When Evan Rich, the co-chef of the Michelin-starred Rich Table, decided to expand his RT Rotisserie franchise beyond San Francisco, he began to consider Seattle as his next city. “I love it,” he says. “It reminds me of San Francisco when I first arrived there a dozen years ago.” He’s exploring Seattle’s distinctive neighborhoods to find a home for a possible new location.
It’s easy to see why Rich, after establishing himself in San Francisco, has trained his culinary sights on Seattle—the similarities between the two are almost too many to count. The Emerald City is tearing down the viaduct along its waterfront and opening up views of Elliott Bay in much the same way that San Francisco demolished the Embarcadero freeway after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Seattle is being reshaped by the tech set—namely, Microsoft and Amazon—just as the likes of Salesforce and Twitter and legions of startups have remade San Francisco. In both cities, these businesses are fueling innovations in the dining scene. Open kitchens, live-fire cooking, and the celebration of local produce seem destined to make the cuisines mirror each other.
Yet there are differences. While San Francisco is the fine-dining capital of the United States—the Bay Area has more three-star Michelin restaurants than Los Angeles or New York—Seattle is known for destination-worthy neighborhood spots.
“High-end dining hasn’t been as well supported in part because people in Seattle didn’t eat out much,” says Nathan Myhrvold, formerly the chief technology officer at Microsoft, who’s credited with more than 800 patents. One of his passions is cooking, and he is the coauthor of Modernist Cuisine, an influential six-volume series on the science of cooking. While he sees many similarities between San Francisco and Seattle, he contends that even with the current boom, Seattle’s changes have been more subtle: “Seattle was never into itself quite as much as San Francisco was.”
San Francisco restaurants have been hit hard with escalating costs—the city has the highest rents in the world, according to the rental site Zumper and the financial advice site Walletwyse. Higher labor expenses, increased taxes, and added fees are further challenges. While Seattle isn’t immune to these higher costs, they aren’t as pronounced—as of yet, anyway.
• 86 Pine St., Ste. 1, Seattle
Seattle celebrated traditional Japanese cuisine perhaps even before San Francisco. Take Maneki, which opened more than 100 years ago and is still cited as one of the best sushi restaurants in the city. Or consider Shiro Kashiba, who came to Seattle from Tokyo more than 50 years ago when he was 25. Chef Kashiba prepares edomae, old Tokyo-style sushi where the fish is lightly marinated and served at room temperature on pads of rice. His restaurant, Sushi Kashiba, is at the forefront of a renaissance of tradition, even as new places open and thrive.
People often line up before the 5 p.m. opening in the hope of nabbing a seat at the sushi bar; it’s often easier to get a table. If you’re lucky enough to visit Seattle on a sunny day, you can also dine on the patio. During the summer, Sushi Kashiba offers two set lunch menus: the Executive ($40) and the Kashiba Deluxe ($50), which includes a couple of additional items. Both start with an appetizer, which on my visit was a vinegary broth with three kinds of seaweed and marinated cucumbers topped with slices of octopus, king crab, and shrimp. It was followed by pristine sushi.
• 1054 N. 39th St., Seattle
The region’s many seasons:“Seattle is special to me because it has more than the usual four seasons. Like changing clothes, there is so much variety in produce and seasonal selections that make me excited to test my skills as a chef.”
—MUTSUKO SOMA, chef and owner of Kamonegi
But it’s not all about tradition. Opened in 2017, Kamonegi is a fine example of the newer, exciting Japanese restaurants that are popping up. Tucked away in the city’s Fremont neighborhood, the restaurant is home to Mutsuko Soma, who was named by Food & Wine magazine as one of the best new chefs of 2019. The menu focuses on tempura and soba buckwheat noodles, which are made daily. Soma’s tempura is light and gauzy, making it a great accompaniment to the noodles, which have the texture of raw silk—smooth but slightly grainy. Few in the United States have mastered the art as thoroughly as Chef Soma has. The noodles are served three ways: covered in hot broth, cold with hot dipping sauce, and chilled in broth.
For any high-end restaurant, access to local ingredients is an important factor for success. Fortunately, both cities have it covered. Pike Place Market has been a Seattle fixture for more than a century; San Francisco’s lauded Ferry Plaza Farmers Market opened in 2003. (To this casual observer, Pike Place seemed a bit like the Northwest’s version of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf: gaggles of tourists in tank tops and shorts, clothing that’s incongruous with the native attire.)
