Let’s tackle the rumors first: yes, Seattle is cloudy about nine months of the year. But as any resident can attest, the rain is nothing! It’s just a little mist-hardly worth grabbing an umbrella for, and certainly not enough to keep the natives down. Nestled between two mountain ranges and built around three bodies of water, Seattle has good looks and mild weather on its side, and it rewards those who ignore the clouds. Most people know Pike Place Market for its fish-throwers (and it’s not just a tourist trap; Seattleites really do shop there). But venture outside of downtown, to the city’s charming, distinct neighborhoods, to see where farmers’ markets and chefs are setting up camp. Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft notwithstanding, Seattle loves its small, independent businesses-and especially its neighborhood restaurants. Like the locals themselves, the best food in town is casual, relaxed, and quietly brainy.
Molly Wizenberg moved to Seattle in 2002 to work on a Ph.D., and though that plan soon fell by the wayside, she stuck around, and now she’s there for good. She is the voice behind the award-winning blog Orangette, author of the bestselling memoir A Homemade Life, and, with her husband Brandon Pettit, owner of the restaurant Delancey. This is her Seattle dozen.
1: Sitka & Spruce
When anyone asks me what the Seattle food scene looks like today, I point to Sitka & Spruce. Though drawing ideas from France, Italy, and the Middle East, Matt Dillon and his team show off local foods like no one else in town. The menu, which changes daily, is elegant but playful, and the food feels intelligent, unfussy, and most of all, satisfying. Basically, this is how I want to eat every day. If they’re serving the creamed escarole and sorrel with a poached egg, or the Yakima chickpea puree with carrot salad and housemade harissa, don’t hesitate.
Sitka & Spruce
1531 Melrose Avenue East (in the Melrose Building)
These are the messiest sandwiches in the world, but you’re going to like them so much that you’ll actually look fondly at the stains on your clothes. I go for the Cuban Roast: a toasted baguette split, spread with aioli, and filled with slow-roasted pork shoulder, pickled jalapenos, and big, juicy loops of caramelized onion. If I’m especially starved, the Midnight Cuban Press is also very fine. And vegetarians will love the Tofu Delight. If it’s nice out and you’re at the Ballard location – that pink shack next to Surf Ballard – walk down the street to Golden Gardens Park and have a picnic on the beach.
6226 Seaview Avenue NW
4225 Fremont Avenue N
Seattle is not known for Italian food, but it may be soon. Chef Jason Stratton is cooking the foods of the Piedmont region of northern Italy, and he’s cooking them right – with precision, restraint, and no apparent Americanization. A friend of mine who lived in Piedmont swears that Spinasse serves some of the best Piedmontese food she’s ever had. Sit at the bar for a view of the small, glowy kitchen, and don’t leave without eating the tajarin (a type of Piedmontese fresh pasta) with ragu. Ditto for the rabbit meatballs wrapped in caul fat, and the pork cooked slowly in milk until it falls apart and the milk turns into a loose, savory caramel.
1531 14th Avenue
Moderate to Expensive
4: Andrew Bohrer, bar manager at Mistral Kitchen
Seattle is a good city for cocktails, and I took a long time choosing which bartender to call my own. Andrew is the one. His knowledge of booze is encyclopedic, and he’s serious about his craft – yes, he carves ice by hand, and what’s more, he carves it into different shapes for different drinks – but somehow, he isn’t precious about it. He’s there to please. Sit down, tell him what you’re into, and he’s on the case. If you don’t like the result, he’ll try again. My husband is a fan of his Sazerac, for which the glass is rinsed with Champagne and absinthe.
2020 Westlake Avenue
August and September are when the local blackberry bushes do their thing, and when you should go picking. Blackberries are an invasive weed here, and you’ll see them everywhere. Good places for public picking are Discovery Park (with beach access and beautiful views of Puget Sound) and the bushes near Gas Works Park (with a stunning view of the downtown skyline). Avoid major roads and highways, and of course, watch out for the prickly leaves and thorns!
6: The hamburger at Spring Hill
This is a burger that one doesn’t so much eat as make out with. The sleek, dimly lit Spring Hill is best known for Chef Mark Fuller’s innovative use of Pacific Northwest ingredients, but I go most often for his take on the hamburger. High-end burgers are almost old hat now, but this one is worth the hype, and the $17: a fat patty of Painted Hills beef with housemade bacon, Teleme, Jack cheese from local producer Beecher’s, special sauce, and – I love this detail! – crisp, thinly sliced iceberg lettuce.
