This vibrant restaurant—as great a spot for early breakfast as it is post-dinner nightcaps—is Eric and Sophie Banh’s love song to the street food they ate as children in Saigon and therefore hews to a more traditionalist standard than we’ve seen in their Monsoon restaurants. Where those represent bright fusion, Ba Bar serves up street-style classics: noodle bowls topped with grilled chicken or charry prawns or duck leg confit, with peanuts and caramelized shallots, greens and nuoc cham; or big, loaded bowls of pho, heady with basil and onions and mint and sprouts and fork-tender sheets of flank steak. Ingredients are scrupulously sourced and lovingly handled; beverages, coffee to cocktails, are bright and free flowing.
The neighborhood's go-to pizza parlor brings the basic thin-crust pizza of our youth into twenty-first century Seattle with combos like the Kale-Zer Soze, which tops bechamel sauce with bacon, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and slivers of the city's favorite fibrous green. The menu devotes an entire section to vegetarian combos like the Morrissey (roasted eggplant, cherry tomatoes, olives, and pomodoro sauce, sans cheese) plus the standard 12- and 18-inch pies topped with various combos of meatball, pepperoni, and housemade sausage. Central Pizza retains the weird layout of its past life as All-Purpose Pizza, welcomes kids by day, then morphs into more of a bar vibe by night. Both constituencies appreciate the handful of pizzas sold by the enormous slice.
Reconcepts can be dicey, but Eric Banh turned his upscale Vietnamese steak house, Seven Beef, into a more rugged space where smoke pervades everything from cocktails to brisket to the chicken in the fried rice. To do this, he brought in chef Mike Whisenhunt, a man whose gift is finding nuanced flavor in a piece of bacon thick as a deck of cards (he offsets the usual maple flavor with nuoc cham). Whisenhunt has since moved on, but the menu lives on—a little bit Southern, more overtly Asian, and sometimes just straight-up beefy.
Both Chuck’s locations became neighborhood institutions pretty much the minute they opened, magical utopias where dogs, babies, parents, and twentysomethings in crocheted beanies coexist harmoniously around mismatched tables. The source of all this bonhomie: dozens of taps of excellent craft beer, plus a vast wall of coolers full of bottles and cans, and one the city's newest, coolest, or best food trucks parked out front.
Several family-owned chicken shacks across the region prove that you don’t need fancy digs—heck, you don’t even need tables—to dazzle the High Priestess of Comfort Food, Oprah Winfrey. (Yup, there’s her portrait with Ezell up on the wall.) The crunchy fried chicken is dazzling enough—moist, not greasy (okay…maybe a little greasy)—especially when you order it spicy, along with a few fried livers and gizzards, throw in some cole slaw…and how about just one slice of sweet potato pie? Best to make sure it’s all there, as friendly servers invariably miss something. “Honey,” replied one, double-checking an order, “there’s a whole lotta love in that bag.”
A thread of Catfish Corner’s Southern legacy continues on at this storied Central District corner via fried chicken atop old-fashioned thin waffles, the kind with tiny squares. Chef Patrick Dours coaxes heroic amounts of personality from boneless, skinless chicken breasts; his tricks include a combo buttermilk–pickle juice brine and an elaborate dredge-and-chill process to keep the crust from falling off the minute it encounters your knife. Seasoning is sufficient for grown-ups and mellow enough for the many kids in the room. Replacing a landmark of a neighborhood’s African American heritage is a tricky business. Sure, owner Marcus Lalario—of Li’l Woody’s and Ciudad—brought in some hip midcentury benches and a busy brunch service. But you can eat well for $15, and Erika White, originally the general manager, now co-owner, ensures service is incredibly hospitable. A lot has changed at this address, but its status as a neighborhood institution lives on.
Scott Staples’s family-friendly burger chainlet wields big flavors (caramelized onions, blue cheese and watercress, a turkey burger with surprising personality) with skill, but the classic Feed burger borrows its special sauce from sibling gastropub Quinn’s, and is a steal at just $5. Fries aren’t included with the burgers, but that gives you license to choose from sides like sweet potato fries, tempura seasonal vegetables, or fried cheese curds. In the past few years, it’s become a quiet staple for Central District residents, thanks to an easy, inviting space and small but solid beer list.
The same husband-and-wife duo behind Central District Ice Cream Company and Nate’s Wings and Waffles parlayed their original food truck, Happy Grillmore, into a burger joint with Pacific overtones. Think third-pound patties topped with spicy chorizo, teriyaki, or kalua pork, truffle french fries, salted caramel shakes, and more. An ode to a beloved Filipino morning meal—garlic fried rice, longanisa sausage, runny egg—the longsilog burger at Happy Grillmore layers the magical umami properties of Maggi mayo with a beef patty, flattened longanisa, and finally an egg—a gut-busting “breakfast” of champions.
A legit hit of Paris in the Central District, L’Oursin glows with pendant lights and Parisian signs, in an unfussy room whose populated bar and open kitchen crook an alluring finger from the street. Chef and co-owner J. J. Proville grew up mostly in France and knows its subtleties, in dishes like a fathomless bouillabaisse with Northwest shellfish under a pastry crust or a tartine of house-smoked bacon with greens on charred brioche. The list of natural wines gets much attention, thanks to Kathryn Olson's saucy tasting notes (not to mention her abilities picking these marvelous bottles in the first place) but the cocktail list is an equal star. The Monday night–only burger and $5 "wine roulette" are worth a trip, and happen only at the bar.
