Best Restaurants

35 Essential Seattle Dining Experiences

In no particular order: Seattle Met’s list of dining experiences so exquisite, so iconic, so quintessential to living here—you can’t call yourself a Seattleite and miss ’em.

By Kathryn Robinson April 24, 2015 Published in the May 2015 issue of Seattle Met

Seattle is having a restaurant moment.

The cranes on nearly every block are but outward signs of what we know in our bones: Seattle is back in growth mode. And legions of restaurants are opening to accommodate the hunger.

Truth is, in a city this exceptional foodwise, the bigger story is the big picture. Trends rise, trends fall, chefs come and go—you know, besides T Doug—but it’s our iconic dining experiences that define how damn fine it can be to take fork to mouth in this town. Here they are, in no particular order; some are time honored, some are new. All are so quintessential to living here, you can’t call yourself a Seattleite and miss ’em.

1. Wait in a Line for a Sandwich

Take a random sampling of Americans out to lunch, and you’ll spot the Seattleite at 20 paces: The one who thinks it’s normal to wait 30 minutes for a sandwich. On a sidewalk. In the rain. If you haven’t been to Seattle’s trifecta of sandwich crowd-pleasers—the recently reborn Paseo in Fremont for the Caribbean roast, Tat’s Delicatessen in Pioneer Square for a Tat’strami, or Salumi around the corner for whatever artisan cured meat creation they want to sell you—you won’t understand. The rest of us will be in line ahead of you. 

2. Feast on Fishes at RockCreek Seafood

Time was, tourists sought the requisite Seattle seafood meal in viewy chain spots, while local fish-seeking gastronomes aimed straight for Asian restaurants. RockCreek changed all that. Now both constituencies pack the timbered, two-level Fremont fish house for its 16 or so daily finfish and shellfish, including rarely seen varieties like monkfish and Icelandic char. Owner and chef Eric Donnelly simply never fails, from an umami-rich black cod Provençale to a shrimp and grits for the ages. 

3. Thali at Poppy

It’s so clattering and relatively affordable, a person might not see that Poppy’s dinners redefine Northwest cuisine nightly. Chef Jerry Traunfeld brings all those years pioneering farm-to-table dining at the Herbfarm to his signature seven-dish platters called thali, which juxtapose unlikelies like pickled blackberries, peppermint snap peas, and salmon with bacon-fennel confit—always briskly fresh, always smack-the-forehead inspired.   

4.  Roll-Out-of-Bed Biscuit Breakfast

Sure we’ve got brunch; every city has brunch. More essentially Seattle is our emerging biscuit-house culture—packed little joints that are generally open earlier, define “adult beverage” more as caffeine than booze, and are as casual as the city itself. Reservations? Morning cocktails? Table service? How quaint. At joints like Morsel, Serious Biscuit, and The Wandering Goose it’s anyone’s guess whether patrons have even changed out of their pajamas. What you can count on: biscuits of exceptional cragginess and crunch, fluffy within, slathered with all manner of butters and toppings, and—with coffee—the best thing to happen to morning since sunrise over the Cascades.


Image: Olivia Brent 

5. Become a Regular at Your Neighborhood Restaurant

The soul of Seattle dining is in its neighborhoods, where folks sustain fierce loyalty to the joints they can walk to. This city is thickly blessed with great ones, like these that set the bar admirably high: Cafe Lago in Montlake, La Medusa in Columbia City, LloydMartin on Queen Anne, and Bar del Corso on Beacon Hill. Just don’t tell the neighbors you heard it from us. 

6. Semisecret Ramen Friday at Tsukushinbo

We’re afloat in ramen these days—but slurping it in old Japantown feels like considerably more than lunch. Friday is ramen day at this signless little haunt on Main, and the upside of the inevitable hour-long lunch wait is the crowd bonding on the sidewalk. The downside? The 60 bowls of the old-school Tokyo-style shoyu ramen—light yet lush—are pretty much history by 12:30.  

