering if the food was actually good or just tasted that way. You always decide you don’t care.
Dick’s, 111 NE 45th St, Wallingford, 206-632-5125. 115 Broadway E, Capitol Hill, 206-323-1300. 9208 Holman Rd NW, Ballard, 206-783-5233. 12325 30th Ave N, Lake City, 206-363-7777. 500 Queen Anne Ave N, Queen Anne, 206-285-5155; ddir.com



Table 19 at Bizzarro

Image: Amos Morgan

Become a Regular in Your Neighborhood Restaurant

Seattle—a collection of villages masquerading as a city—is crammed with neighborhood restaurants built primarily on the devotion of regulars. Nothing conveys a regular’s sense of belonging better than ordering a dish so “insider” it’s not even on the menu. Montlake dwellers ring Café Lago the morning of their visit if they’re hankering for its stuffed peppers. Capitol Hill denizens know they can usually get Dinette ’s kitchen to whip up some of its dreamy frittata toast if they ask nicely. And if they ask frequently enough—they may have more influence than they know. For years Ristorante Machiavelli famous filet mignon, pan-seared in a red wine reduction, was beloved of patrons who never saw it in writing—they just knew to ask for it. It’s on the menu now. Café Lago, 2305 24th Ave E, Montlake, 206-329-8005; cafelago.com . Dinette, 1514 E Olive Way, Capitol Hill, 206-328-2282; dinetteseattle.com. Ristorante Machiavelli, 1215 Pine St, Capitol Hill, 206-621-7941; machiavellis.com

Tableside Caesar Salad at El Gaucho

Nowhere in town but the swanky, underlit El Gaucho steakhouses will a dashing waiter in a tux roll a cart to your table, fold a napkin across his forearm, mash anchovies into olive oil, froth the fluid into a garlicky emulsion, toss the dressing with romaine and fresh croutons, then serve it with a flourish and a fresh snowdrift of reggiano. The whole operation is nostalgic, theatrical, indulgent, entirely unnecessary, improbably delicious, and the main reason why dinner at El Gaucho is the ultimate Big Night Out. El Gaucho, 2505 First Ave, Belltown, 206-728-1337. 450 108th Ave NE, Bellevue, 425-455-2715; elgaucho.com

Kayak to Dinner at Agua Verde

It’s Seattle’s priceless version of that dockside cantina in the Sea of Cortez, the one with killer halibut tacos and the tsunami of tequila. Perfect the (Baja) California dreamin’ by arriving at the deck of this Portage Bay beach house via kayak—your own, or the one you rent by the hour from the Paddle Club below the restaurant. 1303 NE Boat St, University District, 206-545-8570; aguaverde.com. 5811 Lake Washington Blvd NE, Kirkland, 425-822-2896; aguaverdeeste.blogspot.com

Tuck into a Hidden Courtyard

Seattle’s hidden outdoor courtyards, opening off its luckier bars and restaurants, are like tiny gifts of fresh air to a city with more than its share of indoor days. We’re particularly fond of the prettily gated court off to the side of Buckley’s in Belltown (formerly Marjorie, and before that Lush Life, and before that Septieme), and the sweet enclosed alley off Txori, just down the street. But the court at Oddfellows Café —the all-day drop-in haunt Hill dwellers find indispensable for a cup of soup and a cookie here, a brisket sandwich there—is particularly enchanting. Its skinny courtyard is completely enclosed, lined in brick, floored with wood decking…and roofed with sky. Buckley’s in Belltown, 2331 Second Ave, Belltown, 206-588-8879; buckleysseattle.com. Oddfellows Café, 1525 10th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-325-0807; oddfellowscafe.com. Txori, 2207 Second Ave, Belltown, 206-204-9771; txoribar.com

Holiday Cocktails in the Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel

When the weather outside is frightful, no room feels so delightful. The masterpiece boutique hotel, the Sorrento, was built for the Alaska-Pacific-Yukon Exposition in 1909. Still wrapped in its original mahogany, the intimate fireplace lobby gleams in the firelight. Festive shoppers and winter revelers cluster over hot toddies or coffee nudges, while a jazz musician tickles the ivories, making every chorus sound like, “Why go home at all…?” Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel, 900 Madison St, Downtown, 206-343-6156; hotelsorrento.com

Izakaya with Shochu in Japantown

Izakaya is Japanese pub grub; shochu the distilled liquor that recently surpassed sake as Japan’s preferred poison. Unbelievably, until a handful of years ago neither was available in Seattle; now they compose the worldly wage slave’s favorite happy hour, best enjoyed at the authentic wood-hewn Kaname Izakaya. It’s a fastidious little family-run joint in ­Japantown with cheap happy hour exotics—gobo fries, deep-fried tofu—and six distinct varieties of the alluring liquor. Kaname Izakaya, 610 S Jackson St, International District, 206-682-1828; ­kaname-izakaya.com