Among several good choices along Cherry Street’s Little Ethiopia, Meskel is the best-looking: a warm, modern split-level space, close-packed with tables of people all cheerily eating with their hands and sopping with injera bread. It’s all served in the usual Ethiopian style: varied vegetables, stews, and legumes mounded upon an injera platter, plus a meat dish (and pepper level) of your choosing. Meskel serves more lamb dishes than many of its neighborhood counterparts, but the sauces—20 or so spices, from cloves to cumin to chili, deeply infused with slow simmering—have that familiar, slow-burning, fragrant warmth.
The story of the Central District is happening inside the Neighbor Lady. The diverse crowd of thirty- and fortysomethings gathered around the three-sided bar all seem to know one another: the white-haired couple, the grad student, the Larry Wilmore look-alike, the bartender who works as a bike messenger by day. The Neighbor Lady’s owners originally envisioned the toile wallpaper and dim amber glow imparting an “urban bordello” vibe. But a neighborhood has a way of making a bar into whatever it needs. Apparently this one needed a place where new neighbors and old ones could establish a rapport over reliable cocktails, basic local beers, and sweet potato fries or shrimp and grits.
It’s a bike shop, after all, with a tire pump bolted to the sidewalk and a mechanic across from the espresso machine. But Peloton's tucked-in cafe is a genuine destination, thanks to co-owner McKenzie Hart, whose roasted veg hash might be a full-flowering garden of leeks, purple potatoes, cauliflower, and herbs over pine nut aioli, delicately sautéed and dotted with creamy chevre. Breakfast sandwiches on sweet whole wheat bread spill out bacon and egg yolk and arugula; densely flavorful chorizo breakfast burritos hold a city in thrall. The menu is short, smart, and maintained as carefully as the bike chains, with Slate Roasters coffee and local craft beers for waiting out a tuneup. All with a heaping side of Peloton’s most cutting-edge specialty: excellence, unexpected.
Baker Mi Kim and biz partner I-Miun Liu (East Trading Co., Oasis Tea Zone) have transformed a former Central District minimart into a cozy home base for Kim’s massively adored doughnuts. Regular favorites such as apple fritter, raspberry holes, and gluten-free mochi make appearances alongside flavors that change monthly, like a caramel crunch bar, honey ginger, or Fruity Pebble–topped version. But take heed: Raised Doughnuts occasionally sells out before close. Work can wait, doughnuts are fleeting.
Name notwithstanding, this Central District spot (yes, date night ready; yes, slightly casual) erupts with Vietnamese herbs and fiery spices in precisely the way chef Kenny Lee—formerly of Jerry Traunfeld’s Chinese-inspired Lionhead restaurant and Din Tai Fung—intends. From a scorching wok, Lee builds heat in dishes like braised beef cheek noodle with sharp pickled mustard greens in Sichuan chili oil, but even the green papaya salad with bird’s eye chiles packs a punch that could make you flush bright pink. Solid cocktails, courtesy of co-owners Bryce Sweeney and Mario Eckert, help put out any fires.
Nothing here is fancy—not the dining room with its magenta walls and acoustic tile ceiling. Not the signature dish, Peru’s charcoal-roasted rotisserie poultry and golden fries. But man, that chicken is good. It’s hard to bypass that superbly seasoned pollo a la brasa, but the menu of Peruvian staples like ceviche and lomo saltado is endlessly great—and has remained a rocking value over the years.
Some seriously delightful expats from Mutual Fish and City Fish opened a seafood market in a nondescript building at 23rd and Jackson that is so much more than just a seafood market. The deli counter serves up multiple iterations of absurdly fresh poke, a mac salad made with smoked salmon, fresh uni and oysters, smoked salmon belly, shrimp cocktail, and the perfect handful of beers to wash it all down. One of the Central District’s favorite destinations for a convivial lunch is also an after-work godsend for picking up dinner.
An expansion transformed Standard Brewing from a minuscule brewery into one that’s merely small, but sour, funky dimensions loom large in its excellent beer. Drinkers who don’t dig these barnyard notes can lean into the light lagers, roasty stouts, and other impeccable ales. That expansion also turned the tiny Central District taproom into a brewpub, complete with cocktails, noodle bowls, fun food specials like char siu burritos, and unexpectedly refined sandwiches (thank goodness Standard retained the heated, covered patio).
Tacos Chukís drags eaters by the taste buds on a tour of Mexico City. Yes there are $3.50 baby burritos and $4 quesadillas, but your first order of business has to be the tacos, swaddled in their corn cradles with plenty of cilantro, onion, salsa, and guacamole. And meat, like the deeply marinated adobada pork—sheared off a vertical spit and served with a slice of caramelized pineapple. 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. A third graces Beacon Hill, and oh you better believe it, a fourth and largest spot recently opened in the Central District.
Its name sounds like a street drug in an ’80s action flick, the hallucinatory effects of which could produce the building’s trippy mural. Inside Twilight Exit is just as much a riot—take the color scheme of gum stuck under a bar booth and then build around that. There are more surprises too, like the robust food menu (burgers, sandwiches, specials like gumbo and braised beef stroganoff), a pocket of arcade games, and a frat house–worthy back porch that turns the Cherry Street hideaway into a lively summertime spot.
A popular barbecue food truck is now a popular restaurant on Jackson, with a bar full of local beer and cocktails with house-smoked ingredients. The lineup of pulled pork, brisket, and mac and cheese bowls is the work of unabashed barbecue geek Matt Davis, a former furniture maker with a degree in wood technology. His geekery comes through in tender, reliably great barbecue. The space is small (and does plenty of takeout) so the sprawling patio is a definite bonus.
Editor's Note: This article was updated May 10 to reflect Mike Whisenhunt's recent departure from Central Smoke.