I know. We were stunned too.
This year’s best and most emblematic newcomers are not the white-tablecloth destination dining rooms one typically finds on a Best Restaurants list. The scene is funny like that right now. I’ve encountered the authentic culinary integrity and lively sense of place in gastropubs and bottle shops and lunch delis whose chefs trained their talents—and what talents!—on lowbrow fare like BBQ and pizza and fish and chips.
Dumbing themselves down? On the contrary: These chefs are so skilled, so visionary, they have the stuff to take the most down-to-earth food and raise it up. Good for us, the lucky recipients of blue-ribbon food in street guises, sometimes even street prices. But good also for the state of food culture itself, which so often evolves at street level. Each of these eateries tells its part of a larger story, revealing emerging trends in Seattle dining.
So supremely suited is Trove to its high-end-indie Pike/Pine address, the mod compound with the fire engine red ceiling had mad success written all over it from day one. Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi (Joule, Revel) have made a career of killer restaurant ideas, all of which involve highly intelligent fusions of Korean food. Here in Trove’s four operations in one—cocktail lounge, fast food noodle bar, Korean barbecue dining room, parfait truck—the element being fused is fun. Twelve-buck noodle dishes from the counter up front might include Asian “spaghetti” with swiss chard and meatballs; cocktails run to high-octane amusements like the Seoul Mule, infused with the Korean traditional fruity herbal blend omija; desserts from the clever sawed-off ice cream truck facade are a selection of classic ice cream parfaits, some tweaked with Asian elements like miso caramel. (And don’t miss the visual puns all over the place, from the Godzilla–eats–Space Needle wallpaper to the whimsical scene inside the truck’s gas cap—go ahead: kneel down, peek in.) But the main event is Korean barbecue, in the appealingly lively dining room where tables have grills for DIY cooking of cuts like Wagyu chuck or pork belly with sesame salt. You take your meat off the heat, cut it with scissors, then dress it with the lettuce leaves and fresh herbs and kimchi and other Korean embellishments known as banchan and ssam—marveling as the flavors and textures ricochet around your palate, enhanced with every collision.
The groundbreaking craft bottle shop that launched its second outpost in the Central District this year (the first is in Greenwood) simply nails the state of Seattle connoisseurship this instant. You’ve got your exhaustive selection of some of the greatest beers in the world, available by the bottle or the growler—at least 50-odd of those on tap for sipping while shopping. Always a food truck out in the lot—Chuck’s pulls the best ones, from Napkin Friends to Snout and Co. to Where Ya At Matt—to supply sufficient alimentary excuse to make an evening of it at one of the shared indoor or individual patio tables. Full Tilt Ice Cream, by the cone or by the pint, just because it rocks. Best, across the operation, a good-natured anarchy so freewheeling—Bring your kids! Bring the dog! Hog a table for a game of Monopoly!—it creates the goodwill that builds loyalty. Honestly, watching the diverse crew of neighbors converge on this novel community center of a Friday afternoon is like watching a magnet in full pull. Could it be something is getting fed here besides hunger and thirst?
The transition from truck to bricks and mortar is never a gimme—but the talented Matthew Lewis (Where Ya At Matt?) made it look easy when he opened Restaurant Roux last year in the husk of Fremont’s gritty old Buckaroo Tavern. First he whipped up a frenzy of demand, playing up Roux’s connection to the popular truck. Then he individualized the brands, shrewdly limiting most of his ridiculously magnificent po’boy sandwiches to the truck alone. Finally he tightened consistency of the restaurant’s Creole brunches and dinners, thereby creating that singular achievement—a neighborhood restaurant with citywide appeal. The sweetly rustic joint is just slammed, all the time, from its soaring rafters to its mottled concrete floors, from its charming windowpane walls to its merry, skillful bar. The kitchen takes plenty of creative leave with specials but it’s the old favorites that deliver best andexplain the crowd: the honey-jalapeño hush puppies, the shrimp and grits, a beautifully mellowed jambalaya, and what have to be the finest beignets in the West.
It’s just angelically, impossibly good: two plump chunks of true cod, flaky and mild and clean, cloaked in a just-shy-of-sweet batter and gilded in the fryer to a spectacular crunch. Dipped in spicy mayo or housemade remoulade—heck, dipped in battery acid—they are the best fish you’ve had in forever…which is amazing since they’re mere fish-and-chips, which is itself amazing since they’re the anchor of an Ethan Stowell restaurant, he of the restaurant empire and elite reputation. Of course none of this is actually amazing, since we’ve grown used to highbrow chefs training their brilliant gazes on lowbrow foods—but Stowell’s team lavishes these plebeian preparations with a connoisseur’s finesse. Like an overstuffed and supremely lush Dungeness and king crab roll with lemon aioli and tomato and avocado in shattering French bread. Or clam chowder in a creamy broth so packed with vivid flavor from new potatoes and heady aromatics and fresh clams and good bacon, it transcends every expectation a person might reasonably bring to a bowl of soup. Seafood restaurants are making a comeback, and this little brick Ballard Avenue bar with the killer cocktails holds up the casual end ably.
If Pioneer Square were someone’s home, the London Plane would be the great room off the kitchen—the one with the soaring ceilings, the unruly garden flowers bursting from a pot by the sink, an anytime slice of cardamom cake with cream-swirled coffee. Matt Dillon composed his breathtaking two-level breakfast, lunch, brunch, bakery, florist, deli, and retail stop as a paean to the delights of day dining, in time adding prix-fixe dinners Wednesdays through Saturdays. But more than that, the London Plane is Dillon’s homage to everyday dining: close-to-the-earth foods, from a plate of fluffy whole-milk yogurt with roasted beets and crisped emmer to a salad of trofie pasta with lentils and ragged hunks of chicken and stinging nettles and feta. All crafted without undue innovation along the fault lines of a chef’s fixations: springy slow-fermented breads with spreads, vinegar as all-purpose flavor enhancer, cultured dairy, micro-seasonal everything. And all enjoyed however you want it: from a takeout container or on a plate, at the bar or around a table, gazing through glass upon the leafy trees and cobbled pavers of an urban landscape a person might even call a neighborhood.
