Critic's Picks

The Best Restaurants in the University District Right Now

Sure, cheap college hangouts abound, but don't overlook this neighborhood or its nearby mall.

By Seattle Met Staff Edited by Courtney Cummings June 24, 2019

The climb (er, elevator ride) to Mountaineering Club's rooftop bar is worth it for the view and the drinks. 

University District

Agua Verde Cafe

Seattle does a dead-on Baja impersonation in this cool breeze of a beach cafe at the UW edge of Portage Bay; there’s even a kayak rental outfit downstairs for working off the carbs. Even under new ownership (Travis Rosenthal), a healthy emphasis reigns on the expanded menu, from environmentally friendly and good-for-you foods (hormone-free beef, sustainably caught fish) to an impressive array of vegetarian and vegan options. Tacos—three to an order—feature inventive combos like yams and chiles with cotija cheese or cod fried in coconut-beer tempura and served with shredded cabbage and avocado cream. Rum and tequila flow through this joint like the California Current—no surprise from the man behind Rumba—which makes scoring a spot on the new 60-seat, food truck–adjacent patio a lesson in patience.


Chef Emme Ribeiro Collins entered the restaurant game only because her parents had decided to close their longtime University District hangout, Tempero do Brasil, meaning the loss of the kitchen space that enabled her catering and private chef gigs, not to mention her unofficial second home. Now at Alcove she offers a play on petiscos, Brazil’s tradition of tiny snacks, several nights a week. Her version takes a few liberties, namely some slightly larger entrees and smaller sides, but large, small, and medium plates hit some serious high notes: juicy seared chicken heart skewers, yuca fries, salt cod fritters, a whole branzino fried in manioc flour, and feijão—black beans braised at length with beef and pork belly with flavors so savory they feel like the main event. And though Collins’s pay-in-advance set menu has vanished, in matters of feijoada things remain constant: the famed stew of pork and black beans is served just one Sunday a month—reservations mandatory, still prepaid, and a bargain at $35.


While this new University District shop boasts a trio of pot stickers, it devotes most of its menu to manifold variations on China’s most popular breakfast street food: the savory crepe. You can customize flours, proteins, and heat levels, but the baseline Beijing style fulfills: a delicate sesame-stippled crepe wrapped around scallions, bean paste, cilantro, chili, and sticks of emphatically crisp fried dough. A fine mess, but plastic gloves come gratis.

Cafe Allegro

Participate in the decades-long tradition of academic caffeinating under the tall ceilings of the self-proclaimed oldest continually running espresso bar in Seattle. This UW-adjacent hub, accessible through an old alleyway—a real old-cafe-in-Cambridge sort of situation—has strong coffee, tons of tables, and overflow seating upstairs for finals week.

Chi Mac

Along the University District’s main restaurant-lined drag awaits chicken and beer at Chi Mac, where Korean-style, crackle-skinned wings arrive coated in parmesan and onion powder or a red, glossy glaze of tangy gochujang hot sauce. Quell any heat with beer or do the Somac Tower: a bottle of soju liquor meets a pitcher of Korean lager in a tall, tabletop dispenser. Hey, this is college territory after all. 

Full Tilt Ice Cream

Marvel at owner Justin Cline’s peculiar but brilliant formula: pinball plus beer plus ice cream. Cline takes his game selection as seriously as his flavors, which can vary from Vietnamese cinnamon to mango chili to root beer (bonus points for vegan flavors that aren’t lame). A visit to any of Full Tilt’s five locations will probably feature a raucous soundtrack, a short but solid beer list, and the incessant plingplingpling of arcade games. Really, it’s more “world’s most wholesome dive bar” than “treacly sweet shop.”

Judy Fu's Snappy Dragon

It’s unlikely the industrious Chinese-born chef Judy Fu sees herself as a rock star—but everyone else in Seattle does. Is it her soft and toothsome handmade chow mein noodles, rolled and cut to every order by a chef in an open kitchen in the back? Is it her feisty sauces (now available in grocery stores across the region), which make her black-bean asparagus with prawns and her tender handmade jiaozi (boiled dumplings) so delectable? Or is it simply her steady omnipresence in the restaurant, a jolly two-room joint in Maple Leaf whose teensy lobby could be three times the size and still overflow with takeout customers and waiting diners? If we said it’s an incomparable combo of all three…would you give us your last mu shu pancake?