7. Progressive Dinner a la T Doug

Those who dismiss Tom Douglas as merely a prolific businessman are often surprised at the depth and range of his creative verve, still visible in the 17-and-counting Seattle restaurants that made him a household name. We wonder if he built so many within a single square mile so folks could sample his menus in one ambitious progressive dinner. Because imagine: twice-fried chicken wings with kimchi ketchup and a sake slushie at TanakaSan…then walk one block to the yellowtail ceviche at Cantina Leña…then two and a half blocks to the rosemary Yukon Gold pizza at Serious Pie…then around the corner for a nosh of grilled bread salad at Dahlia Lounge…then across the street for seafood tagine at Lola…and then four blocks seaward to the triple coconut cream pie at Etta’s…and finally, urp, back up the big hill to an after-hours nightcap at the roaring late-night Palace Kitchen. (And an Uber chaser.)

8. Rooftop Cocktails at the Pink Door

Forever and always the best sun-dappled seats in town, these rooftop tables in the middle of the Market offer a sweeping view of the bay, pasta-and-red-sauce trattoria fare—and a breezy whole that’s about triple the sum of the parts.


9. Never-Ending Brunch at Joule

Hands down the most intriguing morning meal in town is brunch at Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi’s beautiful Korean fusion house. Order your Asian-inflected entree off the menu—maybe shrimp and grits with Chinese sausage and ginger, maybe chicken-fried steak and black sesame waffles—and enjoy unlimited access to a buffet of salads, pickles, pastries, and fruit dishes crafted with soaring imagination along a rotating ethnic theme.

10. Reserve a Window Seat at Matt’s in the Market

The outlook from Matt’s demilune windows over Market rooftops onto the bay, the ferries, the Olympics, and the sunset wins our vote for Seattle’s most idiosyncratically iconic view. Lunches include a selection of uncommonly fine sandwiches; dinners are spendy but microseasonal. Consider kicking off the evening across the hall in Matt’s sister outfit, Radiator Whiskey, a down-to-earth shrine to quality booze and meat. (Its windows look onto a strip joint.) 

11. Drop in to a Popup

The popup phenomenon has ignited entrepreneurial fever in this town by providing puppy restaurateurs practice stages. Worthies at the moment include Sweet Bumpas (occasionally at Jack’s BBQ) and Food and Sh*t (occasionally at Inay’s Asian Pacific Cuisine)—but the scene regenerates itself constantly, and that’s the ephemeral delight of it.

12. Table for Two at Altura

The finest dinners in town right now issue from the open kitchen of the brilliant Nathan Lockwood in his intimate seasonal Italian treasure, Altura. Choose three courses from the dinner menu or go in for the full-on 12-course chef’s tasting menu; lucky you if it includes foie gras with fruit or agnolotti pasta in sugo. It’s romance food in a romantic room, where a pair of counter seats with night-at-the-ballet proximity to the kitchen’s choreography still feel as intimate as a two-top.


Image: Olivia Brent 

13. Cocktail Chemistry at Canon

The nibbling is overrated but the sipping peerless in this classy den of alcohol alchemy. With its 144-page Captain’s List, the largest collection of American whiskey in the country, 7,000 bottles of various spirits, and brainy bartenders worthy of every one of them—Canon delivers the most spiritual experience in town, particularly if you let the bartenders design your drink.

14. Lunch and a Show at Beecher’s

Smack in the beating heart of Pike Place Market, the award-winning artisan cheesemaker provides a window, literally, into the Northwest dairy industry. Pull up a milk jug stool and watch cheesemakers stir up curds in huge vats—preferably while eating a crispy grilled-cheese-with-basil-and-tomato sandwich, or Beecher’s ridiculously thick, deservedly famous mac and cheese.

15. Celebrate Something, Anything, at Canlis

Celebrations at Canlis are this city’s biggest cliche for a reason: No space is more visually arresting, no staff more genuinely hospitable, no food more reliably magnificent, no wine list more jaw dropping. Celebrate in the dining room or spring for one of three private spaces—including a glass-enclosed private aerie with a table for two.

16. Marination Ma Kai by Water Taxi

The perfect storm of Seattle charms: Casual waterside Hawaiian fusion joint. Full bar. The whole of Seattle’s wide-angle skyline unfurled across Elliott Bay. Hearty delectables like kalua pork sliders, kimchi fried rice, a pork katsu sandwich to make you fall to your knees. And a car-free commute from downtown—15 impossibly scenic minutes each way via water taxi.

