Back to the Classics

Some longtime Seattle restaurants stay on top by delivering quality. Some rely on nostalgia. And others depend on the kindness of tourists.

The first restaurant your parents took you to where you couldn't color on the tablecloth. The place where you and your husband celebrated your first, 10th, and 20th anniversaries. The place you've sent so many out-of-town guests to that you feel like you've earned a free banquet.There's a class of restaurants in Seattle that have transcended restaurant criticism and foodie gossip, transcended being both trendy and passé. They just are, and at the age of 20—or in some cases, 60—these quiet classics keep drawing customers. Half of Seattle likes to claim these restaurants are as amazing as ever; half declare they have gone downhill. Few can back up their strong opinions with hard data, and everyone takes them for granted. Over the past two months, I set out to visit a number of them.* As a newcomer to this town, it felt like attending someone else's 20-year high-school reunion. Which ones used to be the cool kids? What was that guy with the pleated khakis and the trophy wife really like at 18? No context. No nostalgia. Then again, no ill-formed prejudices picked up from my boyfriend's boss' story of his 1989 engagement party. Some, I thought, are in step with Seattle's evolving restaurant scene, while others seem to be showing their age. One may be entering a second midlife crisis. However, whether I'd send my own out-of-town friends to these seven places or not, I have enormous respect for each one. In a Darwinian business that eviscerates the idealism and the bank accounts of all but the most driven restaurateurs, it takes passion and commitment to keep a restaurant alive for 20 years. Ray's Boathouse and Cafe [1945] For the first 30 years of its existence, this 61-year-old restaurant was primarily a lunch counter where you'd find off-duty Scandinavian fishermen hanging out with amateurs who'd just spent the morning casting lines from one of Ray Lichtenberger's rented boats. According to current chef Charles Ramseyer, dramatic shift number one came when a team of professionals, led by Russ Wohlers, transformed the fish-and-chips shop into a real restaurant specializing in wild seafood purchased from local fishing boats. "They were the first Seattle restaurant to put calamari and whitefish on the menu," Ramseyer says, "as well as Olympia River oysters and Copper River salmon." Dramatic shift number two: a massive fire that burned down the building in 1987. It took a year for the owners to rebuild, and when they did, they added a second story to house a casual cafe. Since then, the remote restaurant with its spectacular Puget Sound view has been one of the city's must-visits, attracting tourists from all over the world. Ramseyer, a Swiss-born chef who'd toured the Pacific Northwest with the Four Seasons hotel chain, came on board 14 years ago. "My job," he says, "is to secure the best-quality seafood in the Pacific Northwest, from San Francisco to northern Alaska, and whatever is in season is important to us." Over the years, he's expanded his mission to include sustainably grown, local vegetables and meats, too. Perhaps due to its tourist-destination reputation, I've heard more local Seattleites report to me that the quality of the food has slipped, but I found every piece of fish that I tasted sublime. The stuff surrounding the actual seafood—the salads, the side dishes, the sauces—varied in quality from ho-hum to delightful, but the actual meat, from the Alaskan coho salmon to the sea scallops, was all finesse. My smoked Chatham Strait sablefish was a revelation: the outside of the creamy white filet only brushed with wood smoke, and the interior flesh tasted as if Ramseyer had molded it out of butter. A downstairs meal can cost you $80 if you drink lightly, and after the light fades, the interior becomes just another seaside restaurant. So the best way to enjoy Ray's, longtime Ballard residents have told me, is to race home from work, pick up the kids, and run up the steps to the cafe so you can secure one of the tables closest to the edge of the patio, bundle up with blankets, and watch the sun set over the Sound while you snack on crab cakes and fried calamari. Ray's Boathouse 6049 Seaview Ave., 206-789-3770, Canlis [1950] It's hard to think of Canlis as revolutionary, but back in 1950, when Peter Canlis moved from Hawaii to Seattle, he created a formal restaurant that defied all the conventions of formality: The chefs didn't hide back in the kitchen but grilled—grilled!