What happens when you spend a day consuming breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner, and drinks based solely on the recommendations of random people on the street? Lindy West, David Schmader, and Bethany Jean Clement put their stomachs' fate in strangers' hands.
photo, lower right, of Zig Zag's Murray Stenson by Eliza Truitt
In which she is sent to the Alki Cafe, then McDonald's, then HoneyHole, then the Metropolitan Grill, then the Zig Zag.
It was 8:30 a.m., a crispy-clear Monday in West Seattle. I approached the intersection of California Avenue Southwest and Alaska Street with apprehension, mustering up the testicles to ask my fellow humans about where to eat. Whom was I to meet? A rosy-cheeked auntie with a macramé soul? A grizzled but virile silver fox of a stonemason? An exiled nobleman forced to sell rubber stamps out of a minivan just to keep himself in ermine and doubloons until he can reclaim his shiny throne? A construction worker? An Indian? A leatherman? A cop? The other one? And where would they send me? WHAT FOOD ITEMS WERE IN STORE!?
It was early and there was little foot traffic. Eventually, a middle-aged woman approached. She had grayish hair, and I believe she was wearing fleece pants. She seemed grumpy and in a hurry. "Excuse me," I said, friendlily. "What do you think is the best place in Seattle to get breakfast?" "Whaaat?" the lady replied. "Oh. Well, uh, there's this place across the street from the Alki Bakery. I don't know what it's called. It's pretty good. You could go there."
We headed waterward, and eventually located the Alki Bakery. Across the street, just as fleece-pants lady had promised, was a cute little diner-ish place called the Alki Cafe. We entered. The Alki Cafe has a charming sort of '80s-chic decor, with weird upholstered valances and bold, stainproof, geometric carpet. I had biscuits and gravy and potatoes; my friend ordered chilaquiles. We shared a stack of three pancakes, just to see how they were (good, chewy, but with fake syrup instead of maple). From my seat, enjoying my buttery biscuits and chunky gravy—how can something so white have so much flavor?—I watched ferries pass by on Elliott Bay and felt at home.
Stuffed to the eyeballs with various forms of dough, we waited in the shadow of Alki's mini Lady Liberty in search of our next advice-giver—the one who would steer us toward coffee. I vetoed several potential candidates for being too boring or too fast or having a dog on a rope instead of a leash (I do not trust those types!), but finally settled on a trio of old ladies out for a morning constitutional. They were REALLY old. Like, a hundred. Or two.
"Excuse me," I said. "Can you tell me the best place in Seattle for a cup of coffee?" The first old lady—clearly the ringleader—blinked at me. "I DON'T KNOW," she shouted like an old, hard-of-hearing air horn, "McDONALD'S???" "NO! DUNKIN' DONUTS!" cried the second old lady. The third old lady grabbed the skin beneath her right eye, pulled it down as far as it would go, and began dabbing at her eyeball with a handkerchief. I looked at them. "NOT STARBUCKS!" yelled the ringleader. I thanked them and headed back toward the car. After I'd gone 20 paces or so, I heard, "WAIT! WAAAAAIT!" I turned. The ladies were yelling at me. "ALSO JACK IN THE BOX!"
I love you, West Seattle, but the mainland beckoned, and the McDonald's on Madison Street in First Hill was bustling. I waited in line and studied my coffee options. There was a poster illustrating how to order coffee at McDonald's: "PICK YOUR DRINK. PICK YOUR SIZE. PICK YOUR MILK. PICK YOUR SYRUP." Pick. Your. Syrup. It seemed wrong not to follow McDonald's instructions about its own coffee—Mayor McCheese ought to know best, after all—so I picked latte, small, 2%, vanilla. The resulting liquid was possibly the sweetest substance I have ever put in my mouth. It's still in my car.
Next, a very high college student in the McDonald's parking lot instructed me to go to the HoneyHole for my lunch. Zzzzzzzzzz. I had a pulled-pork sandwich. It was boring. It tasted of pork. The coleslaw tasted of nothing. NEXT!
Back outside, a jaunty man jaunted toward us down East Pike Street, a vision in beige—a magnificently nondescript beige blur in a blue newsboy cap and the beigest of beige outfits. I flagged him down. "What's the best place in Seattle for dinner? If you could go anywhere?" His eyes lit up. "Anywhere? And money is no object?" The man looked at the sky. "Lemme ask you: Do ya like steak? Are you a steak person?" Yesssssssssss. Finally. The day was taking a turn for the fancy.
