The Barbeque Pit: New location, same great brisket.
The Central District’s concentrated blocks might not have the expansive dining scene you’ll find in neighboring Capitol Hill, but its restaurants represent the area’s history and social trajectory as surely as rings in a tree stump—but with more fried chicken and pastries. Longtime landmarks coexist with ambitious newcomers, and a newer wave of Black-owned establishments help the few remaining legacy spots anchor the Central District’s past in the face of shiny development.
Here are the stunning pastry shops, vivid Caribbean flavors, barbecue meccas, Ethiopian haunts, and fish markets that sustain the Central District. Per usual, hours and specifics can change in an instant during Covid times (in the case of L’Oursin, a French-Northwest bistro can morph into a Southern comfort food popup). So check websites and social media to make sure you know the latest.
Few restaurants are as versatile as Eric and Sophie Banh’s casual ode to Saigon street food, equally suited to brunchtime bowls of carefully wrought pho, crispy imperial rolls at happy hour, and evening vermicelli bowls topped with grilled chicken and accompanied by sharp cocktails from the commanding back bar. The original location at 12th and Jefferson, right about where Capitol Hill starts to become the Central District, exudes vintage industrial charm and has a vestibule counter for pastries and late-morning coffee. Eric Banh, always a canny observer of food trends, keeps things current with specials (see: Tuesday’s nuoc cham chicken wings) and updates like the current house soft serve. A small but festive sidewalk patio and a parking lot's worth of heated and covered outdoor seating sprouted earlier this year for outdoor diners.
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 more than six decades as a restaurant called R and L Home of Good Bar-B-Q. 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.
Don’t let the “Juice Bar” part of the name fool you; the low brick building on Cherry behind Garfield High School is a full-on community hub, one that starts the day with breakfast burritos and espresso (plus juice and smoothies) and rolls on into grilled cheese, layer cake, and happy hour taquitos you can consume on the homey covered patio. In less than a year, owner Bridgette Johnson has made this cheerful spot feel indispensable to the neighborhood and carries on the building’s legacy of Black-owned businesses (thank goodness the Barbeque Pit, a previous occupant, found that new home on Yesler).
Jackson Street’s go-to pizza parlor brings the basic pies of our youth into twenty-first century Seattle with combos like the Kale-Zer Soze, which tops bechamel sauce with bacon, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and the city’s favorite fibrous green. The menu devotes an entire section to vegetarian combos, a clue this place caters to customer preferences. pie orders are A-OK, provided the base sauce is the same, and you can swap in a gluten-free crust on any 12-inch pizza for an extra $6. Call directly for takeout aplenty (or order third-party delivery online).
Like the original in Greenwood, this second, larger Chuck’s became a neighborhood institution pretty much the minute it opened—a magical utopia where dogs, babies, parents, and twentysomethings in crocheted beanies coexist harmoniously around mismatched tables. The source of all this bonhomie: dozens of taps of excellent craft beer, plus a vast wall of coolers full of bottles and cans, and any one of the city’s newest, coolest, or best food trucks parked out front. Owner Chuck Shin doubled down on that whole “instant staple” status during pandemic times, turning the sizable parking lot into a massive covered beer garden while implementing table reservations and rigid Covid safety protocols.
In some ways, the sparkling new restaurant in the Liberty Bank Building (official open: December 5), with its tufted leather booths, vintage back bar, and coppery ceiling panels, can trace its roots to owner Kristi Brown’s black-eyed pea hummus. The dip that built a fan following during Brown’s catering career is most certainly on the menu at Communion, which opened its doors just after Thanksgiving. But Brown’s dishes fuse plenty of other influences from her lived experience; she’s especially adept at remixing Southern fare and Asian staples to reflect her personal purview of Seattle. A long-simmered broth harbors pho spices, but also rib tips; a sushi roll comes stuffed with cornmeal-fried catfish. Some glorious deep-fried chicken wings come out of Communion’s kitchen, but also an impressive breadth of vegan (and gluten-free) dishes, including a smoky corn chowder you’d swear was awash in cream. While that dining room is currently out of commission, Communion’s takeout menu includes Bomar’s cocktail creations.
