The fetching fried chicken sandwich at Milk Drunk.
The only thing wilder than running a restaurant during a pandemic? Opening a brand-new one. But Seattle’s recent have displayed astonishing reserves of grace and flexibility, while putting out truly great food, be it in takeout boxes or on surprisingly elaborate patios.
Newcomers to Know
“And here you have…a good decision” is how our server presented the metal cone of sausage waffle corn dogs(!) at Fremont’s newest bar. Owner Paul Shanrock transformed the historic Red Door address—and its spacious patio—into a trippy realm where the menu’s drenched in mythology and disco balls cluster like a thicket of glittering balloons over the hallway to the bathroom. But this sibling to nearby Stampede Cocktail Club delivers in more than decor. The all-day breakfast menu has its own abundance of statement pieces, like a platter-size “right side up” pineapple french toast. Even a more straightforward scramble blends leeks, Hen-of-the-Wood mushrooms and flawless eggs. It comes with dynamite diner hash browns and a green salad you actually want to eat. Slushy machines churn vegan grasshoppers and irish coffee cocktails, but the real magic is the cocktail list, mostly pink but not overly sweet. In other words, not what you were expecting, and way better.
Three times a day, chef Ryuji Miyata rolls out his dough and cuts flat-sided udon noodles by hand in his tiny Madison Valley restaurant. The result has distinct square-ish corners, and a texture that’s somehow both ethereal and chewy. His menu of lunch and dinner specials is small like the shop, but a testament to udon’s versatility. Miyata serves his cold with dipping sauce or stir-fried, in warm beef soup, bathed in curry, or as kamatama, where raw egg transforms the house dashi into a slightly thicker “sauce” that coats each noodle. Recently a riff on Chinese zha jiang mian even made it on the menu. Customers who frequent the infinitesimal number of outdoor and dine-in tables receive their noodles in dramatically large bowls, with a sprinkling of housemade extras, like chawan mushi, tsukemono, and bean jelly. To-go orders pack noodles and soup in separate containers to honor all Miyata’s hard work. The chef spent the first 20 years of his career making sushi, which is to say the handful of basic maki on the chalkboard menu is also worth your time.
Love for Homer’s soft-serve window inspired its new sibling bar just down the street on Beacon Avenue. But the name nods to the daughter chef Logan Cox and his wife, Sara Knowles, welcomed last year. So, yes, this cocktail hangout takes its name from the happy aftermath of a sated baby and specializes in chocolate and vanilla swirl cones as well as fried chicken sandwiches. A touch of Homer surfaces here and there—a chicken sandwich smeared with the restaurant’s signature whipped garlic, a kale salad blanketed in crunchy toasted quinoa—but Milk Drunk definitely sports its own cheerful persona, the kind that makes its own scratch mozzarella sticks. Six sandwich options layer unwieldy slabs of spice-flecked fried chicken with anything from pineapple slaw to hot honey and paper-thin slices of country ham. Each one is an easy foil for a pina colada slushy or cocktail of rye and rhubarb. Swirls of soft serve await hard-shell dip and your choice of toppings.
In February, Josh Henderson’s former creative director painted mod Partridge Family–style graphics on the outside of a former Pizza Hut in Morgan Junction and gave the space a new life serving stellar chicken teriyaki (plus various combos). It’s a ton of food for 12-ish bucks, the garlic and ginger flavors no worse for being heaped inside a clamshell alongside mac salad (Parker has family in Hawaii) and shredded cabbage. Though gentrification has diminished its presence, chicken basted in sweet sauce then blasted on a grill has been a Seattle emblem since the original Toshi’s Teriyaki opened in 1976. Grillbird thrusts teriyaki into our fast-casual era: Parker made the sauce gluten-free, the chicken halal, and the customized options extensive. He riffs, too. A katsu sando is, incredibly, just $6, and the sesame chicken tastes like Shake Shack hijacked a Panda Express.
The futuristic Sichuan-style hot pot chain opened its first U.S. location outside California in early September, bringing an unexpected sense of frenzy to the quiet third floor of Pacific Place. Some signature perks of dinner at HaiDiLao (hand massages, robot servers, serve-yourself snack station) are on hold until we no longer live in pandemic times. But the hot pots themselves—quartets of soup bases with a mind-boggling array of dipping options and sauces—bubble on in the dining room, and as takeout via the Fantuan delivery app. And HaiDiLao still provides its signature performance, noodles stretched and pulled by a dancing (and, for now, masked and gloved) chef-entertainer.
