urban al fresco
Le Pichet, 1933 First Ave (downtown), 256-1499. Setup: Sidewalk tables on an interesting stretch of downtown between the Pike Place Market and Belltown proper.
While the classic French dinners are always delicious here, Le Pichet's daytime food is great for light afternoon eating while checking out pedestrians (and being catty about what they're wearing). I love the broiled eggs with ham and Gruyère, and the quiche du jour at brunch is always good too. Sometimes I'll order the housemade air-dried sausages with cheap red wine, or a simple sandwich with some marinated olives--some creamy Brie or house-smoked salmon draped over a crusty baguette.
Marco's Supperclub, 2510 First Ave (Belltown), 441-7801. Setup: Sidewalk tables framed by vines and foliage, slightly elevated--so you don't feel like you're eating right in the middle of the street--but still exposed enough so you can see who's going in and out of El Gaucho across the street. Also a covered patio in back.
Seasonal specials and international influences show up on Marco's varied menu, along with summer salads, signature fried sage leaves, and amazing Jamaican jerk chicken--a moist, roasted free-range bird that inspires a complex, slow burn in your mouth, served with sweet-potato purée and sautéed bitter greens.
Bill's Off Broadway, 725 E Pine (Capitol Hill), 323-7200. Setup: Wooden tables along the side of the building, fenced in, perfect for both privacy and Pine Street observations. (Surprisingly, the only sidewalk seating on Pine besides Bauhaus.)
With their thick, delicious, breadlike crusts and generous cheese content, Bill's pizzas are good accompaniments for pitchers of cold summer drinkin'. Here at Bill's I have become persuaded, despite all of my previous hardcore beliefs, that, yes, roasted chicken and seasoned ground beef can belong on a pizza. The lunch specials always keep things interesting: burgers, creative sandwiches, scratch chili, tuna casserole with crumbled potato chips sprinkled on top, and a recent excellent Portuguese soup with linguiça sausage that I wish was a permanent fixture.
Cloud Room, Camlin Hotel, 1619 Ninth Ave (downtown), 682-0100. Setup: On a rooftop overlooking city lights and nearby buildings, the neon-green light from the Camlin sign softly glowing. With the right people, the right cocktail, and the right shoes, it can almost feel like Sex and the City up here.
By now, the news is all over town: The Camlin Hotel has officially been sold, and the 54-year-old Cloud Room will be closing in a few months. This summer will be the last chance to enjoy roof access at this restaurant/piano lounge before it's reborn as exclusive vacation housing, with penthouse suites where the Cloud Room is now. The food's not really the main attraction, although I've had a nice fruit and cheese plate here, and the artichoke and arugula dip can be quite good; the main appeal of congregating atop the Camlin lies in the CR's talented bartenders. Stop by soon before it's gone for good, and give a final nod to another Seattle landmark of faded swank. (And leave big tips for the Cloud Room staff: They'll be out of work soon.)
ALSO: Wasabi Bistro (2311 Second Ave, Belltown, 441-6044) offers an extensive sushi menu at sidewalk tables--an unusual pairing in this city. Outdoor tables are pristine, service is super-attentive, and sushi portions are always generous. Queen Anne may not be my idea of urban, but new neighborhood barbecue joint Barbacoa (2209 Queen Anne Ave N, 352-6213) has just set up outdoor seating, and this place serves the best damn mint julep (small-batch bourbon, crushed mint leaves, lemon, lots of ice) in town, so who cares if you're gnawing on ribs in Pleasantville? The outdoor balcony of the Capitol Club (414 E Pine, Capitol Hill, 325-2149) is always good for suppertime people-watching, especially on weekend nights, when the drunky brigade stumbles along Pine Street below. (The CC's Mediterranean-European menu includes items not usually found on the Hill: a sausage plate with boudin blanc and merguez; yogurt-braised lamb; bouillabaisse with sturgeon; and even wild pheasant.) The enclosed area outside Marjorie (2331 Second Ave, Belltown, 441-9842)--just private enough, but still within earshot of street noises--is a lovely, romantic rendering of urban space, an excellent place to experience the surprises of chef Tyler Boring's global cuisine: from Sri Lankan curry to Southern black-eyed peas to steak frites.
patio al fresco
Pink Door, 1919 Post Alley (Pike Place Market), 443-3241. Setup: A large outdoor deck behind the bar/cabaret area, with strings of colored lights and a view of the Sound.
It's always lively and packed on the deck here, and it's impossible to avoid getting caught up in the energy--everyone's talking loudly, the waitstaff is always busy, and it somehow never feels like a tourist spot. Along with the tasty antipasto plate, the scallop salad is a lovely example of subtle hot-weather food: flavorful and not at all heavy, with seared sea scallops, orange segments, and fresh watercress. Of course, even on hot, sweaty nights, the Pink Door's lasagna still beckons; it's actually lighter than most, with thin sheets of spinach pasta, not too much cheese, and a velvety béchamel sauce.