—steaks where the customers could see them. Instead of tuxedo-clad waiters parading in French formation, Canlis staffed the floor with Japanese women wearing elegant kimonos. Not only did his Asian-influenced food capitalize on America's post-Prohibition fascination with tikitude, but Canlis turned out to be a master restaurateur. He, and then his children, ran a restaurant so well that they were able to transfer it to the third generation. In the restaurant world, that's practically immortal. Since 2003, Peter's grandson Mark Canlis, who last year was joined by younger brother Brian, has been working to move the institution into the future without violating its past. "People have a deep-founded respect for the family," he says of his decision to make sure a Canlis remained at Canlis. "If we turn our back, it's like walking away from a friendship." It's a tricky dance, the pas de deux between new and old, but he seems to have mastered the steps. Mark's latest round of renovations simply freshened the decor, whose rock walls and steep angles have cycled back into fashion. Chef Aaron White has retained signature dishes such as the steak tartare and the Peter Canlis shrimp, rephrasing the rest in 2006 terms. The Canlises have maintained all the markers of a classic restaurant, including the wine list as thick as a photo album and the magic valets who drive your car to the door just as you're exiting the building (an impressive trick that will never grow old). There are waiters who wear their formality like a uniform—just a little too starched to look comfortable—and others, like the ones who served me during my Canlis meal, who seem born to the suit. With the exception of a white corn and red pepper risotto whose flavors never knit together, White's food was exactly as it should be, the duck breast (with beluga lentils and a cherry reduction sauce) a rosy, moist medium; a vanilla crème brûlée as sensual as an Anaïs Nin novel. "Roasted halibut with fingerling potatoes, caramelized honshimeji mushrooms, and tobikko" reads like a risky East-West combo, but it doesn't taste ambitious; it tastes hearty and good. In the days after I returned from my meal, I heard a lot of jokes about dining with the blue hairs. Around my table were meeting-the-parents dinners, professional-conference outings, and 30th-anniversary celebrations: definitely a more established crowd than the regulars at the kinds of places I frequent on my own time, but far from a country-club atmosphere. Canlis is still the kind of place where you have to earn a seat with a view of Lake Union, either by dint of a special occasion or by accruing influence. But Seattle needs a few of those kinds of restaurants, and the younger Canlises deserve a lot of respect for running theirs right. Canlis 2576 Aurora Ave. N., 206-283-3313, Elliott's Oyster House [1975] Current–day manager Greg Hinton describes the Fish and Oyster Company's early menu as "Northwest seafood and fish and chips," in tune with the Seattle of the 1970s, with far more fried food than the kitchen produces today. As Seattle passed through the 1980s and 1990s, Elliott's focused more and more on wild salmon and other sustainable seafood. Eight years ago, it installed a giant oyster bar and began promoting mollusk love. Smart move: Though Elliott's is primarily a tourist destination (not surprising given its waterfront location), the oyster "program" has kept it in the guidebooks and magazines. At the height of the R-months, the oyster bar stocks as many as 30 varieties, all shucked before an audience of hungry customers, and on summer evenings the windowside tables are never empty. Even in a non-R month, bivalves are probably the best reason to go to Elliott's. The waiters seem conversant in everything from European flats to Kumamotos, and the one, two, or four dozen you order come nestled on a platter of ice and seaweed, with lemon wedges and a lovely pink-peppercorn mignonette sorbet that slices elegantly through. Every variety I tried tasted of the clean, cold ocean. The massive restaurant bustles even on its quiet nights, and there is a high-volume tinge to the cooked dishes. A seafood cobb lined mounds of sweet pink bay shrimp, crab meat, crumbled hard-boiled eggs, avocado, and, of course, bacon and blue cheese, but not enough rosemary vinaigrette (a whiff of the forest on the beach), and the white king salmon napped with a sundried-tomato caper butter sauce was overcooked and dry. But if the restaurant has one other signature dish, it's the crab, primarily Dungeness or Alaskan king. Served in its simplest guise—steamed with drawn butter and lemon—the crab was easy to screw up, and so Elliott's skilled cooks didn't. Elliott's Oyster House 1201 Alaskan Way, Pier 56, 206-623-4340, www.elliotts Maximilien [1976] "Do you still serve your Market fish stew?" the middle-aged tourist asked Axel Macé, co-owner of Maximilien, as he and his wife quizzed Macé about reservations while I slipped into the restaurant. "Sometimes it's on the menu, sometimes no," Macé hedged. "It was so wonderful when I had it 20 years ago," the man said dreamily. Which illustrates exactly why you'd want to buy a 30-year-old restaurant. Maximilien was started by the exuberantly Gallic Francois Kissel and his American wife, Julia, whose first restaurant had been the iconic bistro Brasserie Pittsbourg in Pioneer Square. In 1997, the Kissels retired, selling Maximilien to long-term employees Macé and Eric Francy, who cleaned out the place, freshened the menu, and shocked the aging restaurant out of life-support mode. Today, some of the polish has worn off the food and room once again. Announcing itself to Market visitors in pink neon swirls, Maximilien has the look of a long-loved restaurant. The dark-green walls, the bistro chairs—which, my friend said happily, forced you to swivel