Seattle’s market attracts locals who come for fresh fish on mounds of crushed ice and produce stacked as neatly as what you’d see in a French market. And whether you’re a local or a tourist, it’s a thrill to watch throwers, clad in bright orange chest waders, toss 30-pound salmons to one another at Pike Place Fish Company.
• 94 Pike St., Ste. 32, Seattle
One of the best places to observe the salmon being hurled is Matt’s in the Market, across the street and one story above the action. Owner Dan Bugge spent more than a decade as a fish thrower before opening his business in 1996. The industrial wood-beam ceiling and arched windows let you know it’s been around for decades. The fish sandwich on our visit was sautéed halibut stacked on a slightly sweet brioche bun with lettuce, aioli, and a crisscross of bacon. Matt’s is also the place for a crab salad with blue cheese dressing.
• 410 Occidental Ave., Seattle (and other locations)
Seafood is an integral part of Seattle’s cuisine, and it’s best shown off at Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar in nearby Pioneer Square. This location is known for its large windows overlooking a tree-lined street, not far from Occidental Square, where old men sit and visit and mothers push their babies in strollers. The interior has an old-world charm, with its brick walls, wood floors, and long oyster bar. On my visit, the drinks menu included a half dozen Canadian beers and cocktails, such as the Corpse Reviver II, in which a hit of absinthe intensifies the seafaring qualities of the oysters.
This restaurant and distributor has been providing oysters to the Pacific Northwest for nearly 130 years, and the outstanding product is showcased here and at two other Seattle outposts. Diners can enjoy a Shucker’s Dozen that might include plump, briny Fat Bastards and the mineral kick of Fanny Bay. Taylor’s oysters are also offered margarita style, with tequila-lime butter, fresh corn salsa, and crumbles of cotija cheese, or deep-fried with a crackling coating that enhances the salty gush of the liquor.
• 217 James St., Seattle
WORTH THE WAIT
Il Corvo proves that Seattleites are as willing as San Franciscans to stand in line for good Italian food. When I arrived at 12:45 for lunch, the line was about 100 strong. Customers wait to order and are then directed to one of the 36 seats inside.
The restaurant, which is open only for lunch on weekdays, offers a menu of two or three pastas that change daily, each less than $10, plus a few salads, appetizers, and wines. Pasta options might include pappardelle with Bolognese; gigli with zucchini and sun-gold tomato pomodoro; or torchiette with chanterelle mushrooms, snap peas, preserved lemon, and cream.
People in line can observe chef and owner Mike Easton masterfully preparing each pasta, cooked al dente for a texture that would impress the most demanding Italian. Even with a simple menu, Easton was a nominee for the Best Chef: Northwest James Beard Award. Last year he opened a dinner house named Il Nido. Reservations are accepted, but seats are solidly booked a month out.
• 93 Pike St., Ste. 201, Seattle
If waiting isn’t in your DNA, check out Pasta Casalinga, which debuted in 2018 in the atrium of Pike Place Market. Here you’ll find four housemade pastas, including an excellent lasagna with sweet béchamel, fennel sausage, mushrooms, cheese, and a few peas to make sure you get your green vegetables.
Few municipalities have a neighborhood as charming as Ballard, which was an independent city until it was annexed by Seattle in 1907. Ballard Avenue is home to wonderful independent shops and bars, with artisan breweries nearby.
• 4743 Ballard Ave. NW, Seattle
What distinguishes Emerald City dining:“Not only does Seattle have an open view of vast mountains with spectacular sunsets right from the harbor downtown, it is home to some of the best local seafood and produce. The oysters, wild salmon, Dungeness crab, summer tomatoes, winter chicories, and Washington State apples—all make it such a special place to feast in the world.”
—RENEE ERICKSON, owner of the Walrus and the Carpenter and other restaurants
It’s also a magnet for several chefs who have built mini empires, like Renee Erickson, who lives there and owns the Walrus and the Carpenter. She also owns other restaurants throughout the city, including the Whale Wins, Bateau, and Bar Melusine. And in 2018, she took over nine more establishments, including the Westward, a 125-seat oyster bar with stunning views of Lake Union and the skyline.
