In 2017 chef Shota Nakajima recast his more formal and classically Japanese kaiseki restaurant from Naka to Adana. Same Capitol Hill digs, more come-as-you-are vibe. He heeded the cry for more casual fare with a menu of Japanese comfort food, much of it based on recipes from his mom. But he retained the aspects of Naka most important to him. Namely the coursed menu (now abbreviated down to three or eight rounds for $37 or $80, respectively, with several options for each course) and a reverence for Pacific Northwest ingredients and seasons. This everyman’s kaiseki feels casually luxe: grilled octopus topped with bright orange orbs of ikura, okra accompanied by pork belly and delicate wisps of katsuobushi, beef curry built on an hours-brewed batch of dashi. The street food–inspired bar menu skews even more relaxed; here the kitchen slings such things as a katsu sando, homey bites of panko-crust pork between slices of Japanese white bread.
Small yet generous, modest yet gloriously self-assured—Altura (which in Italian means both “height” and “profound depth”) spins its delicate web of opposites in a candlelit space on Broadway. Chef and owner Nathan Lockwood came from the private dining club the Ruins, where he developed an eye for rococo decadence—one formidable angel gazes down from the rafters—and a gift for making diners feel like treasured guests. Service is notably stunning. All this praise and we haven’t even gotten to the food: Northwest seasonal ingredients gone Italian rustic—then pushed through an elegance sieve. Off a weekly changing menu, slices of muscovy duck might come fanned over red cabbage with crumbled amaretti and caramel-roasted turnip; scallops may be dusted with fennel pollen alongside grilled radicchio and fennel. And what once was a semicustomizable three-, four-, or five-course meal has fully evolved into a bona fide prix-fixe tasting menu. Do save room for dessert, which may be a boozy affogato of mascarpone gelato and amaro.
Northwest, Small Plates
Matt Dillon’s Chophouse Row wine bar and bottle shop highlight produce fresh from his own farm: perhaps line-caught cured halibut on kelp with wild plum and shishito pepper, perhaps grilled trout with clay-pot rice, spicy radish, and shiitakes. And even the food is really just in service to the wine, curated with intelligence to be a solo act in a glass or the centerpiece of a meal. Mostly this wood-hewn enclosure of angles and air is an uncommonly fine place to be, delivering the world’s most sophisticated permutation of cozy.
Much in this white-on-white French farmhouse of a room will be instantly recognizable to fans of superchef Renee Erickson’s original masterpiece, Boat Street Cafe, including the dog art and the slate tables. But most familiar will be Erickson’s winsome turn with, say, a plate of sliced celeriac, rounded with walnuts and cream and pomegranate and plenty of Meyer lemon; or veal sweetbreads piqued with capers and pickled elderflowers. Such elegant refinement turns out to make the perfect foil for the house-butchered, dry-aged steaks Erickson raises herself on her Whidbey Island farm—tempered beautifully and cooked medium rare in hot steel pans with plenty of butter. Choose your cut off the wall-size blackboard, choose your sides (frites and mashed potatoes are equally wicked)—and settle into your meal in the capable hands of your server. Order what you will for dessert, but silly you if it isn’t the bread pudding.
What’s with all the people milling around outside that spare White Center storefront? Or that squat space next to Neumos? They’ve come for Korean-style fried chicken—in sandwiches, rice bowls, and served straight up with a compulsory pile of napkins. In this context Korean doesn’t imply spicy (that’s what the sauces are for), but rather a delicate, shattering crust. It’s more akin to a Pringle, in the best possible way. Chef Brian O’Connor is a veteran of Skillet Diner and Roux, as evidenced by Bok a Bok’s perfect biscuits. But the rest of the counter-service menu nods hard to the East, like a chicken sandwich with yuzu aioli and charred Korean chilies alongside the requisite spears of pickle or kimchi mac and cheese.
When Gabriel Chávez emigrated from Durango to Seattle, he brought his family’s recipes with him. Lucky Seattle. We’re talking carne deshebrada tacos, loaded with moist braised short rib meat piqued with dried peppers and topped with the frothy tomatillo-avocado salsa. Guacamole served upon the crispy and slightly charred corn cake, totopo, which Chávez imports from Oaxaca and which tastes like the earthen love child of popcorn and corn nuts. And, oh, chile en nogada: a plump poblano stuffed with a meat-and-fruity-walnut mixture that is surely the most complex set of flavors you’ll ever wash down with mescal. All within a room decorated to simple, classy specs in whitewash and pine, and filled with grown-up grads of the Pike/Pine madness down the street.
Capitol Hill’s Loveless Building is home to one of the town’s most distinct dining rooms, adorned with folklore-inspired wall murals. These days, those paintings backdrop an unlikely, proudly inauthentic mashup of flavors from Europe and Asia. A plate of barbecue mackerel with impeccable sushi rice might land on the table right next to chicken liver mousse or steak with buttery Robuchon-style potatoes. Some dishes lack any geographic cohort whatsoever, like broccoli casserole dip made with pungent cheese and crushed Cheetos, but any meal here should begin with the dumplings made of nori, fried in beer batter, and punctuated with house kimchi.
The latest project of Delancey co-owner and pizzaiolo Brandon Pettit—a pizza scholar who knows from wet dough and dry ovens—Dino’s is an intentionally crafted dive at the Capitol Hill epicenter of Denny and Olive, whose deep booths and long bar pay homage to the pizza taverns of Pettit’s native Jersey. Also its pizza: Sicilian thick-crusted squares with bright sauce, first-rate toppings (Zoe’s bacon, aged mozzarella, extraordinary grana padano), and a high quotient of char. Done well, char will caramelize the sugars in the crust and lend a transporting complexity; too well done, it will blacken the crust to ash. Both have been known to transpire here at Dino’s—but they’re ready with a do-over if warranted. Thin-crust pizzas, salads, and cocktails too.
Once a popular Malaysian walkup window, now a proper restaurant just off Olive Way, Kedai Makan’s cacophonous energy recalls the Southeast Asian night markets that first inspired chef-owner Kevin Burzell. Bowls of chili pan mee, lacy roti, and the country’s signature rice dish, nasi lemak, reflect Malaysia’s perch at the crossroads of so many cultures. One upside to this new iteration (besides seats and walls): Burzell’s food is even better with a beer shandy.
John Sundstrom relocated his fanatically beloved Lark to the warehousey flank of Pike/Pine off Madison, spinning out a starlit space—indigo banquettes, white linens, a welkin of pendants overhead—as elegant as any in town. Out of the rafters he carved a casual, lofted upstairs bar, offering charcuterie and crudo, along with plenty of bitter cocktails. But Lark, once the upstart that pioneered small-plate dining, has become the noble elder; grown-ups come here for that disappearing species—relaxing high-end dinners—assembled either from small plates or a combination of mains and Sundstrom’s famous grains. The menu is long and speckled with old favorites (the eel with saba, the skillet of mascarpone-creamy farro) and executed, as in the crisped pork belly with farro grits and a rye whiskey glaze, with Sundstrom’s reliably able hand. Less sure is service, throwing into bold relief the poise of this food even as it reminds that this is, after all, still Pike/Pine.
After Goldilocks moments in spaces too small (the sidewalk takeout down the street), then too big (the Pioneer Square basement), the beloved Little Uncle has found its “just right.” Mind you, the packed, modern space has limited seating. But wraparound windows help, and aromas from the open kitchen—tended by owners Wiley Frank and Poncharee Kounpungchart—evoke its heady citizen-of-the-world status. A $13-ish menu of terrific noodle bowls, starring pad thai (add the side packets of chilies and nuts and sugar if you want intrigue) and exquisite khao soi gai (chicken curry over egg noodles), is served for lunch and dinner. Execution remains the bugaboo, but it’s hard to care when so much else is just right.
It may be hard to believe there’s a serious Middle Eastern kitchen behind the sleek surfaces and throbby technopop of this modern cosmopolitan spot across from Melrose Market. But Mamnoon, which means “thankful” in Arabic, has an old soul. Dishes from Syria and Lebanon are built around bread: man’oushe flatbread that’s topped like pizza with spices and cheeses and meats, the lunchtime kulage sandwiches made with pita, unforgettably rich yet featherweight khobz bi fliefleh known as olive oil bread that’s slathered with fiery hot pepper paste. Around all this pastry, the menu arises in elegant coherence, offering spreads like hummus and an astonishing muhammara, enough vegetables to excite the herbivores (try the wickedly crusty cauliflower florets served with parsley and tarator), and soups and salads and fish and meats. High end, consistent, nuanced, and genuinely exotic—there is nothing else quite like this in Seattle. An all-day takeout window turns it into underpriced street food.
Dinners at Marmite are assembled at a long butcher-block counter that could double as the set of an unrealistically idyllic cooking show: potatoes and leeks piled in woven bowls, rounds of dark golden bread baked next door, an arrangement of the parsleylike Italian herb known as stridolo, from owners Bruce and Sara Naftaly’s garden. Back in 1985, Bruce Naftaly opened Le Gourmand and edged the term Northwest cuisine into our lexicon with three-course meals of classic French fare, ingredients ushered straight to his Ballard restaurant from small local farms—revolutionary at the time. Now Bruce oversees Marmite’s far more casual kitchen. Some dishes are less elaborate versions of old favorites from his Le Gourmand days, and his famed French sauces remain, as ever, an infinity loop of savory flavor notes. On weekend mornings, friends rehash the week over rhubarb-dipped rice fritters that pack all the sugar-dusted appeal of fresh doughnuts. The lunchtime soup menu unites Bruce’s saucier ability to coax deep flavors over time, and Sara’s elegantly sturdy bread. There’s even a happy hour menu; Bruce’s version of bar-snack potato chips are equally labor intensive and addictive.
So casual and clattering is this hard-edged room with concrete floors and raw beams and giddy splashes of popsicle brights, a person wandering in off the street might never suspect that here lives some of the most sophisticated fare in the Pacific Northwest. After all, it’s Jerry Traunfeld in the kitchen—he who once brought off nine-course feasts at the Herbfarm and who is now performing a somewhat more modest version of the same endeavor: the 10-dish platters, thali, he picked up on a research trip to India. So it’s small-plate dining, only with the considerable bonus of the chef choosing the combinations. At Poppy the technique results in some glorious dining: carrot matchsticks exotic with clove and lemon thyme, gazpacho bright with melon and mint, a chunk of pink albacore with green tomato, peppers, and fennel. This is not Indian food but a Northwest tasting menu, from one of the Northwest’s finest chefs.
American/New American, Gastropub
The nocturnal uproar of Pike/Pine rages outside the door, but within the 1910-era auto-row holdout dwells Capitol Hill at its best: preserved vintage charms like clerestory windows and a cozy mezzanine, now the backdrop for a gastropub menu of unapologetic decadence—roasted bone marrow, foie-topped fries, and a sloppy joe so rich you can’t quite believe it’s boar. Not to mention a beer list that somehow manages to be cerebral but not snobby.
Ethan Stowell’s tribute to the delights of Roman cuisine hit the corner of 15th and Harrison so old souled and vibrant it felt essential from its first week. It’s urban cozy with medieval notes—stone walls, clerestory windows, warm wood-burning oven—that strike a winning contrast with the mod mix of Hillsters who pop in for dinner. They’re chewing golden pizza crusts topped with things like charred padrón peppers or pickled red onions; they’re spreading terrific salted housemade mozzarella and peach mostarda onto crusty toasted baguettes; they’re swooning over pastas like the smoky guanciale with chili pepper. Look for big meat plates, Roman-style gnocchi (made with semolina, not potato), and a killer fried artichoke appetizer.
