Small yet generous, modest yet gloriously self-assured—Altura (which in Italian means both “height” and “profound depth”) spins its delicate web of opposites in a candlelit space on North Broadway. Chef and owner Nathan Lockwood hails from the private dining club the Ruins, where he developed an eye for rococo decadence—one formidable angel hangs from the rafters—and a gift for making diners feel like treasured guests. Service is notably stunning. All this praise and we haven’t even gotten to the food: Northwest seasonal ingredients gone Italian rustic—then pushed through an elegance sieve. So off a weekly changing menu, slices of Muscovy duck might come fanned over red cabbage with crumbled amaretti and caramel-roasted turnip; scallops may be dusted with fennel pollen alongside grilled radicchio and fennel. In a refreshing departure from convention one can assemble three-, four-, or five-course meals from all parts of the menu—three starters, for instance, or four mains (apportioned accordingly)—along with an a la carte option. But whatever you do, don’t skip dessert. Closed Sun & Mon.
One of the best of the unrestaurants, this teensy six-table Wallingford room with the butter-yellow walls and the World Beat music also serves careful, delectable food: eight courses, Fridays and Saturdays (a la carte midweek), along a seasonal theme that chef Dustin Ronspies shyly narrates from the kitchen door. (This may include a sermonette, be warned, about the virtue of eating communally.) The charming Ronspies is a gifted chef, turning out dishes marked by subtle contrasts and textural interplay: smoky poussin with sweet spring vegetables and yam puree, perhaps, or thin-sliced red and golden beets over whipped chevre on flaky pastry. If it’s summer you may get nasturtium petals strewn across your salad and a “full moon” of honey panna cotta for dessert—fun dishes to speed the bonding with the other foodophiles at your table.
From the restlessly creative mind of Matt Dillon (Sitka and Spruce, the Corson Building) comes his most hyperlocal restaurant—both culinarily and philosophically, as Bar Sajor is driving the revival of Seattle’s original neighborhood, Pioneer Square. The corner space looking out on the ruffly trees of Occidental Mall is lofty and Old World white—like an English farmhouse reclaimed by the Parsons School of Design—anchored with the roaring wood oven that is the kitchen’s only heat source. So food nerds will relish Dillon’s ingenuity of cooking methods: roasting chickens and sumptuous steaks on the fire; fermenting pickles and yogurts and even butter; serving plenty of things raw, including his peerless salads. Libations are terrific, including a full lineup of refreshing vinegar drinks.
It’s the classiest standby on the Eastside, where Holly Smith dances in the footsteps of the venerable Peter Dow. What he began in 1977 she refines and perfects, with high-end Northern Italian food rendered consistently and innovatively. Vivid dishes—like grilled squab with seared foie gras or mushroom-stuffed rabbit leg wrapped in pancetta and served with a chickpea crepe and a fennel and green salad—showcase fastidious attention to perfect ingredients and dazzling creative verve in the kitchen, a verve that stands in appealing contrast to the slightly timeworn room. Warning: Unless you’re familiar with Kirkland’s lakeside community of Juanita, you will not find this hidden spot without help. Closed Mon.
Driving from Seattle to this destination restaurant at the Cedarbook Lodge retreat facility and hotel is like falling down a 15-mile rabbit hole: You’re in a separate ecosystem, pristine as a terrarium, amid a spongy wetland of ponds and native gardens, dining in a classy hearthside space that’s a cross between the lobby of a Northwest resort and the living room of a very fortunate friend. It’s a suitably Northwest backdrop for determinedly Northwest fare—perhaps venison two ways with celeriac and tart cherries, or spoonable beef short ribs with organic vegetables and stunning truffle beet relish—presented with laudable execution and strict attention to organic, sustainable ingredients. Dishes can err on the side of safe—but for hungry South County–ites (or folks stuck at Sea-Tac airport, just minutes away), that’s a small price to pay for the best food in miles.
It’s an anomaly all right: a 1910 Italian stonemason’s cottage in industrial Georgetown—wedged hard between a railroad track and an I-5 exit, with planes roaring overhead from Boeing Field—that struck wunderkind chef (the Herbfarm, Sitka and Spruce) Matthew Dillon as just the place to contain his restless vision, a community center for foodies. So there are picnics and chef demos and fundraisers. But mostly, there are dinners, stunning ones, served four or five times a week (see website for schedule) and served family style around long tables in multiple courses, with or without matching wines. All in a room that imparts an Old World dreaminess (an unupholstered—thus loud—Old World dreaminess), arched windows to stucco walls. Dillon’s sources are as impeccable as his culinary imagination, so everything from his shellfish salad to his black cod with treviso greens is microseasonally fresh and innovatively conceived. All in all, it’s much more dinner party than restaurant, and if it’s a little odd for a regular joe, it’s every food snob’s dream.
