The surest, most efficient way to blow the minds of out-of-town visitors: A ferry ride to Bainbridge Island for a dinner of oysters and foie gras at Brendan McGill’s original restaurant. These days, McGill serves pork only from his own Shady Acres farm; the charcuterie plate might come layered with lonza, coppa, or a dollop of rillettes, made from his Mangalitsa hogs.
When we weren’t looking, Ballard’s gently Asian bistro quietly became one of the most ambitious Mexican-influenced restaurants in town. Credit to owner Jen Doak for being unafraid to shift continents when Angela Ortez-Davis replaced original chef Mike Whisenhunt. Ortez-Davis likes to surprise: Chicharrones are actually pork confit with delicate threads of crunch, and a Mexican take on pasta might sound dubious until you experience perfect tagliatelle coated with an achiote-spiced take on cream sauce, topped with crunchy pepitas. The charming farmhouse vibe remains thankfully the same.
The dining room off the Hotel Ballard lobby is peak James Weimann and Deming Maclise, two restaurateurs unafraid to import giant light fixtures, even chunks of schoolhouse ceiling or factory window to deliver dining room drama. Culinary drama comes courtesy of chef Jason Stoneburner, whose menu of pizza, pasta, and an unexpectedly lavish vegetable lineup balances the elegant with the accessible.
Seattle used to be full of global treasures run with care in neighborhood storefronts by homecooking expats. Now there are only a few, one of the best being this Lebanese mom-and-pop with lovely Middle Eastern food. Prices are strikingly low for the shared hummus plates (try the one topped with lamb and pinenuts), mezze dips and spreads, meat and vegetable kebabs, and family-style platters, which one enjoys in an intimate room with arched doorways, white tablecloths, and pretty filigree light pendants. The perfect date night.
Here the great potable export of Italy—gin, vermouth rosso, Campari—reigns as the presumptive dinner cocktail: “Negronis for the whole table?” the servers are known to ask, unbidden. That’s one reason crowds arrive well before opening for seats at Jerry Corso’s no-reservation dining room on Beacon Hill. The menu is short, the dining room and back patio packed, but Bar del Corso remains one of our city’s most indispensable Italian restaurants because everything is done with such precision, such warmth, the answer to every question is inevitably yes.
In 2017 chef Shota Nakajima heeded the city’s cry for more casual fare and recast his more formal and classically Japanese kaiseki restaurant from Naka to Adana. He retained the aspects most important to him, namely the choose-your-own coursed menu and a reverence for Pacific Northwest ingredients and seasons. But the new dash of Japanese comfort food, much of it based on recipes from his mom, layers personal connection atop Nakajima’s already-formidable culinary skills.
When it opened in 2011, Seattle Met’s first-ever Restaurant of the Year served three-, four-, or five-course menus that mixed and matched artful pasta with starters and mains that still felt rustic despite consistently deep finesse. Since then, chef Nathan Lockwood has shifted to a tasting menu-only format that takes Northwest ingredients—ramps, madrone bark, shigoku oysters—in astonishing and elegant directions. Its core remains the same: down to earth service, a smart wine list, and a rare blend of modesty and blazing self-assurance. Easily one of the city’s best meals for a special occasion.
The rustic Italian farmstead with the trestle tables and wrought iron chandeliers serves the best pasta in Pike/Pine, maybe even Seattle: rich hand-cut Piedmontese egg-yolk noodles, buttery delicate strands of tajarin. The pastas all achieve density and delicacy, but meat dishes, from rabbit to angelic heritage pork, can also be extraordinary. Think earthy, long stewed, rough cut, boldly flavored—and careful. Chef Stuart Lane carries on the legacy and the quality of one of the city’s most impressive Italian restaurants.
When Seattle culinary statesman John Sundstrom relocated his restaurant from smaller quarters to this sophisticated, starlit space, Lark leveled up. The long menu remains studded with old faves, and everything from service to wine to kitchen execution exudes the confidence of place that’s been at this for a while.