Offal may be the marquee menu item in this glorified corridor in Columbia City, but Evan Leichtling balances bites of grilled venison heart or lamb tongue atop sweet summer tomatoes with meticulous fish and vegetable compositions, like the thinnest slices of golden badger flame beets with creme fraiche and salty pops of roe. In Before Times, Leichtling and his wife, Meghna Prakash, had big plans for a close-quartered bar in the old La Teranga space. They envisioned customers crowded together along the standing counter for beautiful seasonal snacks and glasses of low-intervention wine. Instead, they adapted that long counter to seat a very few (and very distanced) parties each night for a five-course menu that feels like fine dining, but with an eminently reasonable $50 price tag. This brick-and-mortar evolution of their popular Fowl and Offal popup isn’t what the couple had planned, but this tiny space harbors something really special. Customers who aren’t dining indoors can pick up pints of house ice cream or takeout from a snacks menu that might include lamb brain Rockefeller or absurdly tasty pork rinds.
The former home of gluten-free hangout Lucky Santo is now a decidedly gluten-riffic pizza restaurant that makes limited quantities of eight-by-ten-inch-square, Detroit-style pies, their edges a fortified wall of golden crisp. If these pizzas are already gone, worry not: Sunny Hill also makes lovely thin-crust pies in its wood oven, and unexpectedly beautiful vegetable dishes that remind you chef Jason Stoneburner is a partner here. The restaurant cements its status as a neighborhood go-to with meatballs, roast chicken, and a smash burger for the ages, not to mention exemplary waffle fries and a cookie so fulsome you could serve it like a pie.
It’s the rigatoni equivalent of glamping: The Italian restaurant Marcus Lalario devised for his former Bar Ciudad space serves the loveliest food you’ll ever eat in a gravel lot. Mezzanotte does have a petite dining room, but shares a walled-in Georgetown patio that’s bigger, and way more fun, than many urban parks. Striped umbrellas spruce up rickety tables, music pumps, drinks slosh (to be fair, you try carrying a full negroni across gravel). Yes, you’re using your own fork to claim half of that beautiful bitter-green caesar. The restaurateur brought in Jake Vorono to cut slender tajarin noodles by hand and assemble bowls of rich cacio e pepe. Lalario’s favorite dish, pollo carpione, is a relative rarity around here—a fried breast of chicken served cold, on a rough-cut giardinera heavy on the fennel, that will challenge your pre-existing notions of fried chicken.
Fragrant dan dan, sauce clinging to noodles. Rice cakes layered with slivers of Chinese bacon. Delicate rockfish atop a searing carmine oil. The new Sichuan restaurant at the base of Queen Anne is worth a trip purely for Garrett Doherty’s menu. It’s wild to think this could one day be a stop before events at Key…er, excuse me, Climate Pledge Arena, right across the street; a full-on cocktail bar stands ready for rowdier days. Doherty and his business partner Benjamin Chew also own Lionhead on Capitol Hill. The ownership universe here expands a bit to include a few friends and Chew’s siblings, who apply their background growing up in the family business of Chinese restaurants. Tyger Tyger feels more enviable neighborhood restaurant than a pregame destination, but Doherty does feel a certain kinship to our new hockey team—before Lionhead he owned Kraken Congee in Pioneer Square.
In a garden hidden behind the former Crush, Aaron Tekulve has fused Covid-cautious patio protocols with special occasion fanfare. Only two parties dine concurrently, their tables separated by a bank of plants and protected from encroaching fall weather by a covered pergola. Each table has a personal space heater, and a second table where Tekulve deposits each course for you to retrieve. Rather than ask “do you have questions about the menu,” co-owner Sarah Tekulve starts the meal by assigning your party a specific bathroom inside. Six months into the pandemic, this protocol feels completely normal; it’s the trio of awaiting amuse-bouches that seems surreal, like a postcard from a more dressed-up lifetime. After months of takeout cartons, the feel of a heavy ceramic bowl will thrill you just as much as the roasted corn espuma inside. Tekulve represents the specific bend of the season in his five-course menus, as he did back when Surrell was a popup, and represents exclusively Washington wine on the restaurant’s bottle-heavy list. He’ll stick to this “distanced dining” setup as long as those space heaters keep doing their thing, at least through the end of the year; take heed for any upcoming special occasions.