Sample Salsa at La Carta de Oaxaca

Authentic mole negro and albondigas and entomatadas on stylish Ballard Ave render La Carta de Oaxaca one of the really unlikely finds in this town. Bring a crowd of folks you like a lot (you’ll be standing in line with them), then send someone up to the salsa bar to fetch pots of each of that day’s five fresh choices for an informal sampling. With La Carta’s lighter-than-air housemade tortilla chips as conveyances, try ’em all, including an admirable tomatillo salsa verde and one red version whose bright fire will light up your taste buds like a pinball machine. La Carta de Oaxaca, 5431 Ballard Ave NW, Ballard, 206-782-8722; lacartadeoaxaca.com

Put Yourself in Scott Carsberg’s Hands at Lampreia

Scott Carsberg is one of Seattle’s great natural resources. The West Seattle kid with the humble origins apprenticed with the great chefs of Europe, then returned to dazzle his hometown. He’s a master of pure ingredients, distilled flavors, and minimalist preparations; and what dinner in the spare dining room at Lampreia may lack in warmth of decor or service Carsberg makes up for with intense, exhilarating plates, presented in museum-quality compositions. His five-course Apple Tasting menu nails his unique vision in a distinctly Northwest way. Dungeness crab tucked into transparent slices of sweet Honeycrisp. Apples stuffed with foie gras, stuffed into dumplings, fashioned into cake. It’s fun, smart, and sumptuous. Lampreia, 2400 First Ave, Belltown, 206-443-3301; lampreiarestaurant.com

Awaken Your Chakra to Vegetables at Sutra

No Seattle foodie’s education is complete without the four vegetarian—sometimes vegan—courses at Sutra, where prix-fixe dinners are elegantly presented in one or two seatings a night. Yes, we said vegan. And if you didn’t just stop reading you should know that chef Colin Patterson, a masterful chef of deep hospitality and serenity who sounds a gentle gong at the start of every meal, makes dishes like fig and heirloom tomato lasagna with roasted golden beets and creamed spinach taste vivid and satisfying…and, dare we say, meaty. Sutra, 1605 N 45th St, Wallingford, 206-547-1348; sutraseattle.com

Bánh Xèo Cây Me at Tamarind Tree

Chinese, Japanese, and Thai food have all enjoyed their moments in the Seattle sun, but Vietnamese cuisine has seized the spotlight. It’s all over town and up and down the sophistication spectrum, from the banh mi joints of Jackson Street to suburban pho takeouts and, now, swanky upmarket destinations. Best of ’em all is the beaut that launched the resurgence, Tamarind Tree—the Geode of Little Saigon—where a sloped and rutted urban-nightmare parking lot leads to a sleek orange room packed with folks enjoying crispy-crunchy salad rolls and lemongrass chicken and 18 pages’ worth of more. Look closely and you’ll see about half the diners carefully swaddling bits of seafood-studded mung bean–rice batter crepes in the greens and basil and mint and cilantro that make this cuisine so fresh and bracing. Tamarind Tree, 1036 S Jackson St Ste A, International District, 206-860-1404; tamarindtreerestaurant.com

Sunny-Day Cocktails on the Pink Door Deck

In the newsworthy event of a break in the overcast, Seattleites know to drop everything and head for the sun-dappled rooftop off the flea-market-chic Pink Door. Oh, you can nibble—on legendary clam linguine perhaps—but it’s a cocktail you’ll want when soaking up the sea breeze, watching the ferries ply and the seagulls dance and the sun descend. A certified civic treasure. The Pink Door, 1919 Post Alley, Pike Place Market, 206-443-3241; thepinkdoor.net

Stand in Line at Salumi

The family of New York superstar chef Mario Batali owns the thin-slice salumeria in Pioneer Square—but that’s not why the lineup starts well before doors open at 11am. It’s packed because the porchetta and meatball and finocchiona (salami with fennel) sandwiches are flawless exemplars of the cured meat sandwich the way it’s done in Italy. That’s why fans keep coming in spite of the dearth of seats and the ridiculous waits—worse late in the week, worst in nice weather. True aficionados know that rainy Tuesdays and Wednesdays in winter bring the shortest lines, and that if they pull grim enough expressions someone will break out the free salami. They also know—just like the folks who willingly queue up at Pecos Pit BBQ, Skillet, and Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream —it’s weirdly satisfying to delay gratification amid a horde of likeminded hungry. Molly Moon’s homemade Ice Cream, 1622½ N 45th St, Wallingford, 206-547-5105. 917 E Pine St, Capitol Hill, 206-708-7947; mollymoonicecream.com. Pecos Pit BBQ, 2260 First Ave S, SoDo, 206-623-0629; pecospitbbq.com. Salumi, 309 Third Ave S, Pioneer Square, 206-621-8772; salumicuredmeats.com. Skillet, visit skilletstreetfood.com for locations

