Where is your happy place? This is the question that launched our discussion on how to approach this year’s best restaurants issue. In years past, we’ve covered the city’s very best restaurants, the best new eateries, the trends that are shaping the way Seattle eats. (Don’t worry, that’s all here, too.)
In our best restaurants package, you’ll find our happy-place bars and restaurants—the neighborhood spots with everything from sushi and tacos to pastries—that we return to again and again because they provide the whole package: great food, warm service, lovely ambiance and an overall je ne sais quoi that ensures every meal ends with a smile. Sometimes we can attribute this quality to the chef’s comfort food, sometimes it’s the stellar service provided by hardworking servers and bartenders. Occasionally, we feel pretty great just because we’ve been let in on the secrets of the hippest new joints and food trends.
We can’t fix your anxiety. But we can make sure you forget about it for a couple of hours, surrounded by good friends—or strangers who feel like friends—sharing a meal and a drink at one of these spots that we wholeheartedly recommend.
Photograph by Andrea Coan. Revel’s food, like this seasonal crispy paneer rice bowl, is as bright and poppy as the restaurant’s interiors.
A Sure Thing
Chef/owners Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi are the sort of people you want to see succeed: grounded, gracious, extraordinarily talented. It helps that their restaurants—the lovely Joule, the quirky Trove quartet, and this reliable, comfortable-cool, pop-arty Fremont hit that lies somewhere in the middle—are among the best in the city. We’d go so far as to say we’ve never had a bad dish on Revel’s seasonal, Korean-influenced menu, and that’s a major feat for seven years of brunches, dinners and (too many) cocktails.
While You’re There: Check out their bar next door to Revel, Quoin, particularly for happy hour, 4–6 p.m., when ramen with house-made noodles is only $8 (although only 10 bowls are available daily). Fremont, 403 N 36th St.; 206.547.2040
Photograph by Andrea Coan. Happiness is a slice of red velvet cake from The Wandering Goose.
Let Them Eat Cake
The Wandering Goose
Some days—good days, bad days—simply need cake. And for those days, no slice compares to a hunk from one of Heather Earnhardt’s 12-inch layer cakes ($8 slice, $100 whole) at her petite, rustically charming Capitol Hill café, The Wandering Goose. Earnhardt’s Southern hospitality runs deep, stemming from her North Carolina upbringing. You can taste the love in all her baked goods, from the biscuits (get the Aunt Annie’s breakfast sandwich, $11.50, with fried chicken, bread-and-butter pickles, mustard and the chef’s own honey) to the cookies.
If You Like This: Visit Young Bros., a smoked fish company (opening soon; smokedfishshop.com) owned by Earnhardt’s husband in Hillman City, where she’s supplying the baked goods. Capitol Hill, 403 15th Ave. E; 206.323.9938
A meal of truly great sushi is an experience that is almost regal in its elegance. And yet Wataru owner-chef Kotaro Kumita delivers the goods—the freshest spot prawns, premium salmon belly, subtly smoked mackerel—while still making you feel like you’re a friend at his table. The best experience at this Ravenna spot is the counter omakase (a chef’s choice parade of bites, market price in the ballpark of $100, available at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. seatings), where Kumita hands you each expertly crafted Edo-style nigiri with a story and a smile.
Know Before You Go: If you can’t get a reservation for the sushi bar, know that you can order an abbreviated omakase in the dining room. Our favorite features seven pieces of sushi and sashimi, a few small appetizer bites and miso soup ($56). Ravenna, 2400 NE 65th St.; 206.525.2073
Ballard love triangle
The Fat Hen, Rosellini’s, Delancey/Essex
Oh, to live near the corner of Alonzo Avenue NW and NW 70th Street. There, some of our very favorite spots sit just steps apart: The Fat Hen serving baked eggs ($10.50) and great coffee from Fonte; Rosellini’s (formerly Honoré Bakery) baking salty-sweet kouign-amann ($3.25), now alongside slices of cake; Delancey turning out wait-worthy pizzas ($14–$20); and Essex wrapping it all up with a killer cocktail list (and tacos on Tuesdays). Perhaps the greatest off-the-beaten-path block of culinary real estate in Seattle.
Know Before You Go: Skip Mondays, as only one of these restaurants, The Fat Hen, is open on that day.
Photograph by Andrea Coan. Old-school steak dinners are priced by the ounce at the Wedgwood Broiler.
