Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry.

You needn’t be a hardcore dining nerd to know: These are tough(er than usual) times for Seattle’s restaurants. Between the staffing challenges and supply chain shortages, not to mention the forever-shifting landscape of safety protocols, each day brings new challenges. But also immense creativity. This wild year gave us great bakeries and new restaurants with a deep focus on the customer. Stunning spaces, vegan crunch wraps, and popups so good they acquired permanent homes.

A bit of boilerplate: Seattle Met updates this list roughly every six months, adding only places where we’ve actually dined (and paid for our own meals). So grab that vax card, order a cocktail, and save room for a tasting menu of meat on sticks.

Niku Niku Japanese BBQ

Northgate

Pass through the heavy double doors inside the Asian Family Market complex on Aurora Avenue and you’ll enter a cavernous yakiniku temple with highest-end wagyu on the menu and round tabletop grills set into every spacious booth. The first U.S. location of a Taiwan-based yakiniku enterprise certainly lets diners blow it out with some fancy meats for the grill (American and Japanese wagyu; rich kurobuta pork). But the huge menu also includes ready-to-cook chicken, duck, seafood, and veggies. Niku Niku’s sauce game is strong and you can build out the rest of the meal with salads, cold noodles, and “oishi rice” dusted with pork floss.

Aki Kushiyaki

Madison Valley

A 13-course menu venerates pristine meat (mostly chicken), grilled over binchotan charcoal. Co-owner Andy Tsang was so enamored with Japan’s new wave of kushiyaki restaurants, he recreated this omakase-esque experience in a striking new space in Madison Valley. Even vegetal courses, like snap peas or summer tomatoes, get encased in tissue-thin pork belly and transformed via the magic of carbonized charcoal into something juicy and indulgent. Add in a smart list of wine and sake and you’ve got a memorable special occasion destination…for carnivores.

Grilled meat goes glam at Aki Kushiyaki.

Image: Amber Fouts

Autumn Seattle

Phinney Ridge

Brian Clevenger’s newest restaurant might be his best yet. Autumn doubles down on the chef’s signature formula: A dining room that leans into new construction’s austerity and dishes that make cost-effective ingredients feel special. If cost management isn’t a culinary skill that has you racing to make reservations, consider the charms of a dish of perfect panisse, chickpea-based french fry upgrade in a pool of black garlic aioli that deserves its own spoon. Or the doppio pasta filled twice, with taleggio and pureed carrot, and dressed in a house cultured butter salty enough to balance the richness. Indulgence is in the details.

Karachi Cowboys

Capitol Hill

More than any other dish on the menu, the aloo sliders with tingly barbecue sauce tap into dual facets of Nasir Zubair’s heritage—his Texan upbringing and Pakistani roots on his father's side of the family. In June, Zubair and his wife, Nicole Greenwald, transitioned their popup to a proper counter service restaurant near 12th and Pine, its entry marked with a glowing neon cowboy hat. Favorites from the popup days remain, like the carefully spiced kheema, but don’t overlook the reliably sophisticated seasonal salad, or a combo platter that lets you sample the menu more broadly.

Saint Bread is holy ground for croissants.

Image: Jane Sherman

Saint Bread

University District

When Yasuaki Saito, a partner in London Plane, turned a motorboat repair shop on Portage Bay into a bakery, he assembled a supergroup of dough talents who deserve to be household names. In baker Randi Rachlow’s hands, brioche dough becomes almost sculptural—think of her cardamom knots as cinnamon rolls with intellect. Michael Sanders (previously the guy behind Plane Bread) fashions various loaves and rolls to underpin the toast and sandwich lineup. The pastry case unites the team’s various Japanese and Scandinavian heritage to deliver cookies, croissants, savory twists, and a standout melonpan breakfast sandwich.

Flavor Lao Bowl

Greenlake

A trove of noodle soups from Laos steam up a modest storefront on Aurora Avenue. Flip a few pages into the menu and get after the dishes under the “Lao foods” category. Kao poon, a spicy bowl of coconut milk broth and rice noodles, arrives at the table piled with ground pork, shredded chicken, and red flecks of chili. Chubbier rice noodles populate the nuanced kao piak sen chicken soup; meanwhile, non-brothy staples like papaya salad, spicy sausages, and nam khao tod, deliver savory crunch and lots of fresh herbs. Owner Vaenphet Khounoudom and family built the sort of low-key, big-flavor standby every neighborhood craves.

Flavor Lao Bowl offers further proof: Everything is better with sticky rice.

