To all those who think they’ve been there, eaten that, Seattle’s vast restaurant scene serves up humble pie (figuratively and literally).
Last week I shared a statistical breakdown of the lunch landscape in Minneapolis. This week I apply the same data-driven approach to my hometown, analyzing the tags of the 300 top-rated Seattle restaurants on Yelp within low to medium price ranges, to offer up a bird’s eye view of our city’s dining options.
Trying to summarize a whole lifetime of eating out in Seattle would surely leave me a bit tongue-tied if it weren’t for the objective data that anchors my observations and recommendations. I’m a startup cofounder and writing restaurant reviews isn’t my beat but I hope you’ll nonetheless find the restaurant examples I provide here illustrative and perhaps even feel inspired to visit a few.
Why I’m writing this
The occasion for my recent reflection on the lunch scenes in both Minneapolis and Seattle is that these are the two cities where our app for making group decisions and planning get-togethers, Sujjest, is most popular.
Last week we launched a new flavor of our app called Sujjest Lunch which offers an easy and free way for friends or colleagues to choose where to eat. There’s no sign up required and you can invite people simply by sharing a link. Hope you’ll give it a try: Sujjest.com/Lunch!
Without further ado, here’s the data on lunchtime in Seattle, visualized:
True to its nature as a port, more Seattle restaurants (6%) bill themselves as places to go for seafood than any other menu category. But framing it this way might even understate the availability of seafood, since far more than 6% of Seattle restaurants serve seafood and have extensive seafood options for lunch, despite not identifying themselves as such.
For example, on the corner across the street from an office where I used to work on 1st & Virginia, the lunch menu of Virginia Inn includes mussels, crab louie, a halibut sandwich, fish and chips, and (my own favorite) the Niçoise salad with grilled albacore tuna. Yet on Yelp it just lists the place as a bar and “American (new)”, so you’d miss it by searching specifically for a seafood joint.
A block or so from Virginia Inn, wading deeper into the throngs of tourists that pack the market, at Pike Place Chowder you can order a sourdough bowl or a to-go pint filled with what’s recognized on Yelp as the #1 most popular dish in the U.S. (their New England Clam Chowder). Clearly the opposite of an insider tip, yet quite deservedly popular.
Asian 🔀 Fusion
Whenever Marination Station parked in the neighborhood near the office, my colleague’s lunch choice was obvious. The food truck was and is just one of Marination’s several embodiments in the city, which successfully fuse a number of Seattle’s most popular regional food subtypes: Hawaiian meets Korean meets Mexican, plus a little Japanese. Kalua pork and spam sliders, miso ginger chicken tacos, and kimchi quesadillas were a few of our office’s go-to’s, typically eaten family-style.
By far the dominant regional genre in Seattle, Asian food accounts for a whopping 28% of Seattle restaurants — that’s nearly twice the presence of the closest runner up, “American” food. For reference, only 14% of Seattle residents are Asian, so it’s clear that Seattle’s Asian restaurants earn their prime place in the lunch life of the city by appealing to eaters of all demographics.
One of my favorites downtown is Cafe Long. With a scrumptious menu of well-done Vietnamese classics like Bánh xèo chay (a vegetarian crêpe) and a deep list of neat dishes I’ve never found on the menu at Seattle’s many other Vietnamese restaurants such as Bắp chuối cua lột (fresh banana blossom salad with soft shell crab) or the appetizer Chả quế cốm xanh (cinnamon pork rice balls), Long keeps me coming back to try new items, and introduce the restaurant to new friends.
Another fun, central spot to meet up on 1st Avenue is Japonessa, which calls itself a “sushi cocina”. Offering a form of Asian/Latin fusion that feels considerably more upscale than Marination’s Korean-Mexican hybrid (yet maintaining pretty reasonable prices), Japonessa makes a lot of sense situated right beside the SAM and feels like a classy and versatile meeting spot for anything from a business lunch to a date. You can find good sashimi offerings there, alongside unique signature rolls like the Barcelona Sunset (spicy yellowtail, avocado, cucumber, topped w/ yellowtail, tobiko, and habañero aioli).
With a 14% share, European restaurants make nearly as big a showing as American in Seattle. 80% of Seattle’s European restaurants are also its most southerly cuisines: Italian, Mediterranean, Spanish, and Greek. If you’re in the mood for lasagna and around Pike Place Market, Pink Door is a great choice—if you can score a table.
Taking the latitude down another notch, Middle Eastern food makes a decent showing in and around Seattle as well. Two of the highlights in this category for me are the richly-accoladed Lebanese/Syrian restaurant on Capitol hill, Mamnoon, and the family-owned Cafe Turko in Fremont (next to Google’s campus and Adobe).
Mamnoon’s entrees, appetizers, and desserts are characterized by delicately intertwined flavors and aromas, varied as mint, fennel, sumac, wild thyme, sesame, pomegranate molasses, fresh rose jam, candied pistachios, and saffron. Not to be outdone, Turko delights the senses with an evocative menu one can practically taste and smell just by reading, with ingredients such as cloves, cardamom, apricots, ginger, Antep and Allepo peppers, almond slivers, and sage.
Hearty plates of eggplant moussaka, feta, lamb, and lavash as well as piquant, refreshing surprises like watermelon salad with olives and goat cheese, excellent vegetarian options, a deep selection of enticing desserts, and an all-day breakfast menu can easily keep you coming back to Turko for more than just lunch.
Open defiance to section headers
The first time I went to Cedars in the U-district, I was surprised to see Indian and Mediterranean dishes on the same menu, bridged through the Middle East. Since then, I’ve come to see that strict regional categorization of ethnic cuisines is often a bit of a convenient lie to make classification more tractable, and that cross-regional influences really shape food culture and history in a more complex way.
Nowhere has deep-rooted cultural confluence been more evident to me, perhaps, than one block from Cedar’s, on the corner where the Trinidadian restaurant Pam’s Kitchen originally opened (they’ve since relocated to Wallingford).
Indian heritage is foremost in the curry section of Pam’s menu and an order of “buss up shut” (a Caribbean adaption of paratha roti so named for its resemblance in appearance and soft, silky texture to a busted-up shirt) is a delicious way to sop up the spices. African roots also shine through deliciously in their stew, called callaloo. And in case you’re thirsty for something tropical, don’t miss out on Pam’s juices and punches, including hibiscus, mauby (a tree bark!), peanut, pumpkin, and ginger beer.
Pouring one out for the dearly-departed
A few blocks North up the Ave from that corner where Pam’s first opened there once stood my favorite Chinese restaurant in Seattle, however, it was short-lived and now long gone. It’s not the only restaurant I’ve loved that’s closed over the years, of course.
Memories of flavors from restaurants that have since closed tend to get a bit bittersweet with age. The chance that beloved restaurants will disappear is an effect of the churn and competition that keeps our restaurant scene fresh and vital though, so although I regret not eating there more often while it was still around, I suppose it’s better to accept that ephemerality than get cranky about closures.
If you’re lucky enough to live or work in an area with a bunch of lunch options around you, I hope you’ll make a point to explore those diverse offerings with colleagues or friends, choose where to eat together, perhaps by sharing a Sujjest Lunch link, and keep your lunchtime social and adventurous.