The Metropolitan Grill is extremely sophisticated, for the sophisticated types—for people who enjoy the finer things in life, such as sophistication. It's like if someone took your dad (if, say, your dad is the kind of person who wears a smoking jacket and two ascots and a silvery mustache) and blended him up into a sophisticated smoothie, and then somehow used that smoothie to build a restaurant out of (get on it, physics!). On the menu at the Metropolitan Grill, they have a steak that weighs six ounces and costs $100. So it's basically the size of a baby mouse, and it costs more than my car (only a LITTLE bit more, okay!?). Instead, I got an eight-ounce, $48 steak—the mushroom-crusted tenderloin—which could have been pulled apart with a fork and tasted like Sean Connery or something. Something expensive and meaty.
For the best cocktail in town, my sophisticated waiter—who looked like Sean Connery or something, and clearly knew his business—sent me to the Zig Zag Cafe, which was the correct answer. I have no idea what I drank, but there can be no argument that it was the best cocktail in town. Thanks, Seattle.
In which he is sent to Fonté Cafe, then Maximilien, then Vivace, then Sun Liquor, then Tamarind Tree.
Scouting for the citizen who would decide my breakfasty fate just south of the Pike Place Market meant one thing: Avoid tourists. I soon spotted what looked like a pair of natives—two professionally dressed young women who appeared to be making a coffee run from a nearby office. "Excuse me," I said, stopping them in front of the Harley-Davidson shop. "I'm looking for somewhere to get breakfast. I've got a car and I know the city, so it doesn't necessarily need to be around here, it just has to be a really good place for breakfast." This torrent left the young women slightly dazed, so I simplified and reiterated: "Where's your favorite place to get breakfast in Seattle?"
"Fonté's great," said one young woman, gesturing to a storefront a half-block north on First Avenue, inspiring her friend to nod and smile. "It's a coffeehouse, but they serve food, too." The answer seemed too expedient to be honest, but I quickly came to understand how Fonté Cafe and Wine Bar could be anyone's favorite. Boasting an ultramodern design, Fonté feels a bit like a hotel bar/cafe—which it kind of is, with the Four Seasons extending however many stories above. It is also overwhelmingly brown, with the dark wood trim, glossy leather banquettes, and sepia-print photos adding up to a major statement of Modern Brownness. This lightly bullying color scheme was our only quibble, as literally everything that landed on our table was delightful.
Fonté offers counter service for coffee, tea, and pastries, and table service for anyone plopping themselves down for a bistro-style breakfast and lunch. I ordered two eggs over medium, which were served with a couple slices of grilled Columbia City Bakery bread and executed perfectly; I wanted to hug the cook. My dining mate's spiced-pear French toast was also exemplary, made with hearty potato bread and served with thin slices of marinated pear and a jam so tasty it made syrup irrelevant. Both of us agreed we'd happily come back. (Most likely with SAM-visiting relatives and an appetite for wine.)
Our lunch recommendation came from a thirtysomething guy in glasses who bore a familial resemblance to Verizon's TV spokesman. Interrogated on the sidewalk outside Fonté, the man wasted no time recommending his number-one Seattle lunch spot: Maximilien, the romantic French joint perched in the Pike Place Market. Feelingly exceedingly lucky, we followed our dashing French waiter into the Maximilien dining room, where one wall of windows offers a luxurious view of Puget Sound while another wall of mirrors makes the small space feel roomy. On the menu I found the quiche végétarienne, Maximilien's only noncarnivorous offering. Expecting a slice, I was instead delivered a single-serving quiche, about four inches wide, with a mixed green salad. The quiche was somewhat watery, but powerfully flavorful, with tomato, basil, onion, and Brie, making the whole small endeavor impressively rich. My dining mate ordered the coq au vin, an extravagant conglomeration of wine-soaked chicken and fresh egg noodles served in a metal skillet. Asked about its quality, she made a disarmingly intimate facial expression and said, "Perfect."
Directions for afternoon coffee came from a Pike Place Market fruit vendor who boldly ordered us up the hill to Vivace Espresso Bar at Brix, which is exactly where I'd have instructed someone to find Seattle's best cup of coffee. Relocated to the less-than-inviting north end of Broadway, Vivace remains a wonder, serving the smoothest strong coffee to be had in Seattle, in thick porcelain cups. I had a double Americano, my mate had a double latte, and Vivace's reputation for excellence was confirmed once more.
For a pre-dinner cocktail recommendation, I turned to an employee of Broadway's Hour Eyes Optical, who ordered us directly to Sun Liquor. Neither of us had been. My greyhound was bright with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, while my mate's Scarlet Lady wrangled gin, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, house-made grenadine, and champagne into something undeniably girlish but scrumptious. Added bonuses: complimentary bowls of warm mixed nuts and gorgeous decor (hand-forged barware, intricately textured walls with inlaid lights, beautiful bathrooms). We loved it.