Image: Amber Fouts

Crumby

Fremont

Technically this is a sandwich shop, though it exudes art gallery vibes: white walls, tall windows, framed black and white photos. Maybe “shop” isn’t the best term, given the petite, plant-fringed bar in the back that puts out deeply pleasant cocktails. Brandon Marie, whose resume includes some of the town’s most popular restaurateurs, approaches sandwiches as slow food—something to construct at a deliberate pace and stuff with careful seasonal ingredients. Each of his enormous creations subvert expectations, like a vegetarian sloppy joe (vegan by request), or a salumi sandwich that hides pesto pasta salad in between layers of cured meat and smoked gouda. It’s hard to divert your attention from sandwiches this good, but non-sandwich options include smooth deviled eggs, a brothy bowl of shellfish, and a wedge salad that breaks rules and gets away with it.

Inside Passage

Capitol Hill

Behind a sliding door inside Rumba hides a new immersive cocktail bar, meticulously designed to create a borrowed reality of drinking amidst sunken ships, sea creatures, and piratical rum heists. House cocktails might come in a zombie-fied Amazon package, a ceramic anglerfish, even a faux rice cooker trailing tendrils of dry ice. Rumba’s Travis Rosenthal and Jen Akin examined 90 years of tiki culture—its rum-fueled highs and culturally appropriated lows—and steered this new spot into slightly different waters. The result is easily one of the most exciting bars in the city.

At Inside Passage, Seattle history meets sea creature decor.

Image: Amber Fouts

Cycle Dogs

Ballard

This food truck–turned–counter restaurant can satisfy your craving for In-N-Out Burger’s animal-style fries—without involving any actual animals. Cycle Dogs serves impressive vegan takes on fast food favorites: Beyond Burger patties fuel a Dick’s Deluxe homage; fiery Nashville­ hot sauce coats a crunchy Rebellyous chick’n patty tucked in a bun with some coleslaw and pickles. The kids meal even comes with a toy with zero tie-ins to mediocre movie releases. Right now Cycle Dogs uses its space (previously the No Bones vegan tiki bar) as a takeout counter only, with some tables outside. Be sure to double down on napkins, and don’t overlook the weekend brunch lineup of breakfast burritos and hash brown patty sandwiches.

Cedar and Elm

Kenmore

Years of public-private financial handstands turned the long-empty Saint Edward seminary into a boutique hotel within a state park, the former dining hall now a restaurant by Jason Wilson. It’s a room with genuine grandeur—tall ceilings, arched windows, stately potted plants over curved booths of cane and velvet. The menu follows suit with detail-oriented salads and entrees of duck or halibut fully realized with attendant sides. You can bring your mom or your pickiest friend, but Wilson’s dishes manage broad appeal without feeling boring or dumbed down, like caramelized slabs of cauliflower bedded on pesto, drizzled with fonduta. It’s easy to imagine this room with a violin soundtrack, but a harpist provides actual music at Sunday brunch.

Cedar and Elm gives civilized new life to the former Saint Edward Seminary dining hall.

Image: Amber Fouts

In the Heart

West Seattle

Some speakeasies give away the secret with subtle signage or overt entryways. The bar Malika Siddiq appended to her clothing boutique, Lika Love goes full unmarked black door in the back alley. Inside: white walls, touches of gilt, plush living room­­–style seating. A chic black-and-bronze bar mixes up classic sazeracs and vieux carres and house New Orleans­–themed drinks (plus the occasional hurricane-flavored Jell-O shot). When Siddiq moved her popular clothing business into a storefront on the Junction, she turned a rear storage space into an homage to her family’s roots in the Crescent City. A menu of gumbo, jambalaya, mac and cheese, and red beans and rice feels homey, but doesn’t stint on spice. The real secret of this bar: how comfortable it is.

Olympic Bar

Downtown

The historic hotel turned an underused section of the lobby into a cocktail bar as part of a large-scale remodel, inserting a bit of midcentury Manhattan swagger into the pre-existing aesthetic of lumber baron flex. It’s everything a good hotel bar should be—dark, curvy, adept with drinks. The menu of original concoctions narrowly avoids being fussy, and an art installation moves slowly overhead, giving the impression that you’re drinking beneath the working innards of a pocket watch.

The Fairmont Olympic remodel gave downtown a new go-to cocktail lounge.

Image: Amber Fouts

Blotto

Capitol Hill

The pandemic’s critical mass of great pizza popups has already yielded a brick-and-mortar evolution. When Jordan Koplowitz and Caleb Hoffmann set up shop on 12th Avenue, they traded advance orders and fixed weekly windows for walkup­-only pies and a sort of market setup amply stocked with great wine. Right now, pizza only happens Thursday through Saturday, but packs the same charming combo—naturally leavened crust meets clever seasonal combos. The kitchen has particular fun with an expanded list of sides.

