As someone who's worked in a cafe, I can tell you that panini should generally be avoided. Panini grills hide a multitude of kitchen sins. In cafes that don't have full kitchens, employees just slap together a bunch of generic ingredients out of plastic bags in the back room, soak the whole thing in oil, and then grill it to the point of unrecognizability, in the hopes that you won't notice the mediocrity they're serving you.
So why did I order the eggplant panino ($10) at Cafe Paloma (93 Yesler Way, 405-1920)? Because I trust them. Paloma has been serving food and Turkish coffee in a cozy Pioneer Square spot for 16 years. In that time, they've survived riots, an earthquake, an exodus of businesses, endless construction projects, and, most recently, a proliferation of high-concept lunch spots. And yet, they've always consistently served quality food. I couldn't begin to count how many meze plates, how much delicious, pillowy falafel I've eaten there.
Happily, the eggplant panino is just as good. This isn't some bland gut-filler slapped together out of a fridge or freezer. The eggplant has been cooked to the point where it achieves a creamy consistency and has a flavor that's mellow and not-too-garlicky. It's topped with tangy Gorgonzola cheese, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers. The soft filling contrasts beautifully with the golden-brown crunch of the bread. Unlike the bland panini you'll find at your local corporate coffeehouse, this sandwich reflects all the thought, time, and care that has gone into it.
Every panino at Paloma comes with a side salad of fresh greens spritzed with a peppery oil-and-vinegar dressing, which is just the right coupling—fries would be too greasy in tandem with the grilled sandwich. A cup of angry red lentil soup ($4), too, isn't the sort of thing you can coax out of a frozen plastic bag. This is the good stuff—a slightly spicy, vaguely smoky blend of tomato, spice, and earthy lentils.
Paloma's lived-in feel provides the sort of ambience you can only come by naturally, and in the middle of the whirl of new old-looking reclaimed wood that Pioneer Square restaurants are adopting, it's a flashback to an older, less flashy Seattle. As shiny new vehicles for wannabe celebrity chefs jostle for attention in Pioneer Square, savvy tech company employees, lanyards poking out of their ass pockets, swing by Paloma for quiet lunch meetings ("Just try the falafel," one guy in business casual assures the man in the expensive suit who corporate has shipped in from the East Coast). It's hard to pinpoint the moment when a restaurant passes from a neighborhood joint to an integral part of the fabric of a community, but sometime over the last few years, Cafe Paloma has quietly become that kind of institution.