Korean Tofu House

When the cramped and smoky Korean Tofu House spread out into the space next door, it secured proper ventilation in the process. You may still endure a midday wait but you’ll no longer leave smelling like you’ve spent your lunch break around a campfire. And you won’t spend much more than $10 for delicacies like kimchi beef sundubu jjigae, a gurgling concoction of bubbly broth and tofu punctuated with fermented cabbage. It’s meaty in essence if not in actuality—just a few slices float around the pot—and when the woman comes by and offers to crack a raw egg over it, nod. It adds a viscous richness to the hearty soup.


Expect lines out the door of this quaint University District cafe, but the wait is oh so worth it. Besides, you’ll be dreaming up all your carb-filled possibilities... Choose your biscuit, be it buttermilk or cheddar chive, and marry it with anything from tomato jam to honey butter. A sandwich with prosciutto, fried, egg, manchego, and Mama Lil’s pepper aioli is also a solid hearty choice.

Mountaineering Club

If a hiking influencer’s Instagram account and an herb-forward cocktail menu collided, it would create this University District rooftop bar that crowns the new Graduate Hotel. Commandeering a 360-degree view of the city, the mountains, and the water, Mountaineering Club's outdoorsy vibe likewise continues inside, from camp-inspired fare (Wagyu hot dogs, s'mores) to menus printed on trail maps.

Pho Than Brothers

The Brothers Than get the essentials of hearty Vietnamese soup right: the full choice of beef cuts, from flank and brisket to tripe, and those surprisingly tasty rubbery meatballs; ample basil and bean-sprout garnish; noodles served however you say “al dente” in Vietnamese; a price point that’s increasingly rare in this town; and, most important, the soul-soothing, star-anise-laced broth that is the essence of pho. And the Thans have played three aces: They’ve kept up quality and authenticity even in the North End. They offer a rare, guilt-free vegetarian passport to pho heaven, with straw mushrooms and fried tofu. And they give every soup sipper a free, if oddly timed, appetizer—a miniature cream puff, recalling the long history of culinary crossovers between France and Vietnam. Eight locations within the purview of our geographical reach (and four more outside it) keep the region amply covered.

Portage Bay Cafe

Four bright and buzzing locations have achieved institution status in Seattle with their vast menus of archetypal brunch dishes, served seven mornings a week. If you go the benedict or scramble route, you’ll miss out on the dining room’s biggest draw: Pancakes and french toasts come with a complimentary trip through the toppings bar, loaded with fruits, nuts, and butters. Make a reservation on weekends, if you can, or prepare to wait.


Ma‘ono chef Mark Fuller’s a lot more fun since he pivoted away from Spring Hill’s fine dining expectations. So is his food. What his pizza bars on California Ave and the Ave lack in proper plates or utensils, or napkins not from a dispenser, they make up for with gonzo pizzas, fun frozen drinks, and a blaring soundtrack seemingly lifted from some illicit teen house party on an old WB show. The lineup of white- and red-sauced pies start in familiar Americana territory, like the double pep with ample curled-edge pepperoni, and get ever bolder. One of the best sports bits of Ma‘ono’s famed fried chicken, kimchi, and slices of American cheese. They all come on a crust that hints at Fuller’s culinary cred (and that of his lieutenant, Cam Hanin), and that finesse bobs up again in seemingly retro side dishes like wings, a Caesar, and the cult favorite garlic knots.


This duo of fast-casual noodle shops is all about Japan’s udon, either in warming soups or just lightly sauced, with simple, mostly classic toppings like a thick slab of fried tofu. Order your noodles, then choose from a bevy of tempura for topping and dipping. The U District location is students galore; the newer one in Capitol Hill’s 12th Avenue Arts building has a calmer vibe.

Wann Yen

A student-friendly shaved ice spot from the owners of Thai Curry Simple. Bowls start with something sweet, usually some combination of jewel-like fruits and housemade herb jellies. Combo No. 3, the lord chong bai tauy, is made with bright green pandan noodles—mild in flavor and tender—a fat scoop of snowy ice, then a final drizzle of coconut milk and toasted palm sugar.