Seattle’s most famous chicken shack originated with this outpost across the street from Garfield High School, where a signed portrait of Oprah Winfrey from her early 1990s talk show days recalls the praises she sang of its crunchy fried chicken. Original, spicy, and half-and-half combos are Seattle legend for a reason—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 cole slaw…and how about just one slice of sweet potato pie? Ezell Stephens went on to found Heaven Sent Fried Chicken, but this original walk-up, opened in 1984, continues its habit of warm and patient service.
A thread of Catfish Corner’s Southern legacy continues on at this storied Central District corner 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; his tricks include a combo buttermilk-pickle juice brine and an elaborate dredge-and-chill process to keep the crust from falling off the minute it encounters your knife. Seasoning is sufficient for grown-ups and mellow enough for the many kids who filled the room in the past. Replacing a landmark of a neighborhood’s Black heritage is a tricky business. Sure, owner Marcus Lalario—of Lil Woody’s, Mezzanotte, and Ciudad—brought in some hip mid-century benches and a busy brunch service. But you can eat well for $15, and Erika White, originally the general manager, now co-owner, ensures service is incredibly hospitable, even for the crowds who show up for takeout. A lot has changed at this address, but its status as a neighborhood fixture lives on.
New owners originally planned to turn Scott Staples’s family-friendly burger chainlet into a small-plate spot but then heeded customer outcry and continued to offer the blocks around 24th and Union what it really needs: a classic burger for $6, some fancier versions, and better-than-average salads. Not to mention milkshakes and various fries (classic and sweet potato versions, plus cheese curds and onion rings). An expanded menu explores sandwich and taco territory but retains Feed Co.’s serviceable extras: ample patio, kids menu, and the local beer list.
Joyce Hosea ran a cafe in 1990s-era Georgetown, then catered before she attended culinary school eight years ago and acquired a love of butchering. Her lemon-yellow storefront on East Union (formerly known as Cheese Platters and More) combines all facets of her cooking career: One half serves tuna melts, cubanos, french onion soup, salads, and sweets; the other harbors a cheese case, butcher counter, and coolers stuffed with pesto and pimento cheese and duck confit ravioli and a million other housemade items that can improve the state of your pantry—or your dinner plans. As the shop’s original name implies, the staff is exceedingly helpful with small and large catering orders.
L’Oursin (aka Old Scratch)
When the pandemic hit, co-owners J.J. Proville and Zac Overman shifted quickly into market mode, loading the shop with pesto, pasta, proteins, a ton of great cheese, and even more natural wine, selected with care by Kathryn Olson. Next, the Northwest-French bistro adopted an entirely new persona for its takeout menu. Old Scratch, a sort of long-term doppelganger popup within L’Oursin, traffics in Southern comfort: pimento cheese, wedge salads, a popcorn shrimp’wich, chicken and dumplings, and most importantly, the smash burger that was a popular off-menu bar special back when we sat at bars. Before the most recent restrictions, Proville and Overman had resumed an iteration L’Oursin’s original menu for a small number of dine-in customers; right now they offer a private apres ski two-top situation on the patio.
A star among Cherry Street’s cluster of great Ethiopian spots for more than a quarter of a century, this converted house now does a steady stream of takeout. Owner Belaynesh Chera might have an equal fan base for both her veggie combo and meat dishes. Chera has pivoted admirably in our era of takeout, serving hefty portions of food and terrific injera for to-go orders; hustle home, or Chera's happy to put the injera on the side to avoid sogginess.
While technically this Peloton is a bike shop—the typical kind, not the fitness device that became a quarantine blockbuster—the tucked-in cafe is a genuine destination. Thanks to co-owner McKenzie Hart, roasted veg hash might be a full-flowering garden of shaved brussels sprouts, red onions, caramelized leeks, and delicata squash, all dotted with creamy chevre and an almond pesto. Breakfast sandwiches spill out bacon and egg yolk and arugula; densely flavorful chorizo breakfast burritos qualify as destinations. Online ordering and a walk-up window grant easier access to creations like A Hot Mess—a sandwich that piles breakfast sausage, egg, cheddar, and barbecue sauce atop a hash brown patty—and bulk orders of frozen burritos or mac and cheese. The Peloton team recently signed a lease to expand into the space next door, which bodes well for more of its unexpected excellence in our midst.
Baker Mi Kim (and her business partner, the prolific I-Miun Liu) transformed a former Central District minimart into a cozy home base for Kim’s massively adored doughnuts. Regular favorites such as apple fritter, raspberry holes, and gluten-free mochi make appearances alongside flavors that change monthly, like snickerdoodle or strawberry cheesecake. Online ordering helps lock down your doughnut of choice. Kim also makes light, fruit-filled layer cakes available by the slice on weekends, or as whole-cake preorders.
