A decade ago, upstairs dining was not a thing in this town. There was Ray’s Cafe, whose bar and cafe and brilliant deck were a casual counterpoint to the gastronomically superior Ray’s Boathouse downstairs. There were the private rooms with the even killer-er views at Canlis. There was the clubby loft at downtown’s business lunch Italian of choice, Tulio.
Then something happened. Restaurants began to colonize historic buildings in old warehouse districts, whose high ceilings accommodated mezzanine levels. Osteria la Spiga moved from smaller quarters to the airy, raw-timbered Piston and Ring Building, installing a loft so atmospheric I made a note in the margins of my notebook to throw a party there someday. Purple Cafe and Wine Bar opened downtown with a dramatic central wine tower and a staircase spiraling it to the upstairs seating. Ethan Stowell opened Tavolàta in Belltown with a charming candlelit loft up in back. El Gaucho steered into the Great Recession by launching an opulent Bellevue branch complete with logelike seating unfurled across the far wall, private rooms included.
A trend was born, and the last couple of years have seen more upstairs dining than this town has ever seen.
Downtown, think Thierry Rautureau’s Loulay and Tom Douglas’s Scandinavian bar at Hotel Ändra, Ändra Loft Bar. In Fremont, RockCreek Seafood and Spirits. On Capitol Hill, the crudo and charcuterie bar above Lark called Bitter/Raw and the terrific new Omega Ouzeri. In Pioneer Square: Bar Sajor, The London Plane, and Good Bar.
Why eat in the thin air? The smaller spaces closer to the ceiling can feel more intimate. In some lofts, excessive noise melts away. The view up and over it all can be enchanting, sometimes even helpfully voyeuristic with its bird's-eye view of diners’ plates. And, if you’re at a place like Loulay or Tavolàta, you might score an inspiring view of the chefs making it happen in the kitchen.
Of course, depending on the place, lofts can get hotter in summer and service can be slower. Honestly, you have to feel for the poor schlepping waiters, whose calves of steel may be insufficient compensation for the sheer vertical mileage.
Which loft restaurants have I left out?