The Walrus and the Carpenter shares a vintage brick building on Ballard with Marine Hardware and Staple & Fancy, two restaurants from chef Ethan Stowell, who has a mini empire of his own: more than a dozen restaurants around Seattle. To access the Walrus, diners must first walk down a long, narrow hall. At the end stands the entrance. The restaurant has a rustic-looking interior, painted mostly white (an Erickson signature), and is defined by large pane windows.
The always-packed Walrus doesn’t accept reservations, and peak-time queues can be 90 minutes or more. Erickson has smartly created an adjacent aperitif bar, Barnacle, where waiting diners can relax while nursing an amaro or a glass of wine and enjoy snacks that are smoked, canned, pickled, or cured.
Erickson makes the most of her establishment’s limited kitchen space, producing steamed clams, grilled sardines, and, during my visit, the must-order fried geoduck with coconut cream, pickled peppers, basil, and lime. Along with oysters, the menu features cheese, steak tartare, and, previously, pork rillettes and halibut ceviche with buttermilk, lime, and fennel. The garden section has also included gems like shaved kohlrabi with lemon cream and pistachio, and tomatoes drizzled with vanilla oil.
• 4739 Ballard Ave. NW, Seattle
At the neighboring Staple & Fancy, it looks as if Stowell simply dusted off the interior of what was once a general store. I don’t recall ever seeing a restaurant that so utilized the bones of the building. The focal point is a massive weathered sign painted on the brick wall that reads “Cigars.” The kitchen on the opposite wall has none of the shiny tile and polished equipment commonly visible after rehab jobs. The look and feel of the space somehow make the bright modern food seem even more electrifying. This is a restaurant that could open in any part of the country and compete with the best.
While Staple & Fancy offers an à la carte menu, many choose the four-course dinner for $60, a great deal with multiple appetizers counted as one course, followed by housemade pasta, then a main course from the wood-fired grill (which might include whole fish, strip loin steak, or duck breast), and finally dessert. The competency of the kitchen is revealed in each dish, whether it’s a simple strozzapreti with butter, black pepper, and pecorino cheese or crispy-fried oysters nestled next to a fennel salad and an aioli geniusly spiked with Calabrian chiles.
• 1501 Melrose Ave., Seattle
In addition to Erickson, Seattle diners have championed other female chefs, including Tamara Murphy, who won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest/Hawaii in 1995. She opened Terra Plata in 2012, offering a menu with a Spanish twist, including a Monday paella night with pintxo and tapas. At brunch, Murphy’s embrace of the earth-to-table concept reflected in her restaurant’s name translates to bowls of fresh berries, fruit-sauced crepes with lemon, cheesy grits unexpectedly—but successfully—topped with seasonal fruit, and asparagus-leek soup with mint labneh.
• 4012 Leary Way NW, Seattle
The local flora: “The native plants you find here, you can’t find anywhere else. The berries, the wild plants, and other things. It’s perfect for fermentation. The winter is very long, but you can do fermentations. We have almost 200 different fermentations, and it would be impossible to do that in other places.”
—PERFECTE ROCHER, chef and co-owner of Tarsan i Jane
FOREIGN HERITAGE, LOCAL BOUNTY
While tasting menus aren’t nearly as popular in Seattle as they are in San Francisco, they are gaining traction at places such as Canlis in Queen Anne (see sidebar) and Tarsan i Jane in Frelard, which features modern Valencian cuisine. Perfecte Rocher and his wife, Alia Rocher, the consummate host, offer a tasting menu of 12 courses for $200 or 18 for $325.
The elegant interior has 10 seats at a black slate counter that gently curves around the kitchen, where everything is cooked over an open fire. There’s an additional table for four behind a partition, giving it the feel of a private room. I was intrigued by the five-course paella lunch ($80) served on Sundays. Preparations are more straightforward compared with the nightly menu but still contain similar showmanship: five people stand in front of the kitchen counter, each picks up two dishes (one per customer), and then they turn in unison to present the course to a pair of guests.