Xi'an Noodles

Xi’an Noodles doesn’t offer much in the way of ambience, but nobody in line to place an order at the cash register much cares. They’re here for one thing: Those skeins of biang biang noodles, named for the sound that happens when chefs slap long strands of dough against a counter, creating the fissures that lead to those wide, perfectly chewy ribbons, the specialty of the northwest China city of Xi’an. Sampling this particular type of noodle used to require a trip to Edmonds or Redmond, but thankfully owner Lily Wu brought them into Seattle’s food ecosystem.

Ba Bar noodles don't disappoint. 

University Village

Ba Bar

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: like noodle bowls topped with grilled chicken or charry prawns or Peking duck, with peanuts and caramelized shallots and 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.

Din Tai Fung

Seattle’s love affair with xiao long bao began right around the time Din Tai Fung opened in Bellevue Square—and although the tender-fleshed little soup-filled dumplings are now peddled in a few joints across the Eastside, Din Tai Fung (now in U Village and downtown Seattle) delivers them in grand, creamy quarters with attentive service and extreme consistency. You might think that multiple locations would reduce the waits, but you’d be wrong.


Deep in the heart of familyville, old-school pizza tossers prep fire-bubbled pies with genuine ambition. Local faves like Zoe’s meats and Mama Lil’s adorn the sort of thin-crusted pizza guaranteed to please the crowds. More adventurous pies are up and down (don’t knock the baked potato–themed version until you try it) but vegetarians have some solid options, and the kitchen does gluten-free crust and even a vegan cheese. Slammed and shiny, Elemental can fall down on service when the hordes descend, but it rebounds with a solid happy hour menu.


It may not be the splashiest food destination in U Village, but this California-based chain sure comes in handy should you find yourself looking for a drink. A full 40 taps pour creations from legit West Coast breweries, and my god, that’s a huge whiskey collection for a chain restaurant in a mall. The vast food menu upgrades every stripe of bar food from mac and cheese balls to fish tacos, but Eureka’s especially good at fancy burgers. In spite (or because) of all that booze, it’s also a great destination when you’ve got little kids in tow.


It's pretty much a given that the local fast-casual chainlet would have a location here. As in their other dozen or so Seattle locations, Evergreens may seem a tad like a cafeteria salad bar—customize your greens, wraps, and grain bowls with any manner of accoutrements plucked from silver buffet tins—but what’s not to like about fresh salads made to order, your choice of everything, tossed before your eyes in a big stainless bowl? These days, a lineup of roughly 10 salads fall along a spectrum from virtuously vegetal to laden with cheese and crunch. Whether a spicy kale Caesar or the Santa Fe–style El Sombrero, it’s quick, easy, and a remedy for sad desk lunches everywhere.

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

The Japanese chain’s first freestanding U.S. locations excel at two things: managing crowds and making ramen. Every variation here contains tonkotsu-style broth—a creamy confluence of pound after pound of pork bones and hour after hour boiling in pots the size of beer kegs.

Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream

While we certainly have cupcakes covered, Seattle once fell short when it came to the cold, creamy stuff. That all changed with the opening of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream in Wallingford, and, more recently, other outposts around town, even a mobile truck. An 11pm closing time and flavors like Balsamic Strawberry and Stumptown Coffee hinted that owner Molly Moon Neitzel wasn’t just catering to the kiddies; a whopping 19 percent butterfat content sealed it. Her rich scoops turned out to be well-balanced, complex confections that transform the most sober adult into the kind of obsessive who runs after ice cream trucks.

Rachel's Ginger Beer

It’s hard to explain the charm of Rachel’s Ginger Beer to outsiders (It’s just ginger beer? And it’s not even alcoholic?) but one trip to its lively storefronts—in Pike Place Market, University Village, and Capitol Hill’s 12th Avenue Arts Building—and they understand. Seattle’s fanatically beloved homegrown ginger beer is available in cocktails, in soft serve floats, and just plain by glass or growler. The 12th Ave and U Village locations have superb food counters run by Ma'ono's Mark Fuller.