A local explores her city’s tourist dining destinations.
After writing a book called Dishing Up Washington—a cookbook with recipes inspired by the state’s best restaurants—I noticed a gaping hole. Among lip-smacking recipes for cider-battered smelt and kale salad and barrel-aged whisky cocktails from the who’s-who list of Seattle chefs, there was not a single recipe from one of Seattle’s grandes dames—the large, often corporate, often fish-focused restaurants our visitors love so much.
No grilled king salmon from Ray’s Boathouse. Nothing from El Gaucho’s dramatic sister spot on the waterfront, AQUA. No specialty from Six Seven at the Edgewater Hotel. I avoided these restaurants because I’ve always operated on the presumption that they define Seattle food for people who don’t live in Seattle.
But here’s the thing—I’d never actually had a full meal at any of them. Which doesn’t make me a fastidious or exacting diner. It makes me biased and closed-minded. Feeling accused of a crime, I set out to broaden my horizons, searching for great food and drink at the fine dining institutions I equated with tourism.
Ray’s Boathouse is the perfect example of what I love and hate simultaneously about these places. The service was flawless. The view was gorgeous: While the chef prepared our meal, we gazed across the Sound at boats chugging toward the Ballard Locks, light dancing on the Olympic Mountains. My king salmon was seared perfectly, its insides left warm and shiny, a full shade darker than the exterior. The mashed potatoes were so inviting I wanted to nap in them. The chef was skimpy with his little moat of tangerine-yogurt sauce, but otherwise, there wasn’t anything I disliked.
There wasn’t anything inspiring, either.
I want more than impeccably prepared salmon. I want a texture or flavor I can’t mimic in my own kitchen. I want to be challenged.
Not everyone does. Ray’s made me realize that I can judge food, but it’s unfair to judge a restaurant because people eat there for reasons different from my own. At Ray’s, a good piece of salmon and a nice view are reason enough.
At the south end of Lake Union, Chandler’s Crabhouse offered a less illuminating experience. I hated the place before we’d even ordered our food. By the time the server had replaced our brunch menus with the appropriate lunch menus, straightened out our flubbed drink order and informed me that their aioli was made from a base of bread and milk, I was ready to hit the door. The seafood in the crab club and crab-studded Caesar tasted fresh, but because I was still choking down the $40 price tag of their “World’s Best” Dungeness crab cake, I couldn’t taste much else. To boot, the menu and décor were generic; I could’ve been anywhere, provided there was a lake view available.
At Chandler’s, I felt justified in my stereotype of the tacky tourist joint. My experience was uninspiring enough to make me wonder if eating at the remaining places I’ve habitually avoided was a bad idea.
Here’s where I got to thinking. If I choose to skip a certain type of restaurant simply because it doesn’t excel at the things I like—challenging food and good service—I’m not giving it a fair chance. I decided that to embrace these establishments, I’d need to give them a home court advantage. So I called some public relations people. I told the restaurants I was coming and asked them to buy me dinner. I presumed that by ensuring I got the most educated server, and a great table, and the chef’s attention, I would see each place in its fullest glory and perhaps understand why these spots have endured year after year.
Six Seven, the renovated waterfront restaurant that anchors the Edgewater Hotel, puts on a great face for company. Plunge into the pillows that line each deep banquette next to the window, below nifty Frankenstein-inspired tree-shaped sculptures—made from real trees jointed with shiny metal—and you’ll feel immersed in the future of hip-but-woodsy restaurant design. The sparkling skyline doesn’t hurt. My dining partner’s mussel appetizer was flecked with Salumi salami and preserved lemon, with a faintly sweet gewürztraminer cream. The cedar-planked salmon—by now a cliché on menus—was ideal, barely smoky.
But, the Beatles stayed at the Edgewater once ages ago and the cocktail list remains woefully Beatles-themed. My server’s best recommendation was a cough syrup-sweet drink called Strawberry Fields Forever (made with berry-flavored Bacardi, natch), which reminded me that, for better or for worse, the restaurant’s primary responsibility is to its hotel patrons. Serving a broad national audience, a bartender probably doesn’t need to know how to make a Hanky Panky. But in cocktail-happy Seattle, it pained me that it took four tries for my pal to order a drink we liked and that the bartender knew how to make—and that drink was a cosmopolitan. Six Seven has an interesting atmosphere, but the experience is marred by its responsibility to tourists.
My favorite of the grandes dames I visited—and I certainly didn’t exhaust the list—was AQUA. There’s a piano player, so you may spend a portion of your meal gazing into your partner’s eyes, crooning lyrics to songs long exiled from your memory. There’s drama, in the form of tableside stations for spinach salads and their flaming version of Baked Alaska. And between the birthday parties and date tables, I found balanced cocktails; a butter lettuce, crab and avocado salad with a pitch-perfect yogurt dressing; a Scotch-spiked crab bisque lifted with spice but anchored by cream; and again, a fillet of king salmon grilled until the insides were just firmer than custard.
My husband had it right: AQUA is the restaurant equivalent of the Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes issuing from the house piano. Not everyone likes his music. But no matter how you criticize him, you can’t argue Webber’s talent for making everyone swoon at the same moment. AQUA isn’t where I prefer to dine, but I couldn’t fault its culinary proficiency.
And that, in the end, is what I should look for in a restaurant—not perfection, but focused mastery. None of the places I visited served stellar, crunchy bread, or a menu that champions local ingredients, or atmosphere that wasn’t meticulously engineered by a professional restaurant designer. But they all cooked salmon to a sparkling medium-rare. So what if the food I personally associate with Seattle has more to do with creative pickles and lettuce grown on the roof—food that is, in a word, indie?
In their most accessible, corporatized forms, Seattle’s major-label tourist restaurants define Seattle food in a way I wouldn’t. But the food is still really good. Seattle can be both a city in its culinary prime and a refuge for out-of-staters looking for a good fillet of fish. That’s an asset, not an embarrassment.
6049 Seaview Avenue Northwest, 206-789-3770
901 Fairview Ave N #B100, 206-223-272
2411 Alaskan Way, 206-728-7000
2801 Alaskan Way, Pier 70, 206-956-9171
AQUA photo by Nate Watters.