The menu started with berry gazpacho, followed by precisely diced kampachi blanketed in a refined version of romesco sauce. Next came a thick slice of bread, baked in the wood oven and layered with chorizo, fried egg, and herb salad. The paella was set between diners, who were given only a spoon to scrape and eat the browned rice clinging to the pan. The topping changes weekly—on my visit it was morels, fava beans, Romano beans, and rabbit. After dessert, the waiters presented cocoa-dusted truffles topped with a tiny olive oil gummy bear. Tarsan i Jane represents a trend where, as in San Francisco, classically trained chefs embrace their heritage and marry it to the local bounty.
• 400 Fairview Ave. N., Seattle
Another example of this can be seen at MBar, owned by the husband-and-wife team behind Mamnoon, a modern Middle Eastern restaurant that opened on Capitol Hill in 2012. Wassef Haroun was born in Syria and raised in Lebanon; Racha Haroun was born in London to a Syrian father and an Iranian mother.
They opened this rooftop bar and restaurant in 2016, affording diners views of South Lake Union, the Space Needle, and the urban sprawl beyond. MBar offers well-made cocktails and items too delicious to be termed “bar food”—creamy green chickpea hummus with pita, and exceptional falafel, crunchy outside with a vivid green interior that contrasts dramatically with the pink beet labneh underneath. The menu also lists larger plates: pasta with mushrooms, grilled trout with Middle Eastern spices, and bavette steak with corn and watermelon salad.
• 3506 Stone Way N., Seattle
A community of chefs: “I have lived in Seattle for a little over a decade, but I instantly felt at home the moment that I moved here with my husband from New York City. Seattle has sort of perfect East Coast and West Coast balance. More than anything, people are what makes Seattle truly great. Especially in the restaurant industry, everyone takes care of each other. When my husband and I opened our first restaurant, chefs around the city gave us their Rolodex of contacts of vendors and repair companies.’’
—RACHEL YANG, chef and co-owner of Joule
Octopus with bok choy and hot bacon vinaigrette.
In a different twist on melding cuisines to local ingredients, Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi opened Joule as an Asian fusion restaurant in 2007 and then reimagined it as a Korean steakhouse six years later. Their dinner menu moves from a salad of white stuffed kimchi to main courses like short rib steak with grilled kimchi or octopus with bok choy and hot bacon vinaigrette.
Joule’s popular $20 brunch includes one item from the menu, such as shrimp and grits with Chinese sausage, brown butter, ginger, and greens that wilt into the creamy porridge, alongside other buffet staples. The menu selection changes monthly. In July, the buffet celebrated backyard barbecue and included a salad of watermelon, corn, and potatoes. In August, the theme was Peruvian; in September, it was Austrian.
Aaron Verzosa is another chef winning over Seattle diners with an eclectic approach to cooking. In December 2018, Verzosa, who worked for Nathan Myhrvold as a research and development chef for five years, opened Archipelago, a Filipino restaurant with a multicourse prepaid menu ($130, including gratuity). I tried to buy tickets, but the restaurant was booked nearly three months in advance.
• 2122 NE 65th St., Seattle
A forager’s delight:“I think one of the first things that led me to embrace Seattle is the farmers and the accessibility to great product and produce; also the fish and meat. There’s also foraging, which is huge here. We have access to all the ingredients that are accessible and available.”
—EDOUARDO JORDAN, chef and owner of JuneBaby
Yet perhaps the restaurant that has made the biggest splash in Seattle is Edouardo Jordan’s JuneBaby. In May 2018, it took home the national James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Jordan produces a sophisticated take on the food he grew up eating in Florida. With his fine-dining training that includes a stint at the French Laundry, in 2015 he opened the Italian-inspired Salare in Ravenna. Two years later, and just down the street, he established JuneBaby, featuring his elegant take on southern food.
That translates to deeply smoked, sesame-dusted carrots layered on vinegary collard greens; fried green tomatoes that serve as a platform for shrimp salad; and pimento cheese spread with housemade saltines and pickled vegetables.
His main courses include not-to-miss oxtail. Using his mother’s recipe as inspiration, Jordan dresses up the meat with chanterelle mushrooms, Romano beans, and other vegetables in a consommé of braising liquids. He also features such daily specials as brisket on Friday and fried chicken on Sunday (exceptional).
Regardless of the night, people line up before the doors open. One tip: Arrive at 4 p.m. on Saturday or Sunday. Grab a seat, have an excellent cocktail and a few snacks, and the table is yours when the kitchen turns up the heat at 5 p.m.