The day's final recommendation came from a stylish thirtysomething woman sitting at the Sun Liquor bar. Asked to name her favorite place in Seattle for dinner, she replied, "I've lived here a long time and love lots of places—can you give me any guidance?" I told her we had a vegetarian in our party and her reply was instantaneous: "Tamarind Tree." I almost kissed her.
Situated where the Central District meets the International District, Tamarind Tree is a provincial Vietnamese restaurant I'd been longing to revisit. My one previous meal there had been a dream, full of reasonably priced menu items I'd never tried before but instantly loved, served in a stylishly upscale environment. This time it didn't disappoint, except when it did: My vegetarian Tamarind Tree rice was a sampler platter of menu items I loved (shiitake mushrooms! Okra!) and loathed (faux prawns). In between these poles were some okay standards (grilled lemongrass tofu, vegetarian egg roll), all of which were significantly improved by the accompanying dish of spicy sauce. Overall, it was perfectly okay, but unforgivably bland in comparison to many other Tamarind Tree menu items.
Case in point: my dining mate's Tamarind Tree crepe, which wraps a small galaxy of scallops, prawns, pork slices, shiitake mushroom, bean sprouts, and mung beans in a fried rice-batter crepe, which is topped with coconut milk, served with a mountain of vegetable greens, and, according to my friend, paralyzingly delicious. Dazzling us both: the Tamarind Tree rolls, an appetizer consisting of a burrito-sized salad roll packed with fresh herbs, fried tofu, roasted peanut, fresh coconut, crispy jicama, and carrots, then cut in quarters and served with soy sauce. God knows how a freaking salad roll can add up to something so amazing, but while we we're eating it, the Tamarind Tree roll seemed like a legitimate contender for the best food in the world. Added bonus: What felt like an extravagant night out came to just over 50 bucks, including gratuity.
Thank you, citizens of Seattle, for your exquisite taste.
In which she is sent to Vera's, then Market Street Traders, then Sam's Sushi, then the Smoke Shop, then Bastille.
Ballard in the morning is the land of delivery guys and old men. Otherwise, there are stunned-looking people waiting for the bus, and there's a man wearing a tweed trench coat who gives me a double devil's horns and shouts, "IT'S NEVER TOO EARLY TO ROCK!" This man is wrong.
The deliverymen are bringing kegs of beer to bars; the old men are eating breakfast specials and reading newspapers. An old man crossing Market Street at Ballard Avenue has just finished doing so. He carries his newspaper and he looks crabby. His recommendation for a breakfast place is a model of economy: "Vera's," he says. "It's right around the corner. It's clean. [Pause.] They have good cooks." Upon being sincerely thanked, he warms to his subject and speaks of Ballard's multifarious lunchtime options: "There's Mexican down there, a Puerto Rican place, Japanese, Lombardi's—that's Italian." He is clearly happy about the prospect of lunch, despite having just finished breakfast. His jacket has a slight greasy sheen that traps me between happy and sad—maybe he's become deservedly stubborn and he won't let anyone wash it, or maybe his wife is dead and he doesn't know it needs washing. He smells like onions.
This old man is absolutely right. Vera's has flowery wallpaper, lots of vinyl booths, and mountainous diner-style breakfasts served by ladies who keep your coffee full and call you "hon." (One waitress looks to be in her 20s, and still: "Are you good on coffee, hon?" It is a tiny verbal hug.) Globes of whipped butter melt on fluffy pancakes, and every plate comes with a half-moon of navel orange. A couple of newspaper-reading old men sit at the counter; nearby, the mirror in a refrigerated case tantalizingly reflects a pie. Warm 106.9 FM plays rock so soft, it slowly, pleasantly damages your brain. If you did not bring a newspaper, there's the free Coffee News®, "News to Be Enjoyed Over Coffee," which is like a softheaded Last Days plus crummy horoscopes, though it has one worthwhile old-fashioned joke. ("What did the zero say to the 8? I like your belt.") Vera's is old-school, old Ballard, what passes in this country for old-world. Vera's is good. Vera's does not take credit cards.