El Camino, 607 N 35th St (Fremont), 632-7303. Setup: An outdoor deck behind the restaurant, above a quiet lot with no street views.
The attractive staff, the nouveau Mexican concept and décor, and the well-groomed, well-toned clientele are straight out of L.A.'s trendy Silverlake or Los Feliz. There are even pastel condos facing diners on the patio, and during a recent dinner on the deck with a girlfriend, we couldn't help but eavesdrop on some hilarious SoCal-ish conversations ("Do you think I'm fat?"). Menu items, however, have plenty of substance: Fish tacos change often, but last week they were filled with succulent chunks of escolar and shrimp, and served with green rice and a bright slaw. Tamales here are hot and moist (the filling ingredients change frequently; I had savory stewed pork last week), and accompanied with an unexpected handful of pickled beets (a pretty faded-pink color from their vinegar soak) that provide a tart, cooling counterpoint. Mussels arrive here in a tomato-garlic-cream bath infused with chilies and softly smoky spices, and El Camino's seafood ceviche--halibut, scallops, and shrimp--is the best I've had in a long time, with supple texture and the perfect amount of acidity (it's unusual to find ceviche that hasn't been "overcooked" and blasted with too much citrus). The accompanying plain avocado slices and saltines remind you that good ceviche does not have to be schmancy.
Pacific Inn Pub, 3501 Stone Way N (Fremont/Wallingford), 547-2967. Setup: A deck out back, just a few steps from the bar, next door to Standys Furniture and across the road from Western Fasteners & Supply Co. A very paranoid-looking fish is painted on the wall and stares down on deck patrons; an entire afternoon could very easily be spent drinking beer in the sun and staring back.
What the hell have I been doing all this time? The fish 'n' chips here are fucking amazing. I am ashamed for not knowing this sooner. I am humbled. Pacific Inn's well-seasoned, ungreasy, golden batter--breadcrumbs and flour, I think, with chopped herbs and spices (thyme? paprika? cayenne?)--is a delicious coating for flaky white fish that hasn't been fried to death and still tastes solidly of the sea. The coleslaw is good too, as are the salty fries; the fried oysters in the combo platter are crisp on the outside, but still moist and wonderfully briny on the inside, which almost never happens with cooked oysters. While I still have room in my heart for Sunfish and Emmett Watson's, my other two fish 'n' chips favorites, I am currently crushed out on Pacific Inn.
ALSO: As of presstime, you've only got two more weeks to enjoy the gorgeous garden underneath the University Bridge at the Boat Street Cafe (909 NE Boat St, U-District, 632-4602), home of Southern France-inspired lunches, dinners, and weekend brunches, and a bare-bones elegance that would make the Real Simple editors envious. The rear courtyard at Serafina (2043 Eastlake Ave E, 323-0807) is what I imagine a garden party in Tuscany would feel like, and chef John Neumark's Euro-Italian menu is always sophisticated without being overbearing. This is peasant food with a refined flair: simple but sublime bruschetta with Spanish bonito tuna, lemon, and capers; veal meatballs; handmade ravioli stuffed with puréed peas and ricotta in an aromatic leek-lavender broth; and short ribs braised in red wine. Also on Eastlake, Bandoleone (2241 Eastlake Ave E, 329-7559) offers deck dining in a quiet setting, away from the cigars and small talk at the crowded bar. This is food you want to be eating outside anyway, preferably with a noisy group and lots of sangria--crawfish cakes with mango salsa, Cuban chicken salad, Caribbean duck with banana-lentil salad, and seafood escabèche, along with nightly fish specials. Au Bouchon (1815 N 45th St, Wallingford, 547-5791) can be quite Parisian in the summer, since the outdoor patio is open and bordered by plants and flowerboxes but still in plain view to those passing by on 45th Street. Along with traditional French bistro fare--escargots, pté de campagne, endive salad--you'll also find couscous with lamb shank, merguez, raisins, and harissa, which reflects the large North African population in contemporary Paris.
waterfront al fresco
Baithouse, 5517 Seaview Ave NW (Ballard, between the Locks and Shilshole Bay Marina), 297-9109. Setup: A sunny, breezy deck high above the water, overlooking sailboats. Completely hidden from the front entrance, which is kind of easy to miss--cross the train track, walk past the seafood supply office, and go all the way down the rather steep side stairs. You're right on the Sound; the air smells salty and clean.
Even though it is profoundly frustrating and nearly impossible for me to get to Ballard in an efficient way, the cult-status crab melt and flawless crab cocktail at this family-owned cafe are worth the endless bus transfers. The crab melt is INSANE... nothing but crabmeat, light seasonings, and mayo, open-faced on buttered bread, and then broiled quickly with a thin layer of mild, melted cheese. The Caesar salad on the side is exactly what you want with such a luxurious sandwich--crisp, cold romaine lettuce, with a bright, lemony dressing. Crab cocktail is served no-frills Ballard style: a large portion of shredded crab (no filler at all) and several hunks of crab leg, piled into a diner parfait bowl--half of it submerged in an excellent (and strong on the celery salt, hooray!) cocktail sauce, half of it plain and bare, waiting for a quick hit of lemon. You will never return to skimpy, downtown-steakhouse-standard-issue crab cocktail again.