your torso and tuck your arms inside the chair arms like you did as a child—could be the set for any movie filmed between 1975 and 1995. Few diners pay attention to the interior, anyway, once the waiter opens the shutters: Both the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms are filled with couples looking out over the Sound, and the owners have hung mirrors on the opposing wall for the martyrs facing the other direction. I know, I know. It's fashionable to pooh-pooh a good view, but it can really make an evening. Just as standing on a hilltop encourages the thinking of Big Thoughts, when you're spending an evening watching the sky and the water go peach and then blue-black, a plate of scallops can take on mystical overtones. Chef Francy aims for a balance of what Americans expect to eat at Pike Place Market and what they expect from a French restaurant: smoked salmon and warm spinach salad with raspberry vinegar alternate on the menu with escargots, foie gras, and tournedos Rossini. Bourgeois fare in either case, his food can come off as classic—such as an entrée of velvety sea scallops in a white-wine butter sauce with creamy-centered potato croquettes— or well-here-you-go-then, like a salade niçoise (seared tuna fillets, skinny haricots verts, black olives, anchovies, hardboiled eggs, bell peppers) that called out for fewer bagged mixed greens and a lustier, more mustardy vinaigrette to cut through the eggs and tuna and bring the salty cured fish in line. Also a cultural amalgam, Maximilien's wonderful service strips the formality from French fine dining while retaining its sense that a waiter is there to facilitate the meal, not color it with his or her presence. Service this good, like the view, never goes out of style. Maximilien 81A Pike St., 206-682-7270, Cafe Juanita [1977] Back when he waited tables, Peter Dow always thought he wanted to open a French restaurant, before he realized he was more of an Italian kind of guy. He opened his cafe in a house in Kirkland by Juanita Creek, serving no more than four or five entrées, which he priced affordably and changed every season, and making his own pasta. He got so popular, so quickly, that customers had a month's wait for a table. "It became a burden," he says, "because a couple who waited for a month could be divorced by the time they came, or were expecting too much out of their meal." So, in 1979, he moved a block and a half away to a larger ranch-style house. The buzz eventually died down (at one point, in fact, he was three weeks away from closing until a rave review in the Argus saved the business), and Dow enjoyed a 20-year run, making the simple, seasonal Italian-inspired food that he loved, and more and more, making wine in his basement. One longtime food writer recalled that, at crush time, he could smell the grapes fermenting from the far end of the parking lot. Eventually, Dow's wine business pushed out the restaurant business, and he sold the latter in 2000 to a bright young chef named Holly Smith. Smith turned the place inside out, and now entering the doors is like walking into a kiwi: From the dowdy exterior you'd have no idea how gorgeous the olive-hued restaurant is—straight out of a Dwell pictorial, sleek and cozily romantic at the same time. Smith has intensified Juanita's commitment to local ingredients, and her dishes read like odes to Seattle's seasons—right now a sonnet to game and huckleberries, mushrooms, and the last, spectacular, summer eggplants. She's doing everything I love. Despite the fact that Smith has won every accolade imaginable, including a spot on the 2006 Gourmet list of best restaurants in America, her kitchen delivered one of the worst dishes I've eaten in months: rabbit with chanterelles and a chickpea-flour crepe. The roast loin was sublime, but the braised leg and sauce (made from the reduced braising liquid) was salted so heavily that it stung my tongue; I even shied away from my favorite mushrooms, which were saturated with sauce. I felt so guilty for not having sent the dish back and given the kitchen another chance that I returned a few weeks later. On visit two, no one dish was so appalling, but again, all the meats were succulently roasted, and every sauce and risotto salted beyond reason, which means that someone in the kitchen is not tasting his or her food. Despite the perfection of a green bean salad dressed in crème fraîche and pastry chef Sara Novesky's sensual olive oil gelato—one of the most memorable desserts I tried—I was left hoping that Smith would remedy the problem fast instead of letting Cafe Juanita coast on its reputation. Cafe Juanita 9702 N.E. 120th Pl., 425-823-1505, Campagne [1985] Twenty-one years ago, Peter Lewis opened a Capitol Hill bistro specializing in country French food in the spirit of those Berkeley folks who worshiped Elisabeth David's cookbooks and named their places after Marcel Pagnol films. Two years after he launched Campagne, a spot at the Pike Place Market opened up, and Lewis wisely jumped on it. Seattle's enthusiastic response—and the steady influx of tourists—confirmed that Lewis had picked the right place, right time, and the right menu. His original concept has been revitalized several times. In 1994, the restaurateur opened the more casual Cafe Campagne downstairs, specializing in the "rustic" part of "rustic French" so the upstairs could focus on the upscale. In 2000, Campagne regular and real-estate baron Simon Snellgrove bought into the business, taking over much of the day-to-day management. Most importantly, when well-regarded chef Tamara Murphy moved on to found her own restaurant, Brasa, Lewis promoted Daisley Gordon to executive chef. A Francophile and Culinary Institute of America grad, Gordon has kept pace with the city's food scene. For example, Campagne was the only one of the seven restaurants I visited to serve a new-millennium trend like the green-pea foam tracing a jade-colored ring around roasted wild king salmon on a truffled potato salad (truffles and salmon and mayonnaise, oh my!). Yet he also swings über-classic in dishes like his charcuterie plate, where a dash of cognac in the smooth, meaty pork rillettes haunts the nose and where velvety slices of veal tongue are saturated with the herb-infused stock the meat was braised in. One warm evening at Campagne, when I sat on the patio instead of mooning over the Market view from the marigold-walled dining room, I encountered a few off notes (an oddly bland guinea fowl, a meaty cousin to the pheasant, surrounded by a salt-sludge reduction sauce). But they were outweighed by pleasant surprises (a warm cucumber soup, the vegetable used more like an herb than a primary ingredient). On the whole, Gordon's food found a smart balance between clean and rich, and the waiters enacted all of the little fine-dining rituals, such as the between-course changing of the silverware and the post-entrée decrumbing of the table, that seem so fussy when you subject them to post-Marxist critique and so gracious when you don't. Campagne 86 Pine St., 206-728-2800, Rover's [1986] Aspiring restaurateurs, here's your first lesson in how not to start up a classic restaurant: When Thierry Rautureau and a partner (who moved on in 1991) bought 15-month-old Rover's off its founding chef, who was eager to flee back to Los Angeles, the new chef didn't clean out the old one's fridge. Nor his menu. "We got the key on Sunday night and opened on Monday morning, serving his food," Rautureau laughs. It's hard to imagine one of the Northwest's most refined chefs putting out two to three meals a day of New American (roast chicken with herbs, warm spinach salad), but he did, for a year, until he realized he was burning out and not making enough money. "That's when I said, if we're going to be poor, I'm going to do what I want to do," he says. What he wanted to do became, over the next 19 years, one of Seattle's most celebrated showcases for Pacific Northwest haute cuisine. To the public, Rautureau is "the chef in the hat," with a celeb-chef cookbook and a James Beard Award to boot. Yet he complains that diners think of his restaurant as a museum, something they anticipate visiting for 10 years instead of stopping in for a few plates and a glass of wine. Is it the once-in-a-blue-moon cost, which Rautureau has tried to soften by offering the dishes in his famous prix-fixe meals à la carte? Is it the Madison Valley location, tucked so deep in a suite of grandma-cottage offices that you can get lost walking back from the street? Is it the ambience, designed so you don't waste time admiring anything but your tablemates and your plates? My initial reaction to the suburban-print burgundy carpet and the off-white walls, garnished only with a few Chagall-esque paintings and drapes, reminded me of my first impression of the French Laundry down in Napa. Waiting for the $90 five-course dinner (or $80 vegetarian or $125 eight-course meal, if you choose) to begin, I wondered: What's the hype about? The food. It's amazing how timeless, how fresh French technique is when it's used to glorify local, seasonal ingredients instead of Frenchitude itself. Rautureau nods to a number of current trends—salumi plates, Kobe beef—yet goes his own way, his cooks doing dozens of delicate little things with dozens of delicate ingredients. It's a meal whose every nuance is considered, down to the tiny dots of sauce that garnish the amuse-bouche, and so well prepared that a lover of good food doesn't have to waste time divining the cook's original intention from what actually ends up crossing his or her palate. Not to say that dishes like a silky roasted squab breast with cauliflower mushrooms or a scallop topped with a fat slice of seared foie gras don't go for the gut, but I found myself, as I rarely get to do, engaged with the dishes in the same way that I would be with a play or an abstract painting: studying the composition, meditating on what each bite told of the seasons and of my own sense of taste and smell. I can see why the hushed-voice service (flawless), the doorstop wine list, and the swank food make people who don't go out to dinner as much as I do feel like they need to save up, both psychically and financially, for Rover's. But Rautureau swears that I can "pop in" his restaurant for a $60 meal, a dare I may take him up on some day. Rover's 2808 E. Madison St., 206-325-7442,

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