It’s the pull-out-all-the-stops, Big Night Out dining room in the state, maybe in three states—and, unlikely of unlikelies, it’s also pretty close to culinarily flawless. Its genesis is the stuff of legend; a couple of humble Fall City gardeners with extra chives began selling their bounty out of a roadside cart, then a small retail shop, where they began turning the herbs into festive lunches, then multicourse dinners. Before long, the charming country restaurant had earned a regional reputation for nine-course feasts built upon a theme—Copper River salmon perhaps in late spring, truffles midwinter. Chefs comb the wilds and the deeps for the freshest seasonal components, then ingeniously combine them into the sorts of preparations that make bold new sense of Northwest plenty: Dungeness crab and spot prawns with apple-fennel salad and a frothy sea urchin sauce; Douglas fir sorbet, a bracing Herbfarm classic; or, during root vegetable week, Wagyu beef short ribs with truffled beets, glazed turnips, and a parsnip praline. It is all served with astutely matched wines off a fathomless list by a staff of courteous pros, and preceded by a lively tutorial from the chef on the herbs and ingredients on offer that evening. There’s a lot that’s unique about the Herbfarm, including its florid baroque decor (whatever isn’t gilded is covered in chintz), its four-hour dinners, its Chilean guitarist, and its lavish formality (Five forks! Five wineglasses!). But for our money, and it’s a lot of money, the gently instructional tone is the best part of the experience, revealing that the heart of this world-class destination remains its earnest and down-to-earth delight in the garden. Reservations essential. Dinner only Thu-Sun.
This sleek dinner house a few blocks from the ferry dock in Winslow sustains a fierce locavorism: A plate of blasted purple broccoli with pine nuts and goat cheese comes from Indianola’s Persephone Farm; the fat Mediterranean mussels with bacon and wood sorrel hail from Taylor Shellfish. Most of the time these local treasures on the long, mutable menu are treated with intention and skill, but consistency is not Hitchcock’s strong point. Put yourself in the chef’s hands by ordering the chef’s tasting menu and know that charcuterie is dependably terrific, both here and at the next-door daytime (10am to 7pm) deli. Great cocktails.
It’s Pike Place Market’s neighborhood restaurant, boasting the kind of ever-present crowd and soul-rich vitality that showier joints only dream about. If you haven’t been in a while, you haven’t really been—the “little restaurant that could” busted out its walls and traded up from its butane stove, upgrading its view to iconic status through its pretty half-moon windows (there’s the Market pig!) and enhancing its ability to seat the throngs who come knocking lunch and dinner. The appeal? Fresh, exuberant innovations—perhaps tortilla-crusted halibut with guacamole or savory braised duck leg over lentil pilaf with fig jam—that showcase that day’s bounty from the fishmongers and high-stallers downstairs, at times pleasantly, at times extraordinarily. The pulsing open kitchen (the size of the entire original restaurant) may steal your attention away from the view. Where to bring the out-of-towners.
So casual and clattering is this hard-edged room with concrete floors and raw beams and giddy splashes of popsicle brights, a person wandering in off the street might never suspect that here lives some of the most sophisticated fare in the Pacific Northwest. After all, it’s Jerry Traunfeld in the kitchen—he who once brought off nine-course feasts at the Herbfarm, and who is now performing a somewhat more modest version of the same endeavor: the seven- or 10-dish platters, thali, he picked up on a research trip to India. So it’s small-plate dining, only with the considerable bonus of the chef choosing the combinations. At Poppy the technique results in some glorious dining: carrot matchsticks exotic with clove and lemon thyme, perhaps, along with gazpacho bright with melon and mint and a chunk of pink albacore with green tomato, peppers, and fennel. This is not Indian food but a Northwest tasting menu, from one of the Northwest’s finest chefs. Starters and desserts, a la carte available for around $5, are unmissable.
Seattle’s locavore dining scene got prettier the moment intense young practitioner Matt Dillon relocated Sitka from the darkest cranny in Eastlake to perhaps its most radiant height. From tables, counter seats, and a communal board in the sunlight-drenched corner of Melrose Market, diners can survey Seattle’s own Les Halles through vintage panes—there’s the butcher, there’s the blossom shop—or Dillon and crew in the open kitchen, composing the simple, hearty seasonal plates he’s known for. Look for produce adoration, enormous flavors, compulsive seasonality, and more than a few Middle Eastern tweaks—on plates that at lunchtime feel appealingly noshy, like sweet whole carrots over chickpea puree with harissa and fried mint, and at dinnertime may take your breath away.
Hard to say which is more effervescent, the place or the plates, at restaurant magnate Ethan Stowell’s (How to Cook a Wolf, Tavolàta, Anchovies and Olives, Rione XIII) giddiest enterprise. Even when its windows aren’t open onto the sidewalk, the dim, brick-lined, open-kitchen space in the historic Kolstrand Building seems to spill all its sexy cosmopolitan energy out onto Ballard Avenue. The modern Italian food is just as excited: velvety pork liver mousse spread thickly on crostini, perhaps, daurade over eggplant puree speckled with cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives, or mussel brodo with controne beans and green chilies. Flavors are big and bold—sometimes excessively so—and anchored in freshness and seasonality. And “staple” and “fancy” are more than just a nod to the old general store’s name: You can order a la carte—the staple way—or get, well, fancy, putting yourself in the kitchen’s hands for four courses of its choosing, just $45 per person, served family style to the whole table. Do we really need to tell you which one to pick?
The best of Deming Maclise and James Weimann’s stage set restaurants (Bastille, Poquito’s, MacLeod’s), this sprawler in the Hotel Ballard recalls early twentieth-century New York with gleaming hardwoods and antique glass. In the kitchen it’s all about the stone hearth oven, the chef at its helm (really named Jason Stoneburner), and the fine blistered pizzas he pulls out of it. It’s also about bushels of seasonal fresh produce, which Stoneburner turns into buoyant salads, antipasti, roasted veggie plates, and pasta innovations. His carmelized cauliflower bedsheet ravioli is just one of the reasons diners have so much fun here.
Can a restaurant achieve enlightenment? Seattle’s premier vegetarian haunt, perched like a lotus in Wallingford, comes close. Chef and co-owner Colin Patterson wants dining to be intentional and communal: hence, one or two five-course prix-fixe seatings comprise the night, and before dinner he sounds a gentle gong for a collective moment of gratitude. If it all sounds a little woo-woo—oh yes, he also owns a yoga studio—just hang on until the food arrives. Patterson, former chef of the famous Blossoming Lotus on Kauai, is an herbivorous genius. He’ll top a salad of frizzled greens with grilled peach, dill dressing, and julienned strips of cayenne, for instance, or build an ethereal lasagna of—get this—golden beets, creamed spinach, heirloom tomatoes, and figs. Food, in short, to satisfy the most carnivorous skeptic and—against this uniquely wholesome backdrop—feed the soul.
In a cozy Wallingford bungalow named for soil at its most fertile, chef Maria Hines reaches for the gold standard of fresh and seasonal food: organic certification. Ninety-five percent of her food comes from certified-organic sources—which means, for the diner, strong flavors that all but leap up off the plate and belt out an anthem. On plates small or large, Hines reveals a pitch-perfect instinct for compatible combinations: smoked Northwest butterfish with chilled mussels, cannellini beans, and caraway creme fraiche, for instance, or crisped pork belly with French lentils, scallion coulis, and tomato vinaigrette. With its hard chairs and unupholstered surfaces, Tilth puts on as few airs as the farmers and foragers and fisherfolk who supply it.
Downtown Kirkland was a pretty sorry place to find yourself with an appetite—until this sleek stunner opened off the lobby of the Kirkland Heathman Hotel. The farm-to-table tagline means that thick steaks cooked to tender succulence may arrive in a sauce electrified with fresh leeks, and homemade ravioli might come stuffed with an herby-sweet winter-squash puree and swathed in a beurre blanc enlivened with powerful bursts of fresh sage and sauteed squash. Chances are the squash, herbs, and leeks were harvested that afternoon, from the chef’s own acreage a few miles north. This earthy orien-tation lends a homegrown flavor to a classy room, lit with the golden hues of California and ringed by a marvelous outdoor (heated) patio.