Chilaquiles, molletes, toasts and tacos and machaca de res: The seemingly endless Mexican breakfast hit parade at Ballard’s Sazon Kitchen is also available at the restaurant’s second location in Queen Anne. Here, though, a small menu of balanced ceviches and one cold yet fiery aguachile further embrace Mexico’s Baja flavors. Owner Aldo Góngora says the restaurant’s presence here is relatively temporary (the building’s set to be redeveloped in fall 2021). Which explains why the vivid red and teal paint job on the former Five Hooks Fish Grill space does the heavy lifting on decor. So place those takeout orders for all-day breakfast while you can, and make sure you get a little plastic cup of the smoky house chile oil with figs.
A few doors down from the new Revel in Fremont is a counter service spot almost akin to an old-school deli, made over with Northwest seafood. After years of crab roll popups at Pike Place Market, Victor Steinbrueck has fashioned a sandwich shop of sorts, dedicated to impeccably sourced shrimp, salmon, and rockfish. The latter, perfectly fried, anchors a banh mi stuffed with a crunchy rainbow of chiles, cabbage, and cucumber. Surrounded by all this tasteful minimalism, you don’t expect the shrimp toast appetizer to riff on honey walnut prawns; the kitchen slides a lot of these through the window pass into the Aslan Brewing taproom next door. But then there’s the sandwich that started it all, the crab roll only available Friday through Sunday, because Steinbrueck’s crew picks the clean-flavored meat by hand. It spills out of a split bun, plush and springy, except the side smashed crisp on the grill. Local Tide assembles just 30 a day; a half hour after doors open, they’re usually a distant, but happy memory. The miniature Space Needle replica at the counter is the tiniest of nods to Steinbrueck’s deep Seattle roots; his grandfather designed our iconic spire.
University District, South Lake Union
Anyone who happened upon the popular K-drama Crash Landing on You during endless quarantine Netflix sessions probably came away with a strong desire to eat Korean fried chicken. Conveniently, the brand of olive oil–fried bird that’s prominent in the show has added a few Seattle-area franchises of late. At the new Bb.q chicken on the Ave, rugged golden crunch surrounds juicy chunks of white meat in the classic recipe; 10-ish other versions unleash sticky coatings like soy-garlic or fiery ma-la. Bb.q (the name stands for “best of the best quality”) also has a new grab-and-go stand at District H in the midst of all things Amazon.
Dormant since January, the gold standard of Seattle waterfront patios reopened this summer minus the postcard-worthy Adirondack chairs and firepit (a social distancing no-go), but with a new menu that spans the Pacific coastline. Crisp, pristine Northwest oysters remain a big deal, but chef de cuisine Mike Stamey embraced ceviche, roasted oysters that evoke a beach bonfire, and lovely vegetable compositions, a Renee Erickson hallmark. A few Westward classics got makeovers—chimichurri garnishes the roast chicken, and a spicier clam dip accompanies housemade potato chips—but the credits have rolled on the Steve Zissou vibes in the dining room. Now, the color scheme pays tasteful tribute to fishing lures. Erickson’s Sea Creatures Restaurant Group planned to refresh this restaurant on Lake Union’s northern shore ever since acquiring it from Josh Henderson in 2018. Reopening to Covid wasn’t the plan, obviously, but the result writes a thoughtful new chapter for one of the city’s singular restaurant locales.
After 31 years serving bowls of steaming rice noodles in Chinatown–International District, Seattle proper’s lone Cambodian restaurant went dark in 2018. To the city’s immense relief, Phnom Penh returned this spring, a few blocks away on the edge of Little Saigon, with a menu that’s nearly the same, but with a smaller space that trades faux bamboo for light-filled minimalism. In 2013, founder Sam Ung turned Phnom Penh over to his three daughters and their extended family; this new dining room may reflect the next generation’s aesthetics, but the beefy lok lak, the delicate house soup filled with seafood, and the mee katang in a basketlike nest of crispy egg noodles taste just as you remember.
The unflappable pitmaster known to most simply as Pookey has a new home on Yesler, writing a smoky new chapter at the Central District address that spent the past 66 years as a restaurant called RL Home of Good Bar-B-Que. While the digs have changed, the wood-rustic decor and vintage photos of musicians like Sam Cooke and Michael Jackson came along, creating instant context for longtime Pookey fans. Most importantly, the ribs remain tender as ever. From meaty rib tips to brisket to pulled pork heaped atop a piece of white bread, the Barbeque Pit’s quality hasn’t wavered as it hopscotched between locations over the past few years. A few things have changed for Covid times though: The restaurant has retired its cash-only policy and, for now, its dining room seating.