Many classic Seattle restaurants have been around for a while: Canlis is celebrating its 65th year, El Gaucho is an elder statesman of the Seattle scene, and SkyCity at the Space Needle casts its long historic shadow over the city. And then there are the restaurants that have stood their ground for two decades or more, but with far less fanfare.
They are the eccentric, unique, hidden-away charmers; the places that might take a few years to discover, but only minutes to fall in love with, because they still put Cheez-It crackers on the salad or boast a bartending grandma.
These 10 local institutions show that sometimes, being just a bit quirky can help stand the test of time.
Dressed like Saturday night but serving Sunday-morning specials, this 24-hour spot was a fixture in South Lake Union decades before the neighborhood evolved into an epicenter of high-tech innovation and life-science facilities. The area was barely inhabited when 13 Coins first brought elegance to 4 a.m. dining in 1967. When “The Coins” opened, the high-back booths and dark colors, which, today, give the illusion of luxury, were still the style of the day. There are two more locations, one in Bellevue (which just opened this year) and one in SeaTac, with another rumored to be on the way (in Pioneer Square). The restaurant group is on its third set of owners. While places serving up a better eggs Benedict or rib-eye steak will come and go in this town, there still isn’t another that will do so at the witching hour—at least not with the Sinatra-esque style of 13 Coins. South Lake Union, 125 Boren Ave. N; 206.682.2513; 13coins.com
These days, Gary Locke, former Washington governor and United States ambassador to China, is more likely to dine at Il Bistro than work there, but he grew up spending time in the Pike Place Market space’s previous incarnation when it housed his family’s Chinese-American bistro, Sadie’s. He’s only one in a long line of luminaries who spent time in the subterranean Pike Place spot, however: Restaurateur Peter Lamb greeted people as they came in for rack of lamb at Il Bistro, before he went on to Café Campagne, Queen City Grill and Branzino; and Murray Stenson, before earning the title of Best Bartender in America, served drinks there for more than a decade. The food gleefully ignores today’s trend toward restraint or small plates, serving plump shrimp (gamberoni) cooked in vermouth, gnocchi afloat in cream sauce, and pork chops big enough to wield as a weapon (which come alongside fat asparagus spears that harbor equal potential). The dim lighting and low ceilings create an intimate setting, making the restaurant seem even older than its 40 years, but with age comes wisdom, and at Il Bistro, that’s most often expressed through the serving of an expertly made cocktail. Pike Place Market, 93A Pike St.; 206.682.3049; ilbistro.net
House of Hong
Even today, when dim sum is a meal as common to born-and-bred Seattleites as salmon or spaghetti, the sheer scale of the 400-seat House of Hong induces awe. Diners can suck on spareribs from a private booth, slurp soup under the panda mural or dig into shrimp dumplings below a disco ball; the massive, multilevel restaurant offers almost as many seating options as different kinds of handmade dumplings. Back in 1983, when the restaurant opened, the Chinatown/International District was as known for crime as for food (the restaurant was damaged by arson by the end of its first year, also the year of the Wah Mee massacre), but that didn’t keep the Hong family from opening. Renowned former Seattle Times restaurant reviewer John Hinterberger fawned over it, calling it “the most congenial (and possibly the best) eatery” in the International District. The Hongs sold the restaurant in 1992, and it’s been through various owners since then. With dim sum now plentiful in the neighborhood and around town, the cavernous space doesn’t pack the crowds in daily, as it once did (other than on Christmas Day, the busiest day of the year), but that doesn’t stop the crew here from swiftly distributing the daily cartload of hand-wrapped dim sum. Chinatown/International District, 409 Eighth Ave. S; 206.622.7997; houseofhong.info
So old it’s new again, the Wedgwood Broiler hasn’t changed much since University of Washington football coach Mel Thompson and Glen Jensen, his teammate from Washington State University, opened it in 1965. Only now the salad comes with salami slices instead of bacon bits, a change that happened just after another upheaval in 2005, when the statewide smoking ban lifted the haze of cigarette smoke from the dining room. When Thompson opened the Broiler, he was relying on his training as a meat cutter to draw diners, and to this day, the best cuts are butchered in-house. Let the accidentally retro decor in the lounge instill nostalgia over a burger ground from the steak scraps, or dig into the prime rib dip special. But whatever the main dish, no neighborhood regular or annual holiday diner would consider their meal here complete without the side salad, a charmingly unself-conscious pile of lettuce topped with Cheez-Its (and best with blue cheese dressing). Wedgwood, 8230 35th Ave. NE; 206.523.1115; wedgwoodbroiler.com
