Critic's Notebook

Can a Restaurant Serving Mediocre Food be Worth Visiting?

Weirdly, yes. I dined at three of them last week.

By Kathryn Robinson August 6, 2012

Birthday party meets holiday festivities at this Capitol Hill spot. Photo by Tiffany Diamond

Are restaurant critics the only ones who register the bizarre phenomenon of a restaurant that’s terrific in spite of its lackluster food? I’m guessing not.

Anyone who’s been to Little Water Cantina knows what I’m getting at. On a beautiful summer night we nibbled tacos with overcooked shrimp, “amazing” carnitas tacos whose wan flavor (and dry texture) didn’t live up to the server’s breathless billing, mole sauce lacking in nuance. Only our very accommodating table servers made up for one seriously surly bartender.

So why did we love our evening? The room is breezy and casual, at once open and intimate. The deck is everything you’ve heard it is: Sprawling and gorgeous, the best in Seattle, with a grandstand prospect across Lake Union and the city that’s lucky enough to be wrapped around it. As dusk fell over the room the lights dimmed to a caramelly glow and we made copious use of that brusque bartender’s talents.

The bill wasn’t ridiculous—entree prices hover around $16ish—and as we left (uh, without doggy bags) we agreed that we couldn’t wait to come back.

Sometimes it ain’t about the food.

Consider a recent dinner at Oddfellows Cafe and Bar, where a special of lamb with olives and papardelle pasta was regrettably gummy and a gnocchi production with fresh corn and pepper relish forgot to cohere. Still, sitting there in the bullseye of hipster Seattle, within a brick-lined room all moody-dreamy-vintage in its aesthetic, alongside every representative of Capitol Hill’s democratic demographic—something essential got satisfied.

And across the hill at Restaurant Bea, just after the shakeup two weeks ago which replaced name chef Tom Black (Barking Frog, 35th Street Kitchen and Bar) with another guy owner Kate Perry won’t say much about—let’s just say the food (an overcooked burger, an underembellished roast chicken plate) was a clear work-in-progress.

But the servers were engaging and folksy; the Madrona room (once June, before that Cremant) sunny and grandmotherly in front, dim and date-nighty in back; the concept—up-market comfort food—a good solid bet for the neighborhood. This one I have high hopes for; our visit was early in the new guy’s tenure. The dessert list alone, which includes a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich with perfectly chewy cookies, makes Bea one to keep watching. We didn’t feel like leaving.

Sometimes we’re looking for a restaurant to feed us with more than food. For this diner, these three accomplished that—with beauty, with community, with heart.  

Just imagine if they could get their kitchens in the game.

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