4437 California Avenue SW
7: The Walrus and the Carpenter
If you love oysters, this is your place. Actually, even if you don’t love oysters, this still might be your place. Bright and buzzing, with a zinc bar, wire baskets filled with local oysters on ice, and a salvaged chandelier that looks like it was plucked from a coral reef, the Walrus is my favorite restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood. Don’t miss the smoked trout with lentils, walnuts, pickled onions, and creme fraiche, or the hand-chopped steak tartare. And the oysters! I often take an assorted dozen of whatever they’ve got, but if they’re serving Effinghams, a crisp, very briny variety from Vancouver Island, that’s my pick.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
4743 Ballard Avenue NW (in the Kolstrand Building)
8: Ballard Farmers Market
I live in Ballard, so I’m admittedly partial to it, but for good reason: it has one of the best farmers markets in town, which runs year-round. Every Sunday, from 10 am to 3 pm, historic Ballard Avenue is flooded with farmers, food vendors, and local families and their dogs. If you want to see what everyday life looks like in Seattle, this is a good place to do it. Along the way, be sure to stop at the Jerzy Boyz stand for heirloom apples and pears; Stokesberry Farm for sustainable chicken or duck; Alvarez Organic Farm for peppers, peanuts, and summer squash; and Anselmo Farms for fat, purple-skinned garlic.
Ballard Farmers Market
Ballard Avenue NW, between Vernon Place NW and 22nd Avenue NW
9: Mama Lil’s Pickled Peppers
Howard Lev has been making these peppers in small batches since 1992, using a recipe from his mother Lil, of Youngstown, Ohio. The process starts with fresh Hungarian Goathorn peppers grown in the Yakima Valley of central Washington, which are then seeded and sliced, pickled, meticulously drained, and packed in oil. I always keep a jar in my refrigerator – preferably the hot “Kick Butt” variety – and they’re great on pizza, in sandwiches, or even just with some sharp cheddar and a heel of crusty bread.
Available in most local grocery stores
10: The Dray
For beer lovers and those who love them, the Dray is a find: a small, cozy, wood-wrapped space with a dozen craft beers on tap – a lot of them local – and a giant list of bottles. The lights are low, there’s a dog sleeping on the floor, and if you’re into soccer, take note: that’s all they show on TV here. It just feels good.
708 NW 65th Street
11: Croissants at Cafe Besalu and Honore Artisan Bakery
Yes, yet another reason to love Ballard: it has some of the finest croissants outside of Paris. Cafe Besalu is usually very busy, and since you’re going to stand in line anyway, you should get a ginger biscuit while you’re at it. Honore is quieter, but the croissants are equally nice – and you can get a lovely canele, too. If pressed, I’d say that I prefer the texture of the croissant at Besalu, but I like the flavor of the butter better at Honore. When in doubt, have both! They’re just a 5-minute drive apart.
5909 24th Ave NW
Honore Artisan Bakery
1413 NW 70th St
12: Wild Salmon
If you’re in Seattle during the summer months, you’re in luck: it’s wild salmon season, and you’re not allowed to leave without eating some. When the fish is this good, it’s almost a shame to cook it, and if you’re game for sushi, Shiro’s in Belltown is classic. Or, if you like yours cooked, Boat Street Cafe serves a very fine piece of fish. It’s hard to go wrong. And for families especially, a visit to the fish ladder at the Ballard Locks is not to be missed. There, in the underwater viewing room, you can watch salmon leap from the salty waters of Puget Sound into the fresh waters where they will spawn.
Where to Stay
Most people think of the ultra-hip Ace Hotel as a Portland or New York thing, but it was actually founded in Seattle. Located in Belltown, it’s near the water and walking distance from the downtown sights – but handily, it’s not in the middle of them, where things can feel a little too touristy. And if you’re in town without a car, there are plenty of buses that serve the area, ready to take you exploring in the surrounding neighborhoods. The design is clean and spare – lots of white, browns, and grays – but the beds are warm and comfortable. Plus: it’s a steal!