Ethan Stowell trades pasta for burgers at Victor Tavern.

Victor Tavern

Denny Regrade

Ethan Stowell Restaurants now occupies the weirdly demarcated space once home to Tanaka-San, leaning into the user-friendly part of its formula while tiptoeing farther afield from its Northwest-Italian roots. There’s nary a rigatoni or crudo plate in the building. Just burgers, smashed on the grill and snacks suited to an all-day tavern in Amazonland (polenta fries, smoked wings, a pretzel doused in everything seasoning). Team Stowell also made the layout as versatile as the menu. ESPN plays in the bar; two-tops linger over entree salads on the covered patio; lounge seating begs for cocktails; a long table screams “team outing.” Oh, and the mezzanine offers more TVs, QR code ordering, pool, and shuffleboard.

Plus, a Few Great Revamps: 

Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry

Capitol Hill

A fresh, sugar-dusted energy radiates from this indispensable neighborhood hangout, thanks to a new owner, and a pair of Canlis alums with serious pastry chops. The result isn’t dramatically different than the original Volunteer Park Cafe, but rather a heightened version of its longtime mission. Larder shelves hold salt, sauces, wine, and jam. Most of the current breakfast and lunch menu falls under the section titled “a perfect slice of toast.” That might mean chocolate-hazelnut spread with banana, avocado, and za’atar, or smooth whipped ricotta and a tricolore of roasted squash and sun-dried tomatoes. The pastry case is back, too. Its contents change often, but exceptional cookies and layer cakes remain a constant.

New owners keep the pastry case full at Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry.

Image: Amber Fouts

Trade Winds Tavern

Belltown

That elegant walnut paneling transitions with surprising ease from steampunk curio cabinets to an ’70s-era rec room dotted with bobbleheads and soccer scarves. The board that once held Chris Elford’s ingenious grid of beer styles on draft now lists flatbread pizzas and fried cheese curds. In June, he and business partner Anu Apte turned their avant-garde beer bar, No Anchor, into a neighborhood pub—an understandable nod to the Covid economy. The shift inverted the original food formula: The kitchen used to make cheffy plates with a bar food subtext; now fried snacks whisper of ambition. Or drip with it, if you’re talking about the cheesesteak wontons. The beer list remains solid, if less esoteric, and the new pub persona means the bar can flex its cocktail capabilities.

Jackson’s Catfish Corner

Central District

After the original Catfish Corner closed after nearly three decades in the Central District, Terrell Jackson pushed to continue the restaurant legacy his grandparents began, popping up in a few locations to the south with Ohbama burgers and catfish dinners with perfect hush puppies. But it doesn’t get much more permanent than a new building at 23rd and Jackson, which opened on Juneteenth with a neighborhood celebration and visits from elected officials. Catfish Corner’s new home might gleam with corrugated walls, statement light fixtures, and digital menu boards. And yet, the cornmeal-crusted catfish is just how you remember. 

Stoup Brewing Kenmore

Kenmore

When the team behind Seaplane in Kenmore partnered with Stoup Brewing to remake the restaurant as a taproom, the depth of talent suggested the result would be good. But newly christened Stoup Brewing Kenmore radiates an unexpected energy. Jason Stoneburner devised exactly the food you want alongside beer: considered salads, rustic jerky, unexpected and great empanadas. Pizza made with local grains comes as whole pies (don’t miss the dank, topped with bacon, brie, and roasted garlic) or hefty “grandma-style” cheese or pepperoni squares. Need we add, the beer is superb. Seldom do reconcepts prove this successful—or serve their intended audience this well.  

Stoup's indoor/outdoor taproom setup includes pizza. And waffle fries.

Image: Amber Fouts

Taku

Capitol Hill

Shota Nakajima’s neon-lit hangout on Pike spent exactly five days as a kushikatsu bar in March 2020. This spring, riding a tide of Top Chef fan love, the chef reopened Taku (and its takeout window) as a house of karaage. Nakajima makes Japan’s traditional fried chicken the way his mom did when he was a kid: thighs marinated in soy sauce and ginger. In lieu of heavy American-style batter, customers can choose a wet or dry seasoning, from teriyaki sauce to salt and pepper. The custom designed Insta-friendly F*ck-It Bucket loads three pounds of chicken onto a one-pound bed of furikake fries, but anyone not entertaining a crowd—or the aftermath of an epic bender—should consider the curry karaage sandwich. (Dine inside the 21-plus space and you can chase it with a highball.)