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After all these years, Seattle’s equivalent of Paris cafe culture still perches on Post Alley in Pike Place Market. Here chef Daisley Gordon does right by essential dishes—quiche, pan-roasted chicken, oeufs en meurette—and instills in his kitchen the sort of perfectionism that renders even the simplest asparagus salad or steak frites memorable. The patio hits the sweet spot for another hallmark of Parisian cafe culture, watching all the people go by.
Some barbecue joints are temples of meat and technique, a place to evaluate smoke rings and eschew sauce. However, enter this little pink storefront on Rainier and it feels like you just scored an invite to an epic family barbecue. A really nice family, at that. Brisket is tender, rib meat can’t wait to part ways with the bone, and it all comes slathered in a Southern-style sauce. Sides are barbecue standards (baked beans, yams, coleslaw, potato salad) but are clearly made with care and no shortage of extra steps. This means fluffy corn bread and mac and cheese that isn’t overly soupy; the greens—cooked with bits of chopped-up brisket end—might be the best barbecue greens you’ll eat in this lifetime. Yes, you’ll be crazy full by the end of it all, but if Thanksgiving happened in summertime, it would taste like Emma’s sweet potato pie.
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. (Yes indeed, that’s her portrait 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 coleslaw…best to make sure it’s all there, as friendly employees at the counter invariably miss something. “Honey,” replied one while double-checking an order, “there’s a whole lotta love in that bag.”
American/New American, Southern/Creole/Cajun
A thread of the original Catfish Corner’s Southern legacy continues on at this prime Central District spot via fried chicken atop old-fashioned thin waffles, the kind with tiny squares. The kitchen coaxes heroic amounts of personality from boneless, skinless chicken breasts with help from seasoning that’s sufficient for grown-ups and mellow enough for the many (many) kids in the room. Replacing a neighborhood landmark is a tricky business, but at Fat’s you can eat well for $15, and co-owner Erika White instills an incredible sense of hospitality: promising signs of a new neighborhood institution.
For more than a decade, Island Soul has melded Caribbean flavors with creole cookery—washed down with a healthy dose of rum—along Columbia City’s shop-lined thoroughfare. Crackle into a plate of tostones, plantain chips with sweet red onions that taste wickedly fried but are actually roasted in garlicked oil. End to end the long menu is just terrific—from the jerk chicken, suffused with smoke and jumping off the bone; to the fried snapper, lavished with a powerful escovitch sauce full of onions and peppers; to a platter of curried goat, packing a perfect little sting; to the sweet, moist coconut corn bread. It’s soul food gone Caribbean with flavors every bit as bright and vivid as the sunshiny place and its friendly welcome.
When it comes to island flavors, Trey Lamont doesn’t play around. The Seattle-born chef knows how to coax them into a crock of mac and cheese, say, or a rack of smoked ribs. Six years ago, he and his partners started selling Caribbean food out of a roving truck, Papa Bois. Now Lamont throws down Caribbean-inspired dishes in Belltown, where the sunshine-yellow walls and turquoise seating feel more tropical getaway than Northwest dining. A half chicken, fried and spiced with a secret jerk rub, arrives on a cutting board, knife protruding from its center—a definitive step away from portable food truck fare. Solid margaritas and a rotating mojito double down on the vacation vibes.
Chef Edouardo Jordan cemented his fine-dining cred at Salare, then things got personal. His subsequent restaurant is a thoughtful telling of Southern food, from crowd-pleasers like biscuits and Sunday-only fried chicken to more culturally nuanced fare like chitlins and oxtail. A few seasonal dishes hint at Jordan’s high-end training, while desserts like bourbon dark chocolate bread pudding and hummingbird cake make you want to hunt down the pastry chef and hug her tenderly. There’s a reason JuneBaby is on the national radar.