There are cheez-its on the salad and martinis at 8 a.m. on the weekends. Still, this windowless neighborhood icon’s brand of retro (not much has changed since its current iteration opened in 1969) is as endearing as eating Sunday dinner at grandma’s. Old-school steak dinners priced by the ounce ($18.50–$34) are the specialty, but they actually make a really decent diner-style burger ($10.50) as well, ground in house.
If You Like Wedgwood Broiler: Try the delightfully grandmotherly Bay Cafe in Fishermen’s Terminal in Magnolia, which does for breakfast what the Broiler does for dinner. Wedgwood, 8230 35th Ave. NE; 206.523.1115
Photograph by Andrea Coan. Bright and cheery Brimmer & Heeltap’s cozy-chic interior looks out to a secret-garden patio.
Like a Good Neighbor
Brimmer & Heeltap
In a building on a Ballard corner full of substantial culinary history—it housed Le Gourmand for more than 25 years—this dreamy neighborhood spot has created a following all its own, thanks in no small part to owner (and hospitality industry vet) Jen Doak. You’ll almost always see her megawatt smile in the creatively decorated dining room (check out the penny floor and the assembly of light fixtures turned into art), making every customer feel like they’re walking into Cheers. The creative Asian-meets–Pacific Northwest menu (think steak tartare with nori rice crackers, $16, from the snack menu) and the twinkly garden patio are just icing on the cake.
Owner Jen Doak’s Happy Place: Manolin (Wallingford): “The crew, menu and ambiance have my shoulders drop upon entry!” Ballard, 425 NW Market St.; 206.420.2534
The Italian Job
Cafe Lago and Little Lago
Where the normal lifespan of a restaurant is little more than that of a goldfish, this Montlake Italian staple has a first-rate reputation 27 years in the making. The lasagna ($22) is ethereal yet substantial and universally appealing—the sort of dish that symbolizes the heart (and pasta) of this place. Last year, it added an offshoot sib in Portage Bay, Little Lago, which is equal parts takeout café (rotisserie chickens, $17 whole, $10 half; pizzas, $12; and yes, slices of lasagna, $13) and neighborhood bodega (fresh produce, cheese, good baguettes).
Owner Carla Leonardi’s Happy Place: Harvest Vine (Madison Valley). “I’m always charmed and well fed there.” Cafe Lago - Montlake, 2305 24th Ave. E; 206.329.8005; Little Lago - Portage Bay, 2919 Fuhrman Ave. E; 206.922.3324
Ballard’s Non-Nordic Secret
Were it more centrally located, this Lebanese restaurant, tucked into the Loyal Heights neighborhood, would be packed to capacity every night. Instead, by hiding in a sleepy residential corner of the city, it maintains a slower pace, welcoming gentle crowds of families early in the evening, quieting under lowered lights to a sweetly romantic setting for a date as the night moves on. But both groups of people—and many others—share a love for the hummus served under a mountain of sizzling lamb ($7), the chicken skewers with garlic-laden sauce ($14) and the endless parade of creative vegetable-heavy small plates.
Don’t Miss: The kitchen crew makes its own searingly spicy hot sauce, available only upon request. Just a dab’ll do ya! Ballard, 2408 NW 80th St.; 206.783.4190
Photograph by Andrea Coan. At Eden Hill, the food is almost too pretty to eat. Whipped smoked salmon cream and beetroot cured salmon tartlet with white sturgeon caviar, smoked salmon pate, roasted asparagus, cucumber and mizuna.
The Thrill On The Hill
Chef maximillian petty’s enthusiasm for all things edible escapes from the kitchen and onto the plates, bringing the dining scene on Queen Anne—and in all of Seattle—a much-needed infusion of adventure. While he hits all the trendy talking points—local, sustainable, foraged—his creativity sets this spot apart. From the signature crispy pig-head “candy bar” to the cauliflower “chilaquiles,” Petty’s sense of adventure and willingness to experiment keep patrons on their toes, whether they cede to his culinary whims with the tasting menu ($95–$115, six–nine courses) or order from the dozen or so constantly rotating shareable plates on the à la carte menu.
Don’t Miss: The “Lick the Bowl” dessert brings everyone back to one of the great joys of childhood—but this time, with foie gras cake batter. Served with fresh strawberries, brandy, olive oil cake, sprinkles and—of course—a spatula as the utensil. Queen Anne, 2209 Queen Anne Ave. N; 206.708.6836
Photograph by Andrea Coan. It doesn’t get much happier than this: Spaghetti Alla Chitarra (square spaghetti, made on a tool resembling a guitar) with a fiery Sardella sauce of anchovies, Calabrian chilies, fresh garlic and tomato paste, from Il Corvo in Pioneer Square.