As in San Francisco, the quality of Seattle dining is being elevated by chefs like Jordan, who find the courage—and support—to follow their unique paths, broadening and evolving the dining scene along the way.
Michael Bauer has been a restaurant critic for nearly 40 years. He wrote about the eateries that helped define California cuisine in Alta, Fall 2019.
• 2576 Aurora Ave., Seattle
Seattleites’ love of the secret menu:“Sometimes there is simply no better way to love on a guest than to bring them back to a meal they had years before. Few memories can be relived in this way. So we think of it as a privilege to partake in the tradition. We’ll never stop pushing the menu forward at Canlis. After all, one doesn’t drive staring through the rearview mirror. But what a small price to pay for the kind of smile that could light up a dining room.”
—MARK CANLIS, co-owner of Canlis
Fine Dining with a Party in the Parking Lot
Seattle is not known for white-tablecloth restaurants, so Canlis is an anomaly—but in more ways than you might expect. More than a decade ago, this 70-year-old restaurant was taken over by the third generation of the Canlis family, brothers Brian and Mark. While restaurants of this vintage often slowly die along with their customers, the siblings shook things up.
Four years ago, they brought on Brady Williams, whose modern approach to cooking won him the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest last year. Williams is so committed to producing everything in-house that he even mills flour for his small bread loaves; he also worked with a research kitchen at the Bread Lab at Washington State University that conducts studies on grains. In addition, the restaurant won a special design award in 2019 as an icon of midcentury grandeur.
While efforts to update a landmark restaurant and cultivate a new, younger set of diners often upset longtime customers, Canlis seems to be having it both ways. Williams offers a four-course, fixed-price meal with choices in each category for $135, a value for new diners and longtime patrons.
To begin, diners can choose between the classic Canlis salad—a mix of lettuces tossed tableside that has been on the menu for decades—and other, more inventive selections. For example, asparagus with hemp pudding and arugula oil arrived in the form of fine matchsticks of grilled, pickled, and raw vegetables atop a raft of asparagus spears that slowly settled into the pudding.
The second course includes spot prawns—no one has better ones than those found in Seattle. The rich, fleshy seafood is blanketed with spinach and accented with dices of kohlrabi, sea lettuce, and shellfish sauce fortified with chicken jus.
For a third course, there are five options, including rib eye steak with charred radicchio, puréed rutabaga, and fermented garlic. The vegetarian offering is a 23-bean stew. The beans take a starring role when punched up with charred tomatoes and both fresh and pickled vegetables.
To finish, pastry chef Crystal Chiu may offer special guests her palate cleanser: a tiny hollowed-out apple filled with pectin extracted from rejected fruit. It has an accelerating tartness that prepares your taste buds for dessert, which includes a textbook-perfect soufflé with orange curaçao, crème anglaise, and warm madeleines.
All of this is presented in the spectacular midcentury dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows that hang over lush green hills with views of Lake Union and the houses beyond. Service by suited waiters is professional yet friendly.
While the brothers Canlis honor their family’s heritage with fine dining, the restaurant projects an entirely different vibe on summer weekends across its lower parking lot. The area becomes a tropical oasis with grass huts and a temporary swimming pool. As the night wears on, the water fills with people sipping tiki cocktails and drinking wine out of cans.
The Hawaiian-style party features whole roasted suckling pig and pizza cooked in an outdoor oven. On the Friday night I was there, more than 1,000 people attended. This nontraditional luau is a daring, seemingly incongruous move, but one that attracts new diners and ensures Canlis’s future.
• 1124 Pike St., Seattle
Seattle’s Sacred Grounds
While San Francisco may adore its Peet’s, the world worships Seattle’s Starbucks. The original store opened in 1971 at Pike’s Place Market, looking similar to Alfred Peet’s shop in Berkeley. But unlike its Bay Area cousin, Starbucks went on to upend the café industry.
If you’re a member of the Starbucks faithful, bypass the long line outside its birthplace and instead visit the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, which opened on Capitol Hill in 2014. The website’s description doesn’t understate the grandeur of the place: “Our roasteries are theatrical, experiential shrines to coffee passion.” The chain has these roasteries in Shanghai, Milan, New York, Tokyo, and soon Chicago. Be prepared to witness and enjoy coffee as never before.