17. Eat Extraordinary Vietnamese Food

Of the world’s cuisines, Vietnamese is the one Seattle does best—from dives for pho (best is Pho Bac, at the gateway to Little Saigon with three sister locations) and banh mi (finest at the ever-sketchy Saigon Deli) to high-end stunners like Monsoon (Capitol Hill, Bellevue), which innovates some of the smartest East-West fusion in town. Between those poles the range astounds, from youthful late-night street food (Ba Bar) to cheap ID storefronts (Green Leaf) to date nights in Little Saigon (Tamarind Tree) to elegant Indochinese throwbacks (Stateside). 

Ba Bar

Image: Olivia Brent

18. Make a Coffee Pilgrimage 

Seattle didn’t invent coffee, but please don’t tell us we didn’t perfect it. Exhibit A: Milstead Coffee, the tidy, lablike multiroaster from renowned coffee craftsman Andrew Milstead. Engage his very friendly baristas on the complexities of that day’s—that hour’s—roasts, then chill with your brew in the outdoor sculpture garden. Or, for the very opposite experience, Exhibit B: Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room, the sprawling new flagship of Seattle’s coffee Goliath on the downtown flank of Capitol Hill. Somewhere between a museum and a theme park, the world’s largest Starbucks is crammed and confounding—but head straight for the Experience Bar downstairs for its finest distinction: fresh beans brewed in a variety of really exquisite connoisseur methods, pour-overs to Clovers to siphons.

19. Dick’s Cheeseburger with a Milk Shake and Fries

Yes of course there are better burgers. But going to Dick’s to buy the tastiest floppy food a few coins of change can buy and scarfing it out of greasy bags in your car just like you did when you were a kid…well, that’s not about quality. It’s about cheap, wicked perfection.

20. Spain Via Harvest Vine

In winter you can head downstairs, warm within the stone walls of an Iberian-style wine cave sipping Spanish rioja and swabbing cider sauce with slices of grilled pork. In summer you can pull up a stool at the breezy copper counter, watching chefs gild the prawns for your gambas a la plancha. Sigh. The tapas are so transporting at this longtime treasure, Spain feels close from any seat. Psst: Paella happens most Tuesdays, by advance order.

21. Skid Roading in Pioneer Square

Seattle’s newest habit throws back to its oldest: drinking one’s way through Pioneer Square. Only now it’s epicureans throwing ’em back, in bars where the dining is as much the draw as drinking. In offering destination food as an end in itself, Damn the Weather, Intermezzo Carmine, and Good Bar are redefining bar ballast, happy hour, pregame expectations—and an urban neighborhood.

Pioneer square bars nyan30

Damn the Weather

Image: Olivia Brent

22. Tap the Food Truck Phenomenon

Food trucks are officially everywhere, but there is nothing more Seattle than a food truck outside a microbrewery—a symbiotic setup enabling each business to specialize, guests to eat and drink, and trucks to function like quasi restaurants. How we’ve loved stumbling onto Seattle Biscuit Company or Skillet at Hilliard’s Brewery in Ballard, or Now Get Me a Sandwich at Chuck’s Hop Shop in the CD, or Jemil’s Big Easy at Spinnaker Bay Brewing in Columbia City. And how we will love Ballard Bites and Brew, the soon-to-open outdoor love child of a truck pod and a beer garden in the middle of Ballard’s microbrewery zone—with four mobile kitchens there at any given moment. (Food trucks change locations frequently; call before visiting.) 

23. Cascina Spinasse’s Tajarin

Self-assured with a sense of place, Spinasse is wood-hewn, twinkling, romantic—and built on a menu of Piedmontese classics from charcuterie to vivid vegetable plates to dependably terrific meaty secondi. But the superstar of the menu, maybe even of the city, is the pasta whose consistency, in every sense of that word, transcends the vagaries of day or weather or chef turnover. It’s the tajarin, raggedly hand-cut strands of angelically fine yet rich egg pasta, served either in sage butter or throaty ragù. Simply extraordinary.

24. Adirondack Chairs on the Beach at Westward

There’s a menu just for the Adirondack chairs at North Lake Union’s fashionably slammed Eastern Mediterranean seafood spot—just snacks and dessert, really, except for the selection of that day’s half-shell oysters. The chairs are lined up resortlike on the rocky beach, looking up the maritime length of Lake Union, alongside an outdoor fire—with armrests just the right size for cocktails.


Image: Olivia Brent

25. Holiday Cocktails at the Sorrento Hotel’s Fireside Room

Wrapped in Honduran mahogany, warmed by a roaring fire, mellowed by a jazz combo thrumming in the corner—this glowing lobby bar is the place to settle onto a vintage sofa to cap a day of holiday shopping or simply to celebrate the rain.