The flights of sly imagination Mike Easton brings to nanoseasonal daily pastas at Il Corvo he now applies to extraordinary pizzas, served up weekday lunchtime in this windowy brick-lined Pioneer Square room with bar seats, a fir table long as a red carpet, and a kitchen so open you can watch the cooks snapping beans and shucking corn. Yes, corn—one of the many why-not pizza toppings that establish Easton’s signature pizza style: heaping vegetables and herbs and cheeses and cured meats in undreamt-of combos, four or five a day, like squash with pancetta and nutmeggy bechamel, or—they can’t make enough of this one—mozzarella and mortadella with oily drizzles of pistachio pesto. As for crusts, they’re thick and substantial in the Roman style al taglio—show with your fingers how big a cut you want, then pay by the kilo—but not at the expense of delicacy. A simple salad, perhaps chickpeas and vegetables in an herby vinaigrette, rounds out lunch so beautifully you’ll leave wondering if a pizza meal has ever left you so radiantly nourished.
For a restaurateur who embraces badassitude as if it were a cuisine, Derek Ronspies inhabits a surprisingly sweet and twinkling wood-hewn space on the second floor of the Center of the Universe. He launched Le Petit Cochon last year with a concentration on highbrow offal preparations, then changed the menu and shortened the name for a less Frenchified vibe and a reduced emphasis on the nasty bits. (Don’t worry—you’ll probably still find bone marrow in your burger or foie gras in your ice cream.) But make no mistake—the badass remains. “We are not here for the grim, pretentious diner who is seeking perfection,” the new menu disclaims, praising rowdiness and great music. (And affirming Cochon at the forefront of the movement to bring diners into line with the desires of the restaurant, not the time-honored opposite.) Which is to say: If the loud music isn’t to your liking, tough—it is to the kitchen’s. So to find servers this accommodating and sweet, serving food this creatively intelligent (a fish-and-chips dish featuring gilded Neah Bay black cod over a crispy Yukon Gold latke with horseradish yogurt) and consistently executed (a double-thick “Phat Ass” pork chop that’s nevertheless impossibly moist)—feels like a crowd-pleasing surprise. This Ronspies dude can cook.
To successfully smoke brisket a person needs to be about 38 kinds of geek: one who knows his mesquite from his post oak, maybe one with a techie joint like Microsoft on his resume—best, one with an actual Texas pedigree. Check, check, and check. Jack Timmons, whose charming new roadhouse in Greater Georgetown enshrines a passion for brisket so consuming it led him to study it at Texas A&M, then order himself a custom-built offset smoker, then launch a cult success of a popup; this lovely brick-and-mortar spot represents his 2.0. Inside it looks like Austin—all strung with lights, the bar has a stage, and there’s a deli line at lunchtime—but you’ll just be staring at the meat: mounds of pulled pork, hot links, half chickens, stunning lightly glazed St. Louis ribs, and slices of the world’s most succulent brisket, suffused with the smoke that makes that ring inside the bark so pink. Sides also trend toward terrific—especially the mac and cheese and the refreshing black-eyed-pea salad, Texas Caviar. Sure it’s Texan—but the sheer perfection of its Texasness is what makes Jack’s so Seattle.
Whether you see it as a restaurant-food-in-a-bar thing or a bar-masquerading-as-a-restaurant thing—you cannot possibly have lived in Seattle the last half decade and missed bar food’s startling ascent from Booze Ballast to Whole Point. Exhibit A of course being the dim, brick-lined Damn the Weather, the Pioneer Square conspiracy of ace barman Bryn Lumsden (Rob Roy, Vessel) and chef’s chef Eli Dahlin (the Walrus and the Carpenter) to unite brainy cocktails with exquisitely wrought bites under one Pioneer Square roof. Never mind that a few other folks had the same idea this year: Damn the Weather is in a culinary category all its own, offering sly takes on playful small plates like grilled peaches with celery leaf and fennel and a smear of blue cheese puree, or a duck hot dog with salsa verde, or a Caesar salad stunningly recast in sandwich form. Libations are careful too—lots of winter-friendly rum drinks (with a cast of thousands loudly enjoying them)—but so seriously is the spotlight trained on the food, a glance into the kitchen may reveal four chefs huddled over your dish, arranging it just so.
If restaurants had roots, the ones fixing this welcoming gastropub to its little corner of east Ballard would be deeper than an establishment less than a year old has any right to expect. Truth is—despite that trendy ampersand in its name, Brimmer & Heeltap has an old soul. The kind that can only come from uncommonly authentic hospitality in the front of the house (thank you, friendly owner Jen Doak) and simply sensational food out of the back—in this case, that Holy Grail of culinary improbability, sure-handed fusion. With lessons brought from Revel and Joule, chef Mike Whisenhunt innovates short menus grafting Korean influences onto familiar Western preparations so that sumptuously smoky lamb gets sauteed with soy-pickled vegetables in a ginger-chili glaze; a mizuna salad gets piqued with pickled cherries and a flurry of bonito flakes. Combos like these taste as buoyant and inevitable as if they’d been showing up together for centuries, and are particularly sublime against the Pinterest-worthy tableaus of the charming neofarmhouse. Of special note is the bar: a bona fide Third Place drawing neighbors and industry folk for its inventive cocktails and late-night happy hour.