The name’s a bit of a misnomer: The menu erupts with Vietnamese herbs and fiery spices in precisely the way chef Kenny Lee—formerly of Jerry Traunfeld’s Chinese-inspired Lionhead restaurant and Din Tai Fung—intends. From a searing wok, Lee builds heat in dishes like braised beef cheek noodle with sharp pickled mustard greens in Sichuan chili oil, but even the green papaya salad with bird’s eye chiles packs a punch that could make you flush bright pink. Reckless may act like a chill neighborhood restaurant but everything about it—from the food to the cocktails to the decked out and protected patio, feels consequential.
Alums from Mutual Fish and City Fish opened a seafood market in a nondescript building at 23rd and Jackson that’s just as much a destination for lunch as for black cod fillets or raw scallops and spot prawns. Poke bowls, shrimp cocktail, crab sandwiches, and fresh uni and oysters are equal parts careful prep and absurdly fresh seafood, all with the perfect handful of beers to wash them down. New for the pandemic era: weekly meal kits packed with things like salmon sinigang, steamed clams, and Korean tofu-seafood soup, plus dessert and okazu pans from Umami Kushi.
Excellent beer looms large in a small space, from assorted IPAs to barrel-aged rustic ales. Finding such great beer in the company of a heated and covered patio (shielded from Jackson Street by a grove of bamboo) feels like a discovery. But then again, so does the food. Detail-oriented tacos layer smoked pork with orange crema and pineapple pikliz, and smoked carrots in chimichurri and sesame-lemon butter.
When Roberto Salmerón launched a taco shop in 2011, he didn’t duplicate the Mexican street tacos he grew up on, so much as harness their flavors and affordability. His tribute to those perfect tacos goes a little something like this: two lightly griddled corn tortillas with such proteins as adobada—marinated pork sheared off a vertical spit and topped with a square of grilled pineapple—or other fillings like carne asada, pollo asado, prickly pear cactus leaf. Now, mercifully, Tacos Chukís has four locations around town, including its largest, and newest, at 23rd and Union. Salmerón’s food has always been accessible, thanks to some absurdly reasonable prices, but even more so with new-for-the-pandemic online ordering set up.
Inside this unexpectedly roomy Jamaican restaurant, set back from Jefferson Street like a secret, owners Carlene Comrie and Dwayne Blake ply some decidedly non-Caribbean environs with big, bold flavors. An order of fiery-tender jerk wings, chicken or goat or shrimp in a bright curry, or the classic beef patty (a pastry with seasoned meat), and tender plantains packs serious transportive powers, even when it comes in a takeout clamshell.
In October, a shattering new croissant destination opened on Jackson Street. Christina Wood spent the past few years impressing pastryphiles with her popups as she plotted her brick-and-mortar. Her new bilevel shop, a partnership with Broadcast Coffee, is as modern as the business model, full of textured minimalism and a mezzanine that promises a glorious spot for laptop work in our vaccinated future. Wood is equally architect and pastry chef, making precision magic in the form of brioche doughnuts with savory gruyere bechamel filling, chocolate tahini tarts, and buckwheat shortbread cookies. Not that her talents require showy flavors; each bite of Temple’s plain croissant crackles like a potato chip and rustles like Victorian skirts. Wood favors unsung combos like sweet potato and furikake, and in her hands even cronuts and cruffins feel dignified.
Its name sounds like a street drug in an ’80s action flick, the hallucinatory effects of which could produce the building’s trippy mural. Inside Twilight Exit is just as riotous—take the color scheme of gum stuck under a bar booth and then build around that. There are more surprises too, like the robust food menu (burgers, sandwiches, specials like gumbo and braised beef stroganoff), available for takeout.
First a popular food truck, now a mainstay on Jackson Street, Wood Shop is the domain of furniture maker turned unabashed barbecue geek Matt Davis. His pulled pork, brisket, and smoked chicken can stand alone by the pound or in a sandwich, but might be even better in Wood Shop’s bowls, piled on the house jalapeno mac and cheese with pickled red onions. Wood Shop is the sort of barbecue joint that balances kale caesars and boozy slushies with brisket chili and pit beans, all exceedingly takeout friendly.