Autumn might make you think of new pencils, but it also makes you think of old favorites, especially when it comes to food, and especially in Seattle, when there's a brief paradise of local tomatoes and chanterelles, when oysters are right again and fat squashes are ready. It is the best time of year to eat; you're hungry after the salads and rosé and heat of summer, and, conveniently, it gets dark earlier and earlier, so you can just go home after dinner and read a book under a blanket and fall asleep.
As always in Seattle now, there are new, glamorous restaurants to try, but when it's wet and cold, old favorites sound better. Restaurant standbys are like dear friends—not without their foibles, but reliable, familiar, beloved. Here are three mainstays you might not have thought of in a while, or may have overlooked all this time, but they're still here for you, ready and waiting.
LE PICHET • 1933 First Ave, 256-1499 • main dishes $20–$21 (roasted chicken $38 for two people)
Le Pichet is the epitome of a certain kind of French neighborhood restaurant, an unfussy dinnertime marvel that also serves morning coffee, lunch, and/or an afternoon bottle of wine, from 8 a.m. until midnight every day. At every hour it looks just right: no black-and-white photos of the Eiffel Tower or framed Taittinger posters, just butter-colored walls with framed labels from French cheeses, panels from wooden wine boxes, and mirrors so well-situated, you might not even notice them, only feel the space magically expanded. There's a tile floor, slate-topped tables, a zinc-topped bar.
Proprietors and Francophiles Jim Drohman and Joanne Herron opened Le Pichet above Pike Place Market in 2000. Drohman, a recovering Boeing engineer, went to culinary school in Paris, then was the chef at Campagne prior to the dawn of Le Pichet. The name means "the pitcher," after the ceramic ones used in France to serve wine; Le Pichet has a phenomenal, pocketbook-friendly, all-French wine list, as well as the eponymous pitchers (the better for moving from white to red without committing to whole bottles).
The traditional French menu at Le Pichet pleases from beginning to end: house-made charcuterie plus selections from other artisans, those delicious French cheeses that give their labels to the wall, perfect baguette, the epitome of a green salad, famous roasted chicken (allow one hour, or call ahead). The soup is almost always extraordinary; right now, it's autumnal creamy mushroom-pear with blue cheese from Auvergne and glazed pecans. At two dinners here recently, too many things made me too happy to name them all, but if I were you, I'd order the skewer of broiled duck heart brochette on a salad of spinach, candied pumpkin, and pumpkin seeds; the tomatoes with mâche, niçoise olives, and goat cheese; and/or the crispy-skinned roasted salmon with sweet corn, chanterelles, and turnips. The sole imperfection was hard-ish beans served underneath an excellent house-made pork sausage (but if you send something back at Le Pichet, they are anti-resentful). As someone says in The Stranger's online dining guide, "Dear Jesus: Thank you for sending me Le Pichet. It has the best wine list in Seattle and the pommes frites are amazing. That's all anyone needs to know." Oh, and you'll want to make a reservation. And here's a secret: You can find some all-time-favorite Le Pichet recipes at jimdrohman.com.
BOAT STREET CAFE • 3131 Western Ave, 632-4602 • main dishes $14–$36
Renee Erickson is now famous for her restaurants the Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard and the Whale Wins in Fremont/Wallingford, and she's getting more famous by the moment for her completely charming and also actually useful new cookbook/life manual A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus. But people tend to forget about her first restaurant, Boat Street Cafe. After starting in the U-District, it's been on the border of Belltown and Lower Queen Anne since 2005, in an obscure, semi-subterranean spot. Inside, Boat Street is spacious and full of light, even on a dark, heading-toward-wintry night. The decor includes paper flowers, parasols that came for a big party and never left, a portrait of Erickson's late dog Jeffry, and artwork by her friend, Seattle treasure Jeffry Mitchell (whom Jeffry the dog was named after). If that sounds too cute, it's not; it's calm, with a sense of humor.
You could call the menu French-ish Pacific-Northwest New American, but the main thing is that everything's good. Right now, specials might include a tartine topped with stellar tomatoes (from Billy's Gardens' 2014 bumper crop) and a half-rabbit cooked with cornichons, with almost silky leg-meat and medallions as tender as tuna. Roasted romanesco cauliflower, with its beautiful fractal tips, is being served at room temperature with Jim's apples and moscatel vinegar, plus marcona almonds for crunch; classic mousse-style pâté comes with pickled plums that are incredibly, piercingly sweet. Seared Anderson Ranch lamb tongue is full of flavor and anti-tough, with polenta, peaches, tomato, and more; a fat Carleton Farm pork chop is another fall treat with charred radicchio, Asian pears from Tonnemaker Family Orchard, and apple cider gastrique.
Boat Street has a wide-ranging, creative, but never crazy menu, and with its huge back table, it's generally great for a group. While last week, our server was visibly annoyed by 11 members of my family (which I can empathize with), by midway through the evening, her spirits seemed to magically shift, and the evening was happy and filling and bright.
RISTORANTE MACHIAVELLI • 1215 Pine St, 621-7941 • pasta $10.25–$16.95, mains $11.75–$16.50
Fancier Italian restaurants may come and go in Seattle, but old-school Machiavelli, open since 1988 on the corner of Melrose and Pine, endures. (Matt Dillon, whose renowned Sitka & Spruce is just down Melrose, loves this place.) The tables in the cozy, low-ceilinged dining room don't have red-and-white-checked tablecloths, but they might as well. People bring their parents or their 10 closest friends or someone they really like for a first (or second, or billionth) date. Proposals happen at Machiavelli, and everyone applauds. The tiny bar is especially satisfying in the autumn, as passersby look increasingly wet, cold, and miserable, while inside everyone is insulated with good company, beverages, and anticipation.
You may end up spending some time in the bar, because Machiavelli does not take reservations; on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday evening, it's convivially crammed. The reassuringly unchanging menu has all the Italian hits: bresaola, small pizzas, a dozen-plus pastas, eggplant Parmesan, veal and chicken dishes. Everything looks and tastes exactly like it should—anti-fancy, hugely portioned, rich, and eminently satisfying. I always get either the carbonara or the lasagna with spinach noodles and chicken livers (with an occasional foray into the platonic ideal of spaghetti and meatballs), along with the Caesar with anchovies and a plate of tuna carpaccio, which is super-thinly-sliced sashimi-grade tuna with creamy balsamic-Dijon dressing, capers, lemon, and Parmesan. Specials—one night last week, there was butternut squash lasagna—might sound good, but one of the pleasures of a regular spot is getting exactly what you know you'll love.
Machiavelli's personable bartenders and swift, friendly servers are among the best in town—no pretension, just goodness, like the entire place. One caveat: Machiavelli is, tragically, closed on Sunday, the night when you might want a red-sauce place the most. But it's the light at the end of the tunnel on a rainy Monday.