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Hungry in Seattle: An MLA Member’s Guide to Local Food

Jenifer Ward

Jenifer Ward

Dear MLA colleagues, welcome to my city—Seattle! First, a couple of pointers for visitors, and then I’ll move on to why you’re really reading this column: to figure out how to hold body and soul together for the few days that you’re hunkered down in conference venues.

First, do NOT use an umbrella, unless it’s raining buckets. Seattleites rock the coat-with-hood look, and an umbrella will out you immediately as an out-of-towner (like the upside-down MLA badge won’t already do that). And, practically speaking, you would get a repetitive-stress injury opening and closing an umbrella. The rain here mostly comes and goes, and lifting a hood up and down is much easier on the hand and wrist muscles. Plus, your hands will be occupied with (a) your conference program and iPhone and (b) your coffee—which brings me to my second pointer: Starbucks is on every corner, but it is only one of the many options for good coffee in this city. Starbucks=umbrella. That’s all I’ll say on the matter.

And now to the real question: where should you eat? Although the convention center area is not the culinary epicenter of Seattle (the truth is that the food scene is spread out over the city’s quirky, far-flung neighborhoods), there are nonetheless options for you within a few blocks. For evening dining excursions farther afield, the city does have taxis (nota bene: they are not cruising along for you to hail but are staked out at hotels and available by telephone: try Yellow Cab at 206 622-6500 or Orange Cab at 206 522-8800).

So without further ado, I give you my recommendations for food in the center of Seattle, organized by closest to farthest neighborhoods from the convention venues, with the caveat that there are plenty of good, if not life-altering, spots for quick eats along the way.

Capitol Hill South, Downtown, Pike Place Market

Your tendency when leaving a hotel in this neighborhood of Seattle is to head down the hill toward the waterfront and Pike Place Market. But there are also some great places up the hill to the east. Head up Pike Street or Pine Street, walk a couple of blocks, cross I-5, and you will see the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is full of coffeehouses and small eateries.

Some standouts are the inventive family-style dishes at Sitka and Spruce; the lemongrass beef or drunken chicken sandwiches and hand-cut fries at Baguette Box; the unpretentious fare and inviting space at Oddfellows; poutine and burgers at Quinn’s—open evenings only; beautiful handcrafted pasta at Cascina Spinasse and small plates at its neighboring companion restaurant, Artusi Bar—evenings only; updated diner fare at Skillet—both the diner and the food truck; and fried plantains and grilled pineapple and avocado guacamole at Marjorie—evenings only.

Downtown restaurant high notes (and higher prices) include contemporary American offerings at Mistral Kitchen or RN74 and elevated comfort cuisine at the Coterie Room—evenings only.

One great moderately priced lunch spot downtown deserves a shout-out: Fare Start offers both delicious meals and culinary training and job placement service to folks transforming their lives after homelessness and other disadvantages. The program was a 2011 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award in food service.

The Pike Place Market is a great place to grab a snack (don’t overlook the stalls and small storefronts outside the market, along Pike Place and Post Alley), and there are also some lovely restaurants in and around the area. Try salmon chowder at Matt’s in the Market, cassoulet at Café Campagne, a fried chicken sandwich at Steelhead Diner, or charcuterie at Le Pichet.

Twelfth Avenue, International District, Pioneer Square, South Lake Union

East of downtown and north of Capitol Hill is the section of Twelfth Avenue that borders Seattle University. Head to Café Presse for great hot chocolate, French café fare, and foreign newspapers and magazines; to Lark for Pacific Northwest cuisine—evenings only; or to Ba Bar for sit-down versions of Asian-inflected street food.

South of downtown are Pioneer Square, the historic center of Seattle, and the International District. If you have plenty of time to stand in a line snaking around the block, try a sandwich at Salumi, run by Armandino Batali (yes, Mario’s dad)—lunch only. Otherwise, skip the tourists and head to the International District to try Taiwanese specialties at Henry’s Taiwan, dim sum at Jade Garden, or spot-on Vietnamese dishes at Green Leaf.

South Lake Union borders downtown on the north. The renowned restaurateur Tom Douglas has several venues along Westlake Avenue (Serious Pie for pizza, also with a location downtown, and Dahlia Workshop for biscuit sandwiches) and adjacent to the Amazon headquarters on Terry Avenue (Cuoco for Italian, Ting Momo for Asian, and Bravehorse Tavern for bar fare). All of Tom’s restaurants, both in SLU and downtown, can be researched at

You’ll Need a Taxi

If you’re looking for sushi, try Tamura on Eastlake Avenue East—evenings only. My go-to restaurants when friends visit from out of town are Eva Restaurant and Wine Bar—evenings only—and, for oysters, Renee Erickson’s Boat Street Café and the Walrus and the Carpenter.

You’ll Need a Ferry

If you should find yourself on Bainbridge Island, dine at Hitchcock—evenings only. For Orcas Island, you can’t do better than Allium in Eastsound. And if you go as far as Lummi Island, the Willows Inn serves food by Blaine Wetzel that the New York Times claims is worthy of a plane ride.


Finally, no Seattle dining guide worth its salt would end without mentioning the coffee culture in the city. While Starbucks had its start in Seattle and is ubiquitous, you can find other chains (Tully’s and Seattle’s Best) downtown, not to mention local favorites Caffe Vita and Victrola on Capitol Hill and Belle Epicurean and Caffé Senso Unico downtown.

These suggestions are really just the tip of the iceberg. The Seattle culinary landscape is varied and ever-changing, and I could have listed dozens of other must-visit destinations. The sad news is the good news: you’ll have to come back!

Jenifer Ward is associate provost at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She is a former president of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages.

© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 12/05/2011.