In 1990, pho hadn’t yet taken over every street corner in Seattle, and far fewer people in the area knew what banh mi was, yet there was no lack of Vietnamese food. This Little Saigon stalwart was on the scene then and still is, 25 years later, serving plates of charbroiled meats on platters of fresh lettuce and herbs. The restaurant shies away from the pho and sandwiches that represent postcolonial Vietnamese food in Seattle. Instead, it sticks to the old-school dishes of Hué (in central Vietnam), food that was once considered the royal cuisine, setting a standard for quality and consistency that few restaurants ever achieve. There’s little that is special about the location (in an International District strip mall, where the signs are more likely to be in Vietnamese and Chinese than in English), or the decor of plain white walls, undressed tables and colorful lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The beauty of this restaurant instead is seen on the plate, where the same family has been dishing up brilliant white bundles of rice noodles and careful stacks of rice paper wrappers nestled among a garden of greens and scented with the aroma of grilled meat, all awaiting a bath in sweet nuoc cham dipping sauce. Chinatown/International District, 1207 S Jackson St. No. 104; 206.720.4907
Bizzarro Italian Cafe
Every dinner at this Wallingford café involves at least a bit of theater. After Bizzarro opened in 1986, early reviews noted that despite the name, the restaurant wasn’t particularly bizarre; instead it was lauded for low prices and solid Italian food. However, in the intervening years, it seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Have a seat here to drink in the visual art hanging from the ceiling—furniture, a bicycle and a chandelier, among other objects—and eat up the service, which is, at times, indiscernible from performance art. Started by artist David Nast, the café has been through a series of owners and chefs through the years (including Il Corvo and Pizzeria Gabbiano proprietor Mike Easton), but the heart of the dining experience—the focus on affordable, fresh Italian food—has stayed the same, with a little extra pizzazz, thanks to the staff of performers/servers (and a killer clam linguine). Wallingford, 1307 N 46th St.; 206.632.7277; bizzarroitaliancafe.com
How old is Maneki? Old enough that nobody really knows how long it’s been serving traditional Japanese specialties from a corner in what was once Seattle’s Japantown. The faded storefront hides a simply decorated main room and a warren of paper-doored tatami rooms. Estimated to have opened in 1904, it closed during the Japanese internment of World War II—although it did store the belongings of many local residents when they were taken to the camps—and was revived a block away after the war. Giant slabs of fresh fish draped over rice balls, Japanese comfort food such as agedashi tofu and croquettes, bar snacks, (including takoyaki—octopus doughnuts) and prix fixe dinners make up the enormous menu. These dishes have been served to hungry diners by everyone from a future prime minister of Japan (Takeo Miki, who went on to rule the country, was once an employee) to an octogenarian bartender, known to most of the public as “Mom.” Chinatown/International District, 304 Sixth Ave. S; 206.622.2631; manekirestaurant.com
The Lockspot Cafe
Originally built in 1870 as two houses, the restaurant/bar took occupancy in 1917, when it began serving fishermen and workers from the nearby Hiram Chittenden Locks. Located so close to a tourist attraction (and becoming one in its own right since appearing on the TV show Deadliest Catch), The Lockspot has ample potential for mediocrity. Instead, the pub-style local landmark’s eclectic decor—which includes a British phone booth—charms diners, while the food that embraces both its shoreline location (fish and chips, smoked salmon chowder) and pub atmosphere (with bar and diner classics) satisfies the appetites of fishermen and landlubbers alike. Wash that seafood down with a local beer while sitting in one of the cozy window booths and watching the weather outside—it’s hard to get much more of a Seattle experience. Ballard, 3005 NW 54th St.; 206.789.4865; thelockspotcafe.com
Although it’s now on the corner of Trendy and Popular, Machiavelli opened in 1988 on what was then a seedy edge of Capitol Hill. Perhaps that locale contributed to the comfortable, lived-in feeling (and maybe just a bit of grit) that transformed the place into an instant classic. While seemingly half of Seattle’s newer restaurants change their menus every night, not much has changed on Machiavelli’s menu in nearly 30 years. As befits a restaurant that seems older than its years, the favorites here are the rich and filling dishes an Italian grandma would serve for Sunday dinner: spinach noodle lasagna with chicken livers, veal saltimbocca, and big glasses of Chianti Classico. Capitol Hill, 1215 Pine St.; 206.621.7941; machiavellis.com
Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar
The late, curmudgeonly Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist and co-owner of the bar that bears his name would probably be unenthused by today’s Amazon-ified Seattle. But the “lesser Seattle” advocate would likely be pleased that not much has changed in his tiny corner of Pike Place Market, where blue-checkered tablecloths still grace tables under fading kitschy signs and the menu still comes on a paper bag. Here, as they’ve done for decades, oysters roll out of the broiler, take their place in omelets and are slurped raw by those who want to escape the chaos of the rest of the nearby shops. Sam Bryant, Watson’s original co-owner, bought out Watson in 1987. Bryant’s son, Thurman, currently runs the restaurant. Pike Place Market, 1916 Pike Place, No. 16; 206.448.7721