Senegalese expat Mamadou Diakhate greets, cooks, serves, and cleans in this skinny five-table restaurant in Columbia City with the biggest smile and warmest welcome in four counties. Marinated lamb in a creamy peanut sauce (lamb mafe) and tilapia stuffed with garlic and herbs in a tomato-based vegetable stew over broken jasmine rice—the Senegalese national dish, thiebou djeun—are musts in here, as are rarely seen drinks like bissap juice and bouye. Things may take a while, and in this enchanted place you won’t care.
Edouardo Jordan’s grain bar shares a wall with lauded sister restaurant JuneBaby and the lineup is, well, exactly how it sounds: an appreciation of ancient, heirloom, local grains in various forms. Grains are indeed the hero across the menu, from a crunchy snack of millet, sorghum, corn, spelt, chickpeas, and rice—like healthy bar nuts you feel good eating by the handful—to preserved smelt on rye bread with salted butter and red radish. The rotating cadre of pressed sandwiches might include braised heritage pork with smoked ham, radicchio, and cucumbers. The grain worship most definitely extends to the booze menu, which includes some uncommon local beers.
In 2010 the cozy Belltown original gave way to its current windowy quarters on the edge of Capitol Hill and a relaxed neighborhood vibe. Owner Donna Moodie, one of the city’s genuine hosts, has warmed the room’s hard edges with pillows and exuberant color on azure walls; in summer the garage doors roll up and the happy burble from the bar and restaurant rolls out onto the patio. An adjunct space known as the Turntable seats overflow or private parties. The menu plays globe-trotting homage to Italy (porchetta, housemade gnocchi), India (tikka masala chicken), and the American South (in the past, a juicy pork shank with grits and greens and red-eye gravy); but the attention-getter is a fat messy burger with aioli, harissa ketchup, and, if you want it, a distractingly thick slab of bacon. The dessert menu may go beyond the bourbon brioche bread pudding, but we never have.
Among the cluster of good Ethiopian restaurants along Cherry Street, 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 chile, deeply infused with slow simmering—have that familiar, slow-burning, fragrant warmth.
At the newer Wallingford iteration of the cheerful U District classic, the jerk chicken sandwich reigns supreme. A round of fried coconut bread provides the fragrant and bewitchingly crunchy wrap for fire-breathing morsels of moist dark meat in jerk spices, gussied with cabbage and peppers. Insanely flavorful.
American/New American, Vegan, Vegetarian
In Pike/Pine’s lofty, fir-floored Piston and Ring Building, Makini Howell cooks up feisty-flavored plant-based renditions of classic comfort foods and elegant New American staples: spicy Cajun Mac ’n’ Yease, a jerk tofu “burger,” Cajun-fried seitan (wheat gluten) “steak” with wild-mushroom gravy. Vegans and omnivores alike can relish Howell’s bold flavors and plate-filling portions of decidedly nonvegetal textures, but she also knows when to keep things straightforward, like pan-roasted cauliflower or betruffled gnocchi.
Grilled octopus with watermelon gazpacho, salted plums, and preserved lemon. Plantains and Neah Bay black cod. Unexpectedly great things—and a few offbeat experiments—happen when chef Edouardo Jordan applies his Southern upbringing, Italian salumi training, and French-toned fine-dining background to our Northwest seasons. His original restaurant presents these arresting plates in an airy room in Ravenna, complete with an Edouardo Jordan version of a kids menu (einkorn grains with ricotta, scrambled hen egg with edible flowers).
All-Day Breakfast, Brunch, Dessert, Southern/Creole/Cajun
It’s soul food, sometimes great soul food, tucked away in a friendly Madison Valley storefront. Service can be slow, but the food usually puts things right, from the headliner chicken and waffles (see here) to stunning biscuits (with or without gravy) or the individual pies. In here, Seattle still feels like a small town.
Updated January 7 2020 at 12:15 pm to reflect that certain restaurants are more accurately described as Caribbean, rather than Latin. We are making this change across our site.