There is little to be said about Il Corvo’s bright, sparsely decorated hallway of a weekday-lunch bistro that hasn’t been said before: The daily menu of handmade pastas ($9.95) is, simply, what everybody wants to eat for lunch every day. The rotating selection of shapes (such as gigli, conchiglini and creste di galli) and sauces incorporates what’s in season (nettles, octopus, shishito peppers) and what’s on sale to keep the prices low enough that one, theoretically, could eat dishes like the baked cannelloni or cavatelli with pancetta and peas every day.
While You’re There: Pick up a package of the daily selection of handmade pasta to take home. Pioneer Square, 217 James St.; 206.538.0999
Everyday Prices, Special-Occasion Desserts
This tiny Phinney Ridge spot is the restaurant that you wish were on your block: The simple menu of appetizers, sushi and udon noodle soups ($10) is priced to keep you coming back to the two indoor tables and the handful out back on the super secret (but covered and heated) patio. But the desserts are what makes this spot more than just an above-average casual spot. Japanese confections from Modern’s Setsuko Pastry range from mango mousse with yuzu jelly ($4.50) to strawberry shortcake ($5).
While You’re There: At the front, near the cash register, Modern sells a collection of small food-related bits of art—baby bibs, aprons, tea cups and more—made by the local community. Phinney Ridge, 6108 Phinney Ave. N; 206.420.4088
Proof That Fine Dining Can Prevail
Even as a number of ambitious high-end restaurants are shuttering or revamping to more affordable models, this Italian-inspired Capitol Hill restaurant went the other way, committing to a multicourse tasting-menu-only format for which the base price is $137 per person. Fine dining isn’t dead, it says with its winding, formal pace, it just needs to be left to the experts—such as chef Nathan Lockwood (who previously helmed the kitchen at Seattle’s private dining club, The Ruins). Pristine Northwest ingredients, expert Italian techniques and luxury touches justify the price tag, and diners in the know trust Lockwood to guide them from sea urchin cannoli to wood sorrel sorbetto and onto king salmon with crispy artichokes.
Watch For: Lockwood’s truffle-tasting menus run tandem with the regular menu when the heady tuber comes into season in fall, taking indulgence—and flavor—to an unprecedented level. Capitol Hill, 617 Broadway E; 206.402.6749
Photograph by Andrea Coan. A West Seattle match made in heaven: vanilla ice cream (from Husky Deli) topped with strawberry shave ice, from Marination Ma Kai.
Sunshine And Spam
Marination Ma Kai
When the brilliant women behind Marination’s Hawaiian- and Korean-inspired tacos and sliders (all $3 each) first hit the streets in their food truck, they broke through barriers both legal (food trucks weren’t yet a part of Seattle life) and cultural (“Spam…really?” asked all of Seattle). Now, we expect nothing but brilliance from them, and they don’t disappoint at their beachside fish-and-chips and kimchi shack, where brightly colored Adirondack chairs face a panoramic view of downtown and Elliott Bay, and the cocktail window lets you order shave ice from the patio.
Know Before You Go: If you have visitors in town, bring them here via the King County Water Taxi for a unique Seattle experience: taking a boat to your local Hawaiian-Korean taco joint. West Seattle, 1660 Harbor Ave. SW; 206.328.8226
More Than Just Pho
A more upscale interpretation of Seattle’s traditional pho scene, Ba Bar sources its meats from local, sustainable resources and makes all of its specialties, such as the handmade beef and pork sausage, in house. The menu certainly does not shy away from traditional Vietnamese street food, though; bowls of pho and noodles highlight oxtail ($14) and boney pork shanks alongside more approachable proteins, such as sticky, glazed chicken and grilled prawns. Drink and food specials make appearances throughout the week, making this south Capitol Hill gem an easy place to find something new, even after multiple visits. But really, it’s all about the pho broth, which is salty, aromatic and rich—some of the best in town.
If You Like Ba Bar: Try the traditional multicourse bò 7 món ($40), or beef seven ways, at sister restaurant Sevenbeef Steak Shop (Capitol Hill). Capitol Hill, 550 12th Ave.; 206.328.2030; Other locations in South Lake Union and University Village
Photograph by Andrea Coan. Breakfast of champions: bread pudding french toast with crème fraîche, roasted rhubarb and strawberries from Vif in Fremont.
