The adjacent neighborhoods in Seattle’s southeast corner distill so much history into one compact corridor—shoreline and industry, immigration, economic migration, and the defining forces of transit and developers. All of this yields a restaurant landscape that isn’t exactly dense (unless you count the fast food giants along the Rainier Avenue corridor). But it does offer a glorious variety, from Ethiopian coffee culture to stuffed Japanese pastries. Rainier Beach’s tiny old town strip even includes a pair of genuine destination restaurants facing each other across 57th Avenue South.
As always, please consult businesses directly for the latest on hours, in-person dining, and other Covid survival measures. But then go forth and enjoy an undersung collection of restaurants, some run by owners who are busy cranking out great sambusas or breakfast skillets and haven’t yet built proper websites.
Near the Othello light rail station, sisters Miki and Yuki Sodos fashioned a relaxed neighborhood restaurant that pulls flavors from their upbringing in Albuquerque. The menu glories in the Hatch chile salsa that defines the cuisine of the Sodoses’ home state; you’ll find it smothered on frito pie, enchiladas, chile rellenos, and a hefty burger, not to mention the Bang Bang burrito that was a hit at its (temporarily closed) Belltown predecessor. This is the sort of easy spot every neighborhood should have, right down to the large bar area and small patio.
An oasis of welcome (and coffee) in a tidy strip mall excels in everything from birthday cakes to scones to salmon encased in brioche. But Amy O’Connell’s bakery displays real brilliance in the realm of bar cookies—brownies, blondies, tahini-pistachio squares with a thick cap of ganache, even classic Nanaimo bars. The PB&J bars crank nostalgia into buttery overdrive, which is to say they sell out fast.
The avocado green storefront began as an all-too-rare Seattle outpost of Ethiopian coffee culture, from freshly roasted yirgacheffe beans to (pre-pandemic) traditional jebena pours. But owners Solomon Dubie and Gavin Amos have forged a space for the broader community, hosting popup events that spotlight ascendant chefs of all sorts and reinstating the kitchen for popular ful medames breakfast. The Central District will host Avole’s second location this summer, in the Liberty Bank Building.
Owner Teddy Graham must perform some sort of grill sorcery to inject the taste of onions and peppers into the very essence of that finely chopped beef. By the time his hefty cheesesteaks make their way into your hands, the meat juice and cheese sauce have fused into a sort of comfort food superflavor. A newish website adds online ordering.
Somalia-born Marian Ahmed (yes, she’s Mama Sambusa) serves her home country’s street food, including the titular savory pastries, as well as sandwiches, salads, and pasta. Dishes bear the names of family members, and the assurance that the entire menu is halal. Desserts are unexpected and fun and, wow, the kitchen will fry up those sambusas until 4am.
In 2017, Tekle Zeru took over a favorite spot amid Rainier’s cluster of Ethiopian restaurants and markets, and instituted a quality over quantity approach to the menu of tibs and various vegetal stews and salads, all served with tangy, exceptional injera—including a gluten-free teff version. Combo platters (either the Sunset or the veggie) are the runaway favorite of a clientele split between native Ethiopians and other fans of the cuisine. The restaurant sells its dry injera at a sibling market across the street.
This unassuming spot in old town Rainier Beach keeps limited hours, serving its fried pork chop sandwiches and hot link breakfast combos only from 10–2, and they don’t rely on any delivery apps for business. That’s because Andrae Israel and Sharron Anderson offer comfort food unrivaled anywhere else in town. Anderson’s family once ran a chicken and waffle restaurant up on MLK, so any order that involves golden chicken atop fluffy (sometimes flavored) waffles, or wings by the pound, feels like a sure bet. The name Lake Route honors a long-ago restaurant predecessor; so do the montana potatoes, a decadent skilleted combo of cheese, peppers, cubes of fried potato, and breakfast meat, all topped with your choice of egg.
A bright neon sign previews this neighborly spot’s way with Creole flavors. Seattle’s buzziest restaurants could take a few notes from a kitchen that layers smoky beans beneath blackened catfish, tosses fried brussels sprouts in Caesar dressing—then turns around to offer up a kids menu and well-executed cocktail. Right now a friendly staff hands takeout orders through the front window, or serves neighbors young and old on a tiny parklet patio. Jude’s would be an instant favorite in any part of town, but especially as one of the few occupants of old town Rainier Beach. Proprietor (and former Jude’s bartender) Mark Paschal is transitioning the restaurant to employee ownership.
The current owners did away with the laundromat part of the equation but retained the kitchen’s dual embrace of doughnuts and savory food—these days mostly yakisoba, fried rice, and Thai noodle dishes. King Donuts, which dates back to 2003, is culturally notable as a product of the West Coast network of Cambodian refugees who seized upon entrepreneurship in the form of doughnut stores. It’s also notable because the doughnuts are terrific. Come after 8am to ensure the glass case is fully filled.
The quiet southernmost reaches of Rainier Avenue, across from the lakeshore, seems an unlikely outpost for exacting Neapolitan pizza. However a gleaming Valoriani wood-fired oven speaks to Pulcinella’s legitimacy in Seattle’s pizza ecosystem (so does the certification from Naples’s governing body of pizza authenticity). Pies sport thin, blistered crusts and toppings like smoked mozzarella, rapini, and sausage, or chicken and rosemary-sparked cream sauce. The simple margherita best displays the centuries-old art of Naples-style pizza, but Pulcinella exudes local history as well: It occupies a former roadside tavern built in 1911 and is owned by the second generation of the Mottola family, which has served pizza and Italian food in the south end since 1954.
Charming waterfront restaurants abound on Lake Union and Elliott Bay, less so on Rainier Avenue. In the 1920s, the Collier Service Station became an instant lakeside landmark, a gabled cottage built of smooth round river rock that seemed more suited to a fairy tale than a quick fill-up on the way out of town. In 2015 it became a cafe, those long-ago gas pumps replaced by a broad patio and an all-day breakfast menu, plus classics like cobb salads, dip sandwiches, and a chicken sandwich doused in housemade hot sauce. Accessible food in a special setting makes this a de facto destination for family occasions, but the cafe also repurposes its parking lot for holiday events or outdoor movies.
After years of selling his okazu pan (Japanese-style fried buns stuffed with curry or creative liberties like salmon, lentils, or barbecue pork) via local coffee shops, Harold Fields now takes direct online orders. He’s also added a cafe bright with anime murals next door to his production space. Submit advance orders for pickup—preferably on a Saturday so you can also score some weekend-only beignets, dusted with spiced powdered sugar. (Related: Fields also makes a kosho that ranks among Seattle’s best local condiments.)