Agua Verde, 1303 NE Boat St (U-District), 545-8570. Setup: Lots of outdoor deck tables above the restaurant's kayak rental area, overlooking Portage Bay. Also a takeout stand and waterfront area with grass and benches.
Along with cheap, kick-ass salt cod tacos and mango margaritas and squash-blossom empanadas, this always-crowded, Baja-inspired spot also rents out kayaks by the hour--although I could never do anything strenuous after a meal here. I always get the halibut tacos: squirted with lime, and served with soft tortillas, shredded cabbage, and a creamy avocado sauce, washed down with a glass of tart red juice made from hibiscus flowers. I also love the smoky-sweet corn and cactus salad, and the pineapple-jicama salsa, in which fresh pineapple, sharp scallions, bits of red pepper, cilantro, and tart citrus juices commingle with crisp jicama. Being here always makes me want to ditch my current life and start over in a little town on the Sea of Cortez. Okay, so that's never going to happen. But we all need more pink walls and roasted poblano chilies in our lives.
ALSO: The thing is, waterfront al fresco dining is pretty easy around here: There are popular, obvious destinations all along the Alaskan Way piers, South Lake Union, and lined up along Alki Beach in West Seattle. And of course there's old-school Shilshole, where summer twilight dinners at local institutions like Ray's Boathouse (6049 Seaview Ave NW, 789-3770) or Anthony's Homeport (6135 Seaview Ave NW, 783-0780) make me feel, however briefly, like my life here is about Seattle's "Pacific Northwest Beauty" rather than about Seattle's "Small Studios on First Hill with Cat Hair on Everything."
Because I have a very weird, embarrassing, Tippi Hedren-inspired intense fear of seagulls--shut up, don't make fun of me--I stay away from the touristy al fresco places by the downtown piers. Too much scavenging/swooping, too much drama. When I want the "harborside experience"--complete with beat-up commercial fishing boats, and the last stubborn traces of industrial Ballard in plain sight--I like going to Chinook's instead (1900 W Nickerson St, Fisherman's Terminal in Magnolia, 283-4665), where you can sit outside, get tanked on bloody marys, and eat authentic fisherman's grub: This is where you'll find flaky halibut cheeks sautéed in butter; a blue-plate special with fresh lingcod and boiled potatoes; or thick chowder with huge chunks of flavorful clams. Go someplace else if you're looking for raw bluefin or coconut-curry shellfish.
misc. al fresco
This is the stuff I would eat outdoors all season long if I could--cheap, simple, portable summer food. During the sweltering summer of '96, I practically lived on soft-serve Kustard King and the peeled mangos-on-sticks I used to buy from the Dominican boys at Coney Island. Here in the Northwest, where summer heat is much more bearable, some of my favorite outdoor eating happens at Sunfish (2800 Alki Ave SW, West Seattle, 938-4112), where having lightly battered halibut, fries, and sugary lemonade (or the excellent grilled halibut skewer, with peppers and onions) while sitting at plastic blue tables can help me forget all of my problems (AKA deadlines).
Everyone always raves about the fish 'n' chips at Totem House (3058 NW 54th St, Ballard Locks, 784-2300)--but it's having a gigantic, rich-from-top-to-bottom milkshake, chocolate or banana or "creamsicle," out front at the wooden picnic tables that makes me happiest.
Further up the street near the marina you'll find Gordo's (6226 Seaview Ave NW, 784-7333), a tiny shack with a few tables next to a lawn-sculpture store. I'm a huge fan of Gordo's burgers (actually cooked by Paul), which taste like backyard burgers--soft bun, sticky cheese, and thin patty with cold onions, pickles, tomato, and a light smear of mayo. (The Bulk Burger adds bacon and a fried egg.) You can also get hot-dog variations (chili cheese, corn dog), clam strips, and a sturdy BLT here, all of which make me wish Gordo's was responsible for my school lunches back at Green Hills Elementary.
On the other side of town, Taqueria dos Hermanos (a white bus on Rainier Ave South near Edmunds Street in Columbia City; last seen parked in the parking lot next to Bank of America) sells tasty assorted meat tacos, burritos, quesadillas with fiery salsa, and fruity Mexican sodas--exactly the kind of street food I want when the weather's warm and I'm scoping out the Columbia City Farmers Market. Last week, a friend and I split a chicharrón taco for a buck and a quarter--a soft, warm tortilla wrapped around a cluster of pork rinds, onions, chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, pickled jalapeños, and cilantro--and it was so basic, but so good, with all those strong, clean flavors coming up against the crispy texture of pork rinds. That taco served as a pleasant reminder that summer outdoor food doesn't always have to be about grilled fish and salads and a majestic view. I am here to tell you that crunchy pig skin and guava soda in a noisy parking lot can be just as satisfying.