Our Favorite All-Day Café
This Fremont bakery-café nails what Seattle has long been missing: seasonal, hearty dishes that are flavorful, refined and healthy. Co-owners Lauren Feldman and Shawn Mead, formerly of Campagne, offer a rotating cast of pastries, such as fruit galettes, rich coffee cakes and flaky scones ($3.50–$4.25), alongside a short menu featuring dishes primarily of vegetables and grains ($9 for the quinoa salad with rhubarb, dates, feta, dukkah and a preserved Meyer lemon vinaigrette), which are light and satisfying. Serving its fare in a window-wrapped room (that stays bright even on gray days) with a few small tables, Vif is bustling and lively with diners and people popping in for a quick bite—a perfect neighborhood café.
If You Like Vif: Try our other favorite all-day cafés: Mr. West (downtown), Oddfellows (Capitol Hill), Café Hitchcock (downtown), and Preserve and Gather (Greenwood). Fremont, 4401 Fremont Ave. N; 206.557.7357;
Italian family table
Big, saucy bowls of pasta with red sauce can be tough to find—either they are too fancy and rich or too cheap tasting—like straight-up sauce from a can. Tavolàta strikes the perfect balance by offering hearty bowls of pasta like nonna used to make. The spicy rigatoni ($18) is sublime: Big tubes of ridged pasta are filled with meat sauce and spiked with fresh marjoram. Ditto for the gnocchi alla romana ($18): Soft, pillowy disks of semolina are topped with flavorful red sauce and charred mozzarella cheese. Traditional, homey fare served at a giant communal table makes the whole visit utterly Italian; it’s tough to find a better spot for pasta.
Don’t Miss: The entrées are stellar, too. Don’t miss the thick-cut pork chop. Belltown, 2323 Second Ave.; 206.838.8008
Almost Too Pretty To Eat
The Whale Wins
Spare, bright and whitewashed, The Whale Wins (one of several restaurants under the Sea Creatures umbrella company that also includes Walrus and the Carpenter) is chef Renee Erickson’s European-style ode to vegetables. The restaurant’s interior might have been designed to be an Instagram backdrop: The only colors in the room come from the crackling wood fire (where the bulk of the cooking is done), the hot pink of beets, searing orange of carrots and verdant tones of seasonal vegetables that pop with simple treatment on the plate—just a few strong condiments and plenty of butter. Like wearing a white dress, this approach leaves little room for error, but chef Erickson’s kitchen is up to the task. From pickle plate ($12) to steak for two ($90), everything here tastes as good as it looks.
If You Like The Whale Wins: Try Bateau, Erickson’s contemporary Capitol Hill take on a steakhouse. Sit at the bar, order the burger, rejoice. Fremont, 3506 Stone Way N; 206.632.9425
Photograph by Andrea Coan. Matt’s in the Market classics: deviled eggs with chef choice accompaniments and their chips & dip, house made salt-pepper chips with hot bacon and caramelized onion dip.
Matt’s in the Market
Housed in historic Pike Place Market, with iconic views of the neon Market sign and the bay behind it, and serving fresh local seafood, Matt’s in the Market is about as Seattle as it gets. Even more impressive despite its tourist-dominated location, the restaurant’s quality has continued to please locals for more than two decades. Matt’s—in both ambiance and cuisine—embraces the kind of understated elegance that has long been a hallmark of Seattle attitude, from the halibut sandwich ($19) at lunch to the steamed mussels ($16) at dinner.
Know Before You Go: Arrive early and pop into sibling bar Radiator Whiskey, across the hall, for house-aged cocktails and custom whiskey. Downtown, 94 Pike St., No. 32; 206.467.7909
Eats In The East
Deru Market and Little Brother
These kirkland sibling restaurants—Little Brother, as the name suggests, came later—are Eastside favorites for good reason. Both are equally enjoyable for an a.m. latte and house-made pastry or a p.m. glass of wine and seasonal entrée (wood-fired pizza topped with roasted mushrooms, $14; springtime spot prawns with cauliflower and almonds, $20). Both are homey in a breakfast-nook kind of way, with white subway tile and open shelves.
Know Before You Go: Little Brother hosts a Saturday market all summer (through October 13), with a chef-curated focus on fresh produce and pantry items. Kirkland, 723 Ninth Ave.; 425.298.0268; Kirkland, 456 Central Way; 425.803.8001
Tilikum Place Café
Tucked into an oft-missed corner of Belltown, this intimate, cozy café turns out some of the most delicious food in the city. The simple menu is created by chef-owner Ba Culbert, who has a respected pedigree on the Seattle food scene (Palace Kitchen and The Ruins) and a penchant for elegant, simple flavors. Café tables look out toward the street and the neighboring tree-lined square; it’s very urban, yet intimate. At lunch, diners choose from thick quiches, well-dressed salads and lush soups, while plates of braised meats and seasonal vegetables are highlighted for dinner. Don’t miss clever meals like Culbert’s fava crêpes ($25) or any of her handmade pasta dishes ($11)—all of which are understated yet divine. Everything here is a win.
Don’t Miss: Order a Dutch baby as a side plate for brunch or lunch to share. Denny Triangle, 407 Cedar St.; 206.282.4830
Un Petit Paris
In creating Le Pichet, their small all-day restaurant in Pike Place Market, Jim Drohman and Joanne Herron have managed to transplant not just the food of France, but an entire way of life. It’s one in which people linger long over glasses of pastis or Lillet at the bar in the afternoon and think nothing of smearing pâté on their baguette as they breakfast at the sidewalk tables. The tiny tables, the namesake pichets of wine…just about everything would fit right in on Rue de Buci, other than the decidedly un-French friendliness of the service.
If You Like Le Pichet: The same Parisian feel gets a slight update at their hip Capitol Hill spot, Café Presse. Downtown, 1933 First Ave.; 206.256.1499
Love Letter: Editor’s Choice
West Seattle, 4437 California Ave. SW; 206.935.1075
Rare is the love that feels fresh nearly eight years in.
West Seattle’s Spring Hill was where I had my first dinner after driving into Seattle—when I tucked into my first plate of sweetbreads after a decade as a vegetarian (I know…). It was where I shared piles of perfect fried chicken with acquaintances who would become best pals.
When chef Mark Fuller and co-owner Marjorie Chang Fuller decided to close Spring Hill in 2012 and reinvent the restaurant around that legendary chicken—pivoting long before it was cool to do so—I was worried. But with Ma‘ono, I fell in love again. The Korean and Hawaiian influences felt more personal. There was Spam musubi for the daughter who had joined our family the year before. I took my mom for brunch and introduced her to the beauty of an apple malasada fresh from the fryer.
I visited Ma‘ono again recently and caught up with a now old friend over an old fashioned and a happy hour burger so good I thought about it for days after. And now I can get Fuller’s fried chicken closer to home: Another Ma‘ono opened in Rachel’s Ginger Beer at University Village this summer.
Ma‘ono, I’d say, don’t ever change. But you have—and I have—and I still love you like the day we met.
Love Letter: Critic’s Choice
Lake City Way, 7845 Lake City Way NE; 206.527.8888
Within days of my birth, my parents took me out to dinner to a restaurant called New Peking on Lake City Way. It’s gone now, but its replacement is even better—and has become a staple of my adult life. When it rains, the same tiny entranceway to the building (with a root-beer keg-shaped roof, evidence that it once housed an A&W restaurant) that is now Chiang’s Gourmet becomes choked with people, so I know other people turn to it, too, when they need a bit of comfort. The big red booths and sparse decor might not scream coziness to everyone, but, like any customer who’s been guided through the menus (there are multiple) by the sassy, spiky-haired manager, Mabel Li, I’ve been indoctrinated: This restaurant is home, and I am part of the family now. It’s a family that eats well, crunching through the five-star spicy chicken ($11), fried and buried under an avalanche of peppers; twirling thick ropes of Shanghai-style noodles ($8); and fishing pieces of basa out of the “hot spicy fish fillet with roman [sic] lettuce” ($15).
Li’s good menu advice—whether steering me toward the sizzling rice soup ($8, $12) or advising me to choose the pea vines over the broccoli that day—goes a long way. For me, it turned this Chinese restaurant into a regular haunt, where I’ve since brought everyone I know for many occasions: birthday meals, my wedding rehearsal dinner and to introduce my own 3-day-old daughter to the world. Chiang’s, with its multiple, lengthy menus, makes finding its best food a little hard, but for every mediocre Americanized Chinese dish on one of its menus, there’s an enoki mushroom wrapped in bean curd ($12): addictive, unique in Seattle and an open secret to anyone willing to take the advice dished out daily by the straight-shooting Li.