Midmorning coffee happens at Market Street Traders upon the recommendation of someone on the sidewalk in front of Market Street Traders who proves to work at Market Street Traders. The place is jammed full of woven birdhouses, shell/gourd wind chimes, alpaca slippers, and assorted wall hangings. Absurdly, the Grateful Dead plays, and the sun beams compliantly in through the windows. On the cafe side, fair-trade coffee prevents slipping into a coma of mellowness, and no matter how full you may be, the smell of grilling panini will eventually make you think you're hungry. On the shop side, surprisingly large fudge samples are administered with kindness, absolutely free, and with no apparent expectation of purchase, along with the information that the fudge is made in-house with Theo chocolate. As the counterperson notes, the beaming sun is making the fudge a little squishy. In November, Myballard.com reported that Market Street Traders was closing, but it is still open and negotiating with the bank to stay so. If you have any interest in sundry colorful imports, good coffee, or mellowness, you ought to stop by. (Ballard's preeminent neohippie hangout, the Chai House, is giving up the ghost soon, driven out by rising rent.)
At noontime, Ballard is for the ladies. Two of them jog down Ballard Avenue pushing strollers, hogging the sidewalk and gossiping apace. A lady and her grown-up daughter have no advice to give; they're also looking for a lunch place. (I want very much to recommend Cafe Besalu and La Carta de Oaxaca, but fear seeming insane since I just asked them.) A woman with furry boots, a leopard-print wrap, and a man glued to his mobile phone recommends Sam's Sushi, right off Market. Sam's was making sushi in Ballard long before nearby newcomers Moshi Moshi and Shiku, with their giant LED cherry-blossom tree and special- features Japanese toilet, respectively. Sam's eschews such frippery. (O'shan Sushi, the neighborhood's third new sushi spot, is similarly ungimmicked, and it's family-run, and the quality is excellent; O'shan is what I would recommend, but it's only open for lunch on weekends.)
Of note today at Sam's: tasty white salmon and specials of fluffy/gluey/yummy uni and righteously unctuous toro. The nigiri's slabs of fish are sizable. On a flat-screen, Anthony Bourdain drinks exotic moonshine with some tribesmen somewhere, then some idiot eats bizarre foods while commenting repetitively (via subtitles) about how bizarre the foods are. Sam's is pretty good—not the very best, but fine—and it's a relief after the admittedly greasy Vera's breakfast. Some say Sam's has improved with fresh competition. Others say Sam's is the best sushi in Ballard when none of the others are open. But you could do a lot worse than the $8 to $10 lunch specials here.
When dinnertime comes, a woman with smart glasses walking a large Muppet (she calls it a goldendoodle) on Market recommends, rapid-fire, Bastille (for French), Volterra (for Italian), or Ray's (for a view). Bastille opened to mixed reviews last summer; six months would seem to suffice for it to hit its stride. There's an hour wait for the dining room, and they're happy to take a cell number and call.
Asked for a cocktail recommendation, a young man outside the Tractor Tavern looking retro-sharp all in black says the Ballard Smoke Shop: "The women who work there look like they were born there—and like they're gonna die there. It's great." This young man is absolutely right. Drinks are eye-wateringly strong (and cheap), the bartendress has a prodigiously back-combed hairdo, and the Smoke Shop still smells like smoke and it always will. Some expert drinkers sit at the bar; some twentysomethings sit in the corner. If you like a dive, the Smoke Shop is a treasure.
Going from there back to Bastille is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Bastille is, as many have already said, absolutely beautiful, like walking into a sepia-toned Parisian photograph; the interior is incredible, in the sense of not to be believed. It is big and candlelit and bustling but romantic. The service is flawless.
The food is flawed. The problem seems to be a kitchen in a rush, perhaps in reaction to criticism about long waits. Now the food is coming out fast, but chef Shannon Galusha (résumé: Veil, Campagne, the goddamned French Laundry!) is not in control of a menu of French standards. The skin of a grilled quail tastes like charcoal, while close to the bone it is not entirely cooked; its brussels sprouts are underdone, and its Dijon sauce has visible lumps of crème fraiche and too-large twigs of thyme. After a few moments, the sauce breaks, its oil and dairy components separating sadly. Scallops have been seared too intensely on one side, so they're simultaneously overdone and underdone in different parts, here stringy and there soft; that they died for this is a tiny tragedy (as are the undercooked lentils they sit on, a mealy bed). Braised rabbit is tender but bland, and the loin manages to be blander still, despite being wrapped in bacon. For dessert, a tarte-tatin-type potpie is lukewarm at best, and fancied-up peanut-butter ice cream sandwiches slide apart while being eaten, though they're pleasing if you like the salt-and-chocolate thing.
Dinner—three courses and a glass and a half of wine from the long almost-all-French list—cost $75 a person. It was not worth it. Still, Bastille is so, so pretty—a fresh amazement in the heart of Ballard—I would recommend it in a heartbeat for a shared snack and a drink. Maybe before dinner at Volterra.
Get personal restaurant and bar recommendations from Lindy West, David Schmader, and Bethany Jean Clement right now in Questionland!