It’s a food lab, it’s an artist’s garret—it’s genius owner Matt Dillon’s sun-drenched farmhouse dining room, where you can spy the food merchants of Melrose Market through vintage panes. Logs of wood are stacked against a white brick fireplace, issuing chicken and vegetables kissed by its flames. Sit at the butcher’s table to watch Dillon’s crew assemble plates, which satisfy at an unusually elemental level—simple constructions, like sweet whole carrots over chickpea puree with harissa and fried mint, that strike global, even tribal notes, and as tone poems of Northwest place and moment may take your breath away.
The rustic Italian farmstead with the trestle tables and wrought-iron chandeliers serves the best pasta in Pike/Pine, even Seattle: rich hand-cut Piedmontese egg-yolk noodles, tajarin, which clutch the ragu or the sage butter silkenly. The pastas all achieve density and delicacy at once—ravioli of rapini with pine nuts, maybe, or hearty cavatelli with chanterelles—but meat dishes, from rabbit to angelic heritage pork, can also be extraordinary. Think earthy, long stewed, rough cut, boldly flavored—and careful. Neighboring bar Artusi lets us drink like Italians too, with a menu of sophisticated Italian noshes and aperitifs.
From the sidewalk it looks like a casual Vietnamese cafe, but Stateside is in fact a singular extraordinary destination, capturing French colonial Indochina both in tropical setting and rousing food: the roots and branches of Vietnamese cuisine. Chef-owner Eric Johnson brings Michelin-starred experience and exacting standards to both classics (master stock crispy chicken) and playful inventions (Vietnamese iced coffee creamsicles), and service is pitch perfect.
Tacos Chukís drags eaters by the taste buds on a cheapo’s tour of Mexico City. Yes there are $3.50 baby burritos and $4 quesadillas in this slight and sunny second-floor slot (the latter, crafted of flour tortillas and carne asada, boast more mere aroma than your typical quesadilla has flavor)—but your first order of business has to be the two-buck tacos, swaddled in their corn cradles with plenty of cilantro, onion, salsa, and guacamole. And meat, like the deeply marinated adobada pork—carved off a vertical rotisserie and served with a slice of caramelized pineapple—which doesn’t wear its tingly, fiery flavor so much as exhale it. If there is a single more compelling taco in this city—bring it. The original location is hidden in the upstairs warrens of the Broadway Alley building, and a second outpost feeds the Amazon lunch hordes.
Into the skinny, window-lined point of Melrose Market, one of Seattle’s finest chefs, Tamara Murphy, has tucked a more rustic, more casual, and more global chaser to her late, great Brasa. At wood tables or the warm triangular bar, a broad demographic of diners nibble off small plates of spot prawns in chimichurri or velvety charcuterie, or order among meat, seafood, or veggie plates—including more than a few of the classics (roast pig with clams and housemade chorizo) this pig-loving chef made famous at Brasa. The space particularly shines by streaming daylight, which Murphy exploits with lunch and brunch service. Rooftop dining too.
Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi (Joule, Revel) fuse Korean food; that’s what they do. 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; desserts from the clever sawed-off ice cream truck facade are classic frozen custard parfaits, some tweaked with Asian elements like miso caramel. But the main event is Korean barbecue in the main dining room, where tables have grills for DIY cooking of cuts like wagyu chuck or pork belly with sesame salt. 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.
Pastries overburden the antique case up front—big almond–orange blossom–blueberry buttermilk cakes, triple-chocolate-chip cookies, biscuits filled with raspberry freezer jam—and yes, they taste as moist and sumptuous as they look. This laid-back breakfast-lunch spot on 15th is a teensy shot of the Carolinas, by way of owner-baker Heather Earnhardt’s Southern heritage. If close tables and drafty quarters sometimes compromise comfort, her food sure doesn’t: Biscuits, the rightful specialty of the house, crackle thickly at the edges and surrender to fluffy interiors that melt away on the tongue—pure pleasure when piled with soft egg and cheese and Benton’s chewy bacon, or with fat chunks of expert fried chicken, sharpened with aged cheddar and flooded over with fiery sausage gravy. Dinners happen family style, Friday nights only.