Wassef and Racha Haroun’s urbane low-lit Syrian/Lebanese dining room still stuns, consistently, with food that tastes like it was made by a Syrian grandmother. Flavors we don’t see nearly enough—pomegranate molasses in the bright muhammara dip, fenugreek in the heartbreakingly tender braised lamb—coupled with the kitchen’s mastery (particularly with breads and pastries), make this one of Seattle’s legitimately exhilarating dining experiences.
In 2010 the cozy Belltown original gave way to its current windowy quarters on the edge of Capitol Hill. 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. 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); the dessert menu may go beyond the bourbon brioche bread pudding, but we never have.
This elegant restaurant, tucked in the back of a Little Saigon parking lot, has the sort of long, ranging menu that provokes unease. A seven-course beef tasting, muc nhoi thit (grilled squid stuffed with ground pork), banh mi hap (a steamed baguette)...on and on for pages. How could a kitchen execute all this and keep its ingredients fresh? That concern will fade as soon as you taste those squid—the right sort of chewy and every shade of savory—or the ecstatically, herbally fresh green mango salad.
Parisian bistros inspired this den of wood wainscoting and curved brass chairs at 14th and Jefferson, but chef JJ Proville recasts classic French dishes with inherently Northwest players—dungeness, lingcod, coonstripe prawns—much like Netflix might reboot a great European TV series, but with more creme fraiche. The arctic char tartare would land L’Oursin among the city’s best restaurants even before you factor in the bar program. His business partner, Zac Overman, and the luminous wine brain of Kathryn Olson fill the marquee-lit bar with surprising cocktails and natural wines with the most entertaining tasting notes in town.
The apotheosis of the neighborhood restaurant, La Medusa was the first to mark Columbia City a culinary destination and has kept it so since 1997, with consistent bowls of squid ink spaghetti vongole or the original owner’s grandmother’s recipe for flavor-packed wilted greens. The restaurant’s been through a few proprietors since then, and the chalkboard menu changes on the regular, but sardine pasta, with pine nuts, olives, fennel, and saffron, is forever the standard-bearer in this cozy room.
Soaring, lushly appointed, luxuriously open day and night, pinned to a prime corner of downtown—Thierry Rautureau’s three-level showpiece with the vivid walls and white booths and the buzzing bar is one of a very few dining destinations in the downtown microclimate around Sixth and Union. Which is why it will surprise some that in addition to the prettily composed French plates, it’s mostly down to earth, with locavore priorities and a come-as-you-are welcome from the restaurateur who invented it.
Restaurateur Michael Mina busted the myth that national names can’t succeed in Seattle (he is from Ellensburg, after all). He did it with a downtown outpost of his erstwhile San Francisco wine restaurant, marrying lovely platings with a vast bottle list that boasts plenty of Washington cred—the “Last Bottle” wine board clacks out updates whenever the cellar’s down to just one.
The larger quarters on Stone Way offer the same setup as its sun-streaked Fremont predecessor: tasting menu dinners (seven to nine courses) Fridays and Saturdays—you can choose a la carte on other nights—but that $125-ish menu is a deal, given chef-owner Dustin Ronspies’s gifts. A committed seasonalist, a salad maestro, a lover of braised meats, a textural artist. These are memorable dinners, in an under-the-radar treasure.
There’s so much backstory to the delicate noodles that chef Mutsuko Soma makes by hand via centuries-old methods at her Fremont soba restaurant, it’s easy to overlook the basic fact of eating here: The food is really flipping fun. The lineup of eight-ish soba dishes takes the occasional culinary liberty with classic combinations; Japanese chefs weren’t making soba with duck meatballs or curry with gooey mozzarella centuries ago, but in Soma’s hands it all makes sense. Kamonegi took over the original Art of the Table space, as well as its legacy for making unlikely magic in a tiny, awkwardly shaped space. No wonder it’s always hopping.
