Eat the Waterfront

Seattle offers seaside dining that's a cut above average.

Widely wayfaring foodies soon learn one cardinal rule: In San Francisco or Stockholm, Marseilles or Macao, the seafood in a port city tends to get better the farther you get from the waterfront. For a long time, this rule applied to Seattle in spades: Everybody loved Ivar Haglund, but nobody tried to impress visiting gourmets at Acres of Clams or the Captain's Table. The seeds of change were planted with the opening of Ray's Boathouse out by Shilshole: an establishment dedicated not only to first-rate seafood but to first-rate seafood served all but unadorned. Many predicted that Ray's would never fly; on the contrary, it flourished, and little by little a new business template for waterside dining took shape in Seattle: Instead of trolling for uncritical tourists easily satisfied by local color and spacious views, restaurateurs began dishing up food good enough to draw locals, trusting that the tourists would come along for the ride. Up to a point, the formula has worked. The average quality of restaurants on Seattle's central waterfront is markedly higher than, say, on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. But long and bitter experience has shown that just serving good food is not enough to ensure success. With so many marvelous high-and-dry establishments to choose from and the faint whiff of "tourist" clinging even in wintertime, a waterfront restaurant needs something special to draw a good crowd, particularly in winter, when the dark clouds gather. Paul Mackey's Waterfront Pier 70 (2801 Alaskan Way, 206-956-9171) is a case in point. As would be expected from a Mackey restaurant, Waterfront provides a first-class seafood-oriented fine-dining experience. But when people are looking for a white-linen-and-crystal-goblet experience, the waterfront is not the first or even third place they consider looking. So last month, Waterfront came up with a decidedly unusual something special to draw the spotlight. The "Stormwatcher's Menu" is a $60 ($75 with wine) three-course, one-cocktail, prix-fixe menu specifically designed to make the diner feel toasty warm and tucked in despitebecause ofthe weather roiling the waves outside the vast picture windows. Something about the great view and the huge windows might emphasize the "stormwatcher's." It's a good angle: Ski lodges emphasize the indoor-outdoor contrastwhy not waterfront restaurants? JUST DOWN ALASKAN Way and on the other side of the tracks is the new Fish Club (2200 Alaskan Way, 206-256-1040), housed in the Marriott chain's new waterfront hotel. The brainchild of multinational restaurant-chain concept artist Todd English, it twists the fine-dining peg one notch tighter than Waterfront. It's one of those restaurants where every dish seems to come on or in its own special piece of crockery, where the servers seem to choke back tears if not allowed to complete their descriptive rhapsodies as each dish arrives. Nevertheless, the food is damn good, featuring a kind of high-class world tour of seafood ingredients and stylings. Too high class, perhapsdo hotel diners, most of them tourists or conference attendees at the nearby World Trade complex, really want such duded-up dining? Will Seattleites, who wear Michelin Man down and Birkies to opera openings, respond to such attempted elegance? English's past enterprises suggest that the Fish Club is a pilot for many more Marriott dining rooms to come. If so, it may not matter if the concept fails to fly here. If the Fish Club's railroad-side setting keeps its profile low, the Edgewater's house restaurant, Six Seven (2411 Alaskan Way, Pier 67, 206-269-4575), might as well be invisible. The hotel's owners announced six months or so ago that Six Seven was due for a makeover, but trade gossip has it that the consultants engaged to plan the fix-up concluded there was no need for one: Since nobody knew Six Seven was there anyway, why change anything? Just sell it better. It remains to be seen whether that will help draw any nonresident customers, given the hotel's arrogant valet-parking staff and totally weird guest-hostile lobby ambience. TO SEE HOW GOOD food, an easygoing ambience, and a special angle can combine to produce gangbusters business, look no further than Palisade (2601 W. Marina Place, 206-285-1000). Cozying up to the Elliott Bay Marina in the gloomy shadows of the Magnolia Bridge, Palisade challenges first-time visitors merely to find it, but the crowds packing the place even on winter weeknights show that once found, it has no trouble bringing them back. It's not surprising: Its first asset is the single best sea-level restaurant view in Seattle, wrapping all the way round from the twin stadiums to the tip of Alki and visible from virtually every table in the spacious room. A close second is the menu: People allergic to dining tiki-tiki soon discover that all the island kitsch is in the presentation, not the food. Mike Bryan's menu is a clever mix of seafood tradition and wicky-wacky trimmings, and you don't have to wash your dinner down with mai tais; the wine list is classy and extensive. All in all, Palisade is a great place to take those Midwestern relatives who aren't sure they really like seafood; they'll have so much fun devouring the pu-pu tower and the scallops two ways they won't even realize they're expanding their culinary horizons. For my money, the most admirable single operation on the central waterfront is the one that makes the least fuss about itself: Elliott's Oyster House (Pier 56, 1201 Alaskan Way, 206-623-4340). One of the Consolidated Restaurants group, Elliott's is so well located (midwaterfront at Pier 56) it could probably do well just shucking for tourists. Instead, it focuses on a menu offering all the touristy options but centered on a small, variable entr饠lineup featuring the very best seafood currently on the market. The ambience is so comfortable, you may not even realize how good the food is. The prices, though not low, are entirely justified by the excellence of the ingredients, plated in unfussy but enhancing preparations. You can get a view table at Elliott's, though the view's nothing to write home to Bozeman about. But you'll never know you missed it.

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