26. Dinner in the Midst of Melrose Market

History will remember this as the Matt Dillon Era of Seattle restaurants. The culinary game changer taught us to eat like cavemen, to just add vinegar, to come back to Pioneer Square. In spite of his predominance in that neighborhood, this chef’s virtuosity shines brightest on Capitol Hill, among the bustling food stalls of Melrose Market. Start with wine and stunning charcuterie at his Bar Ferd’nand, then move inside to Sitka and Spruce for smoky meats and plants united by fire and spice. Not everyone will like it, or get it. Everyone else will quietly have their life changed.

27. Fight for a Happy Hour Seat at the Walrus and the Carpenter

Rabid national press has made Renee Erickson’s winsome whitewashed oyster bar the most coveted happy hour seat in town—with a line twice as long as its list of noshes (grilled sardines, radish plates, a noble steak tartare). But don’t go missing the pristine oysters, seven or so varieties daily, or precision cocktails.

28. Art Appreciation at Art of the Table

In a sunny little triangle room off Aurora thrives one of the underheralded masterpieces of Seattle where owner-chef Dustin Ronspies knocks it dead with sustainable farm-to-table invention, night after night. Dine on seven to nine chef-selected prix-fixe courses or dine a la carte; expect brilliant salads, something sumptuously braised, intriguing vinaigrettes, and the most painterly plates in town.

29.  Sustainable Sushi at Mashiko

Asian food is solid across the board in this city—but it’s sushi that puts the sea in Seattle. Hajime Sato produces it with all-sustainable seafood at his beloved West Seattle storefront, Mashiko. No more guesswork on avoiding overfished species; here you can count on all the seafood to be responsibly harvested, then cut with art and care. Go with the chef’s choice omakase feast; Sato is only getting better. 

30. Kedai Makan at 2am

Our drunk-dining scene has never been better, thanks to late-night street stalls like the Malaysian Kedai Makan. Nothing tastes finer after a night of weekend indiscretion than its exotic Malaysian burger wrapped in an egg or thin, pan-fried bread roti with dhal curry. Full menu available until 11pm. 

Kedai Mekan

Image: Olivia Brent


31. Kayak to Dinner at Agua Verde Cafe

Seattle channels its inner Baja at this atmospheric dockside cantina with its own kayak club on Portage Bay. Paddle up, tie up, walk up—then grab a seat on the covered deck or inside the beachy shack for a casual plate of abadejo cod tacos and a margarita. Rent a kayak or bring your own. 

32. Await Your Dinner in a Bar 

Sure, you could just go to a restaurant—but that’s a little conventional, no? Much more Seattle to descend on some crazy-popular spot—Delancey maybe, or Revel, or Serafina—right around, say, 7pm on a Friday. Then wait for your table while jacking up your tab in its adjoining bar—respectively: Essex and Quoin and Cicchetti, each a restaurant in its own right.

33. Vegetarian Wonderment at Sutra

You haven’t really eaten a vegetable until you’ve sampled herbivorous savant Colin Patterson’s vegetarian symphony in five parts: the prix-fixe, single-seating dinner at the intimate Sutra. You think you don’t like vegan food? Try a Vietnamese pancake made of rainbow chard, hedgehog mushroom, hemp, scallion, and Thai basil, drizzled with tamari-yuzu sauce and served with red and yellow beets, pea shoots, and parsnip chips. You’ll like this vegan food.

34. An Inventive Dinner in a Glorified Closet

Portland’s long been known as the tiny-restaurant innovator, Seattle the land of the big boys. But dazzling 30-ish-seat Seattle culinary upstarts, places like Gastropod and Blind Pig Bistro, are disrupting those easy stereotypes, bringing mind-blowing inventiveness to wee afterthoughts of rooms. With overhead this low, so are the stakes—allowing invention to soar. Roasted delicata squash with smoked queso fresco, shungiku pesto, and a sous vide egg? Bring it.

35. MidEast by Northwest at Mamnoon

Mamnoon’s repertoire—homespun Syrian takeout to feasts in the chic dining room—explores the culinarily profuse intersection of Northwest ingredients and Eastern Mediterranean preparations. Think fried cauliflower with the yogurt sauce tarator, green chickpea hummus, charred eggplant with minced lamb. Simply unmissable.


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