Seattle Met’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year: A game meat destination with cattle in the name, from a chef previously defined by fish. Here Eric Donnelly, the chef who also gives us innovative seafood at RockCreek, presents less-common meats like bison, boar, and duck in a 1926 brick building with the sort of bilevel grandeur that cries out for midcentury chandeliers and a showy central bar. Preparations cast game meat in familiar tableaus (venison in a rich pate, tender wild boar sugo over gnocchi) designed to win over diners iffy on these proteins, but a menu of beautiful steaks ensure diehard beef eaters won’t go away hungry.
“Pasta, seafood, and vegetables.” Brian Clevenger’s philosophy is pretty simple, as restaurant concepts go, but then factor in the flawless fish and produce. Clevenger’s got a knack for memorable combos and a brain equally devoted to culinary technique and the prosaics of cost management. This formula explains why his original and best restaurant, Vendemmia, remains reliably busy. It’s a little Italian, a little Northwest; equally game for a Valentine's Day dinner or a spontaneous Tuesday night.
Chef and owner Mark Schroder wedged a custom wood-fired grill into a tiny space to make food that flits between his Midwestern upbringing and Korean-inflected training. Those flames deliver shareable plates of pork belly in fermented molasses, or a kale salad that will stand out in memory against the thousand other kale salads in town. The menu’s tiny, but most diners wisely go for the Opus Feast, a deal of a tasting menu that summons its inspirations everywhere from banchan to lamb spam.
PIKE PLACE MARKET
Dan Bugge’s restaurant on the second floor of Pike Place Market is the closest thing Seattle has to an essential restaurant. Named for its original owner, Matt’s effortlessly combines Seattle’s winningest charms: views over market rooftops to the bay, freshest seafood, straightforward friendliness. Current chef Matt Fortner (yep, the name is pure coincidence) has taken the globally inflected menu in a subtly Italian direction.
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.
Inside, all dim and brick-lined, the place unites brainy cocktails with a changing menu of sly small plates: That tender fish, with its crunchy golden exterior and accompanying beet agrodolce, would be the envy of far fancier restaurant kitchens. So would the burrata, transformed from mound of cheese to proper composed dish via a salad of radicchio, pistachios, and bread crumbs.
One of Ethan Stowell’s OG restaurants, with its wood-wrapped interior atop Queen Anne, illustrates how the restaurateur became a household name in his hometown: clever pastas, Italian-meets-Northwest crudos, and an attentive staff. In a restaurant this small, hospitality is a job for both front and back of house, and chef Nicole Matson’s love of vegan and pescatarian dining has proved a surprisingly inspired fit for a restaurant that finds beauty in simple, often vegetal ingredients.
Maximalism reigns in chef Maximillian Petty’s 24-seat dining room atop Queen Anne hill. Dishes like his crispy pig head candy bar reveal a chef able to master a multitude of moving parts. Petty’s combo of cerebral wit and skill is all over the menu, which recently changed to a tasting menu-only format, in contrast with the more casual Eden Hill Provisions he and wife Jennifer opened down the street.
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.
SOUTH LAKE UNION
Renee Erickson’s nod to the midcentury Manhattan hotel bar, tucked at the base of the Amazon Spheres, took on an almost Lewis Carroll feel once she turned friend and virtuoso curator Curtis Steiner loose to fill the many shelves and curio cabinets with vintage naturalist specimens and elegant oddities. This high-end cocktail haunt feels like a dim and moody alter ego for a chef who usually specializes in whitewashed and winsome, but the food menu, in its curling script, is undeniably Erickson (and as broad as what you’ll find in most of her restaurants).
In 2006, Maria Hines instilled the town’s most stringent organic policy in a converted Wallingford bungalow. Hines and her crew seem to rise to the occasion of those sourcing constraints, delivering elegant paeans to the season in both a la carte and tasting menu form. Vegan and vegetarian versions just might be the town’s best bet for plant-based special occasions.
Ethan Stowell’s eldest restaurant is also his most overtly Italian, home to fresh housemade pastas, tossed simply with elegant enhancements. We should note that we’ve never seen the concrete-and-wood, lofted urban hotspot with the windows that open onto the Second Avenue sidewalk not slammed: The big communal table in the center fills up fast, and the energy is irresistible. A second location on Pike/Pine replicates the original’s vibe.