Bistro, Schmistro

Circa's regulars help keep West Seattle's populist pub chuggin'.

IT WAS A DARK and stormy night—no really, it was. It was one of those blustery, wet autumn evenings that carry a stern message: The next nine months of your life are going to be gray, gray, gray. Reflecting on that grim forecast, it felt really good to pull open Circa's heavy glass door against the wind and step inside the warm, lively, blood- orange dining room. It would have felt even better if we hadn't been stopped in our tracks just inside the entrance; we weren't the only ones who wanted to come in from the elements, and we weren't the only ones willing to line up and wait a while once we got inside. "A while" was about as close an approximation as we could infer from the aproned body we eventually flagged down; she took our name but didn't give us any idea of how long we might expect to wait. A patient couple seated to our left, sensing our confusion, told us that it wouldn't be long. They also suggested the steak salad and, like good proxy hosts, motioned toward the small bar and its 13 foreign and domestic microbrews on tap. When a few more cold and windswept types blew in off the street, they, too, turned to the patiently seated regulars who again communicated a laid-back assurance and motioned toward the bar. I hoped the staff would tip them at the end of the evening. Circa is West Seattle's populist community pub. You get the feeling the management would like to call themselves a "bistro" and you get the feeling that the neighborhood couldn't care less what they call it. Circa is almost always crowded, and with good reason: Good people want good food. Somewhere between ambitious and comforting, Circa's menu includes plenty of the fare you'd expect from a Northwest neighborhood alehouse (beer-battered fish and chips with hand-cut fries, $11.95), and a few outliers, too. The Oaxaca tacos with their hefty fillings of mashed potatoes (topped with chipotle sour cream and black bean stew for $12.95) seemed a little out of place, until you encounter the same whipped spuds as a side with another entrée—perhaps the thin-sliced, bacon-wrapped, and veal demi- glaced much-better-than-average meatloaf ($12.95)—and you imagine that the kitchen just couldn't relegate the hearty, straightforward starch to Americana meals only. Similarly, that same black bean stew, really just a soupier spin on your favorite frijoles negros, came alongside my perfectly executed cumin-crusted mahi mahi (the special of that particular dark and stormy night, $14.95). It was paired with a sweet mango sauce with sumptuous accord. The vegetable portion of the dish, mostly baby squash that was cooked perfectly al dente, was done wonderfully as well, but one hardly notices when there's a juicy-and-spicy piece of fish and Circa's hand-cut fries on the side. Shoestring-thin and fried crisp to sublimity, they nearly stole the show. Returning for brunch a few days later, we found a similar assortment of familiar and sort of far out. A "mud bug" omelet ($7.95) is offered; if crawdaddies, provolone, and Creole sauce sound like a good way to start your day, you're in luck. Vegetarians are well served with the "potato works" (a fresh, healthy mess of grilled potatoes, baby squash, mushrooms, avocado, cheese, and salsa for $7.95) and meat lovers will not leave disappointed. Dishes like Louisiana eggs Benedict ($8.25), wherein a classic is tweaked just slightly to include tasso ham and andouille sausage, and Hawaiian sweet bread French toast (served with spicy Portuguese sausage for $8.95) hint at owner—and sometime kitchen wrangler—Chris Wissmer's background; he grew up in Hawaii, and his nostalgia for that culture is properly channeled at Circa. With a laid-back atmosphere coloring the overall experience (staff seem like West Seattleites, too, and the place really does seem to run itself—with a little help from the regulars), Circa is one of those places that could very easily be commonplace and dull. But because the kitchen puts out such consistent quality despite the fact that it's just a neighborhood alehouse, Circa is actually quite remarkable. 2605 California Ave. S.W., 206-923-1102. WEST SEATTLE Lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., Dinner 5 p.m.–Close (flexible, usually midnight or earlier) Mon.–Sun., Brunch 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat.–Sun.

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