In a city with about 2,300 restaurants, the dining options are daunting. You can spend Sunday afternoon hunched over an aromatic bowl of pho, Tuesday evening pinching up turmeric-stained lentils with spongy pieces of injera, and Friday night slurping briny, freshly shucked Pacific oysters.
But, every now and then, I miss the less exotic choices of my youth, of American-style family dining. I miss questions like "Baked potato, mashed potatoes, fries, or rice pilaf? Soup or salad? Ranch, blue cheese, Thousand Island, or Italian?" These were the flavors of familiarity and comfort, of the days when my best friend and I would sneak out of the house to eat at a country-kitchen-themed, 24-hour restaurant where we'd order chocolate milkshakes and mashed potatoes and celebrate our teenage rebellion in the wee hours of the morning.
The old-fashioned American square meal isn't dead (yet), but it's certainly harder to come by, especially if you're hoping to spend less than $15. But there are some who are keeping the tradition of meat, starch, and vegetable alive.
Wedgwood Broiler (8230 35th Ave NE, 523-1115) takes you back to a time when square meals were the norm, when wood-paneled walls were the height of decor, and couples on TV slept in separate twin beds. Sit in the packed lounge with the regulars—couples who've long run out of things to say to each other, who sit silently as they eat plates of liver and onions.
If you order one of the "featured" dinners or chef's specials—I ordered the London Broil ($14.25)—your meal will come with a perfectly baked potato snuggled in a nest of foil. One of the kindhearted, sass-mouthed veteran waitresses will ask you if you'd like sour cream, crumbled bacon, or chives. Answer "Yes!" to all of the above, and each item will arrive in its own tiny plastic cup. The potato skin will be crisp, the insides creamy, and the whole thing will foam over with melted butter.
When asked to choose between soup and salad, for God's sake, get the salad. The chopped romaine is topped with bits of salami and a handful of Cheez-Its. (CHEEZ-ITS! On your salad!) The vegetable component of your entrée will be a healthy mound of canned corn, or perhaps green beans, which you can forlornly push around your plate like a sulking kid. It's vintage dining at its best.
On Sunday nights, from 5 p.m. "til the chicken flies the coop!" Ballard's Hi-Life (5425 Russell Ave NW, 784-7272) does "family-style fried chicken." For a mere $14.50 per adult, and $7.25 for kids, you're presented with a feast so homey and rib-sticking, you can almost hear someone's ma ringing the dinner bell. You don't get to choose your sides, but you'll be perfectly happy with the ones you get.
There are two basic requirements for truly excellent fried chicken: fantastically crispy skin and juicy meat. The Hi-Life nails both. An enormous platter carries a ridiculously generous chicken and a half for three people. Our server instructed us to enhance each bite with a drop of honey and a drip or two of Tapatío (which are provided on the table). The result was sweet-and-spicy crisp skin and juicy meat that made us actually cheer. Soon enough, our plates were littered with chicken bones. We talked with our mouths full, unable to take a break from our golden feast.
Between crispy chicken bites, we dipped our spoons into creamy mashed potatoes and grazed off the plate of butter-braised carrots and crisp-tender green beans. There was also a pillowy, buttery biscuit for each of us. Gravy, served in a white gravy boat, completed the Sunday-supper vibe.
Mitzel's American Kitchen (22330 84th Ave S, 253-395-3635) in Kent looks nearly identical to the country-kitchen-themed restaurant of my youth. A glass display case greets you when you walk in, boasting lemon sour cream pie and cream-cheese-frosted carrot cake. There are prints of painted country scenes framed on the walls, bouquets of dried flowers, and plenty of booths for your legs to stick to.
Meals come with your choice of soup or salad, and everything on the incredibly long menu is homemade, including the soft, fat noodles in Mitzel's signature turkey noodle soup and the warm, complimentary squares of corn bread. Obviously, the soup comes with packets of saltines. I ordered the meatloaf ($10.99), four thick slices blanketed in a deep-brown gravy, but I preferred the seasonings in the Salisbury steak, a vintage novelty I thought came only in TV-dinner form. Both were hearty meals, served on oval platters and accompanied by a heap of fresh carrots, green beans, and onions, a crunchy tangle of fried onion strings, and a baked or mashed potato.
But here's the thing about nostalgia: It will make you sleepy. After my gravy-soaked, butter-laced meal, the only things I craved were a pair of elastic-waist pants and a bed.