Over the last 25 years or so, Seattle’s reputation as one of the great restaurant cities in the U.S. has grown steadily. Before that time, there were some good ethnic Asian and Italian restaurants, and always one or two classic French eateries, but eating out in Seattle was mostly about seafood and steak. And the seafood was usually wonderful, because it’s hard to ruin a slab of salmon or a fresh Dungeness crab. Creamy clam or oyster chowder, or tomato-based seafood chowders, were on just about every menu. The incredible bounty of the region was on display every day at the Pike Street Market. Then the food scene exploded. It was like a complete change of food consciousness, or awareness. Cooking became an art and the materials needed to create that art were close at hand, where they’d always been, but perhaps not appreciated. The “buy fresh, eat local” food philosophy now pervades the Seattle food scene, which now places a premium on sustainable fishing and organic farming practices. The ethnic restaurants are as plentiful and popular as ever, but “Pacific Northwest cuisine” is the general code term for locally sourced ingredients. The big difference now is that many different styles of cooking and flavoring are used to turn those ingredients, no matter how humble, into edible adventures. There’s also a greater awareness of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free cooking and many restaurants have options for all three on their menus. I’ve covered a wide range of dining choices for you, some of them old favorites that have lost none of their appeal, some that are special destination restaurants where Seattleites go for good food and fabulous views, and others that showily showcase the “new” style of Pacific Northwest cuisine. Many of Seattle’s best downtown restaurants are independent kitchens attached to hotels, others are neighborhood spots outside the downtown core. Wherever you choose to eat, I think you will be impressed with the quality of the food and the professional friendliness of the service.
For real dining deals, though, you'll need to head to the 'hoods. Seattle is a city of self-sufficient neighborhoods, and within these urban enclaves are dozens of good, inexpensive places to eat. These are neighborhood spots that aren't usually patronized by visitors to the city. However, if you have a car and can navigate your way to outlying neighborhoods or are comfortable exploring by public bus, such neighborhoods as Queen Anne, Madison Valley, Madison Park, Columbia City, and Ballard, are all great places to stroll around looking for just the right restaurant to fit your tastes and your budget. In the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood alone, I've counted more than a dozen restaurants within a 6-block area -- and most of them have something or other to recommend them. Stroll the compact commercial blocks of one of these neighborhoods, and keep an eye out for newspaper reviews plastered in the front windows of restaurants. Pick one that the local paper liked, and you probably won't go wrong.
Prices are for a three-course dinner (alcoholic beverages and tip not included).
Very Expensive $80 and up
Inexpensive Under $20
Alfresco All Summer
Eight to nine months of rain and cloudy skies is a heavy price to pay for long summer days and sunsets that linger until almost 10pm. So can you blame Seattle's residents if they just won't go inside during the summer? The thought of eating indoors on a summer evening can be just too depressing to contemplate. If you happen to be here in the rain-free months (July, Aug, and Sept), and just don't want to eat indoors, here are some suggestions for alfresco meals.
If you got any closer to the water than the narrow deck at the Six-Seven, you'd need a wet suit. No deck in Seattle has a better view. Want a million-dollar view for pennies? Take the water taxi to Alki Beach and have fish and chips on the patio at Alki Crab & Fish Co.. You can get the same view and dine on more creative (and expensive) fare down the street at Salty's on Alki. There's more high-end fish to be had with your views at Ray's Boathouse/Ray's Cafe, a restaurant with a split personality and killer views. Keep an eye out for bald eagles.
If you don't have to have a view with your meal, try the shady courtyard patio at Volterra, in the Ballard neighborhood. Serafina, not far from the east shore of Lake Union, is another good Italian restaurant with a garden patio. There's still more alfresco Italian at The Pink Door, Seattle's favorite "secret" Pike Place Market restaurant, which has a big deck with a big view. If you're more in the mood for an urban sidewalk-table experience, head to the Virginia Inn near Pike Place Market. For a thoroughly Pike Place Market experience, grab a table at El Puerco Llorõn, an inexpensive Mexican place on the Pike Street Hill Climb.
Rainy Season Dining Deals
While spring and fall can be dreary and drizzly in Seattle, anyone visiting during these times of year have a consolation prize for putting up with the rainy weather -- Seattle Restaurant Week. During this event, which actually spans two weeks in April and October, more than 100 restaurants offer three-course dinners for $28 and three-course lunches for $15. Actually these "weeks" only span Sunday through Thursday, but it's still a great deal. For more information, visit www.theseattlerestaurantweek.com.
* Poppy: The fabulous food at this always-fun and always-surprising Capitol Hill restaurant is locally sourced and served Indian style, in multi-plate thalis. The assortment of tastes and textures in one of the daily thalis is exciting and delicious. Once you taste the sweet potato fries, you’ll never be the same.
* Lola: The rich smells and savory tastes of Greece and the Mediterranean add up to memorable meals at this casually sophisticated restaurant in Belltown. Lamb is the specialty and what you should have—and maybe a big, fresh Greek salad to go with it.
* Tilth: There’s a tasting menu for every taste at this award-winning restaurant in Wallingford. Chef and owner Maria Hines whips up a mouthwatering and ever-changing menu of organic seasonal delicacies in one of the few restaurants in the U.S. to receive an organic certification. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free—creative delights are available for every taste and dietary preference.
* Canlis: Many a Seattleite will tell you that this venerable restaurant in the Fremont neighborhood is where the “fresh, local” Pacific Northwest style of cooking began in 1950. There are dishes on the menu that are as delicious today as they were 60-some years ago, but there are also artful new preparations for changing tastes and palettes. If you want a dress-up dining experience, this is it.
* Shiro’s Sushi Restaurant: Ask any Seattleite where to find the best sushi in town and they’ll tell you Shiro’s. The sushi and sashimi are so fresh you can taste the sea.
* Café Campagne: It isn’t fancy, it isn’t overpriced, and it’s anything but pretentious—but if you’re looking for classic French bistro food, this restaurant on Post Alley, right next to Pike Place Market, is just the place. Mussels, of course, and steak and frites, that’s the sort of meal you’ll enjoy at this little hideaway.
* Shuckers: What’s a meal in Seattle without fresh oysters? Visit Shucker’s, attached to the gorgeous old Fairmont Olympic Hotel, for the very best selection prepared any way you like. Come early for happy hour and you can get them on the half-shell for two bucks a pop. But you can also enjoy them pan-fried or baked. The daily selection of fresh fish is also outstanding, and the crab cakes are wonderful.