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Image: Iris Dumuk


Table 19 at Bizzarro

What was once a plywood-covered back corner of Wallingford’s rococo ristorante Bizzarro became the famously intimate Table 19 when a customer requested a private place to propose. Bizzarro hastened to accommodate, installing a candlelit table behind a framing post, rendering that initial guest’s “Yes!” the first of a million memorable moments in the hidden alcove. Bizzarro, 1307 N 46th St, Wallingford, 206-632-7277; bizzarroitaliancafe.com

Oysters at Elliott’s Oyster House

Oysters on the half shell? Blessedly plentiful in this part of the world. Two dozen varieties in one place? That can only be the 21-foot ice bar at Elliott’s Oyster House. Order up a sampler ($23–$28 for a dozen—but just 50 cents apiece from 3 till 3:30pm) and someone much more knowledgeable than you will cleanly shuck your fresh Olympias or Totten Virginicas or pearly Kusshis before your eyes, then serve the briny little beasties with or without a mignonette. It’s like Oyster University, with a watery Elliott Bay view for inspiration. This local jewel hides in plain sight behind lackluster fish plates and about a jillion quacking tourists. Elliott’s Oyster House, 1201 Alaskan Way, Pier 56, Downtown, 206-623-4340; elliottsoysterhouse.com

Watch the Show at Harvest Vine

It may just be a copper counter with a dozen seats. But to a tapas fan, one who has savored Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez’s Galacian-style octopus and slow-roasted suckling pig, it’s front and center on the most riveting food show in town. From any of the seats surrounding the open kitchen it’s an open question whether diners prefer the culinary choreography, complete with fire and sharp knives, or the artistic platings. Then the food arrives and beats ’em both. Harvest Vine, 2701 E Madison St, Madison Valley, 206-320-9771; harvestvine.com

Thinking Drinker’s Cocktail Combo at Spur

In Seattle, liquor is a legitimate part of dinner and mixologists are gastronomes. The epicenter of this trend is Spur, the sleek, chic Belltown bar that’s also the most intelligent of the new field of gastropubs. Here, visionaries of solids and liquids pair cocktails like the refreshing Gentleman’s Lemonade with nibbles like chicken in duck confit with garlic chips and Dijon pudding. The average swiller might not appreciate the five elements of taste carefully built into both dish and drink—those would be rich, acidic, salty, sweet, and bitter—or the way the mustardy-­barbecue overtones of the chicken naturally resonate with the Southern notes of whiskey and lemonade in the cocktail. But food chemists? Never had such a blast at happy hour in their lives. Spur, 113 Blanchard St, Belltown, 206-728-6706; spurseattle.com

Paella for Two at Taberna del Alabardero

Tapas we got in this town, and plenty of ’em. Paella, the Valencian saffron rice dish studded with meats and seafoods and vegetables, wasn’t adequately represented until the sunny Spanish restaurant from Madrid, Taberna del Alabardero, opened quietly in Belltown last year. Order any of the four varieties per night, and it’ll arrive straight from the fire in its shallow pan, its caramelized and crispy rice and charry squid or shrimp or roasted red pepper to be scraped into bowls right there at the table. The perfect midwinter feast. Taberna del Alabardero, 2328 First Ave, Belltown, 206-448-8884; alabardero.com/seattle

After the Party at Palace Kitchen

Party’s over and you’re feeling peckish? If it’s good homemade noodles you want, at a Formica table in Mom’s warm kitchen, you can make for the humble, sweet-­natured Hing Loon in the heart of the International District, which ladles up its Cantonese solace till 1am (2am weekends). A hipper late-night scene smolders within the sandblasted walls of Belltown’s pasta house Tavolàta till midnight. But for the best postfunction in town, look no further than downtown’s Palace Kitchen. It’s always a cocktail party in full roar, under the dim medieval lights and wafting aromas of grilled meat. In the wee hours, no single meal hits closer to the spot than “breakfast” of grilled steak and butter-poached eggs with fried potatoes. And a side of tequila. Hing Loon, 628 S Weller St, International District, 206-682-2828. Palace Kitchen, 2030 Fifth Ave, Belltown, 206-448-2001; tomdouglas.com. Tavolàta, 2323 Second Ave, Belltown, 206-838-8008; tavolata.com

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