A Virgin's Voyage to Ivar's, Dick's, and Pagliacci

Our new food critic takes a fork to the holy trinity of Old Seattle cuisine.

The list was growing long--my wife Laura and I huddled on the couch, tapping away at laptops, trying to find the shape and texture of an entire city's restaurant scene while still living out of luggage and boxes that were fast becoming furniture."This looks good," she'd say, tilting her machine in my direction to show me some architectural plate stacked with butter lettuce and prawns, a white bowl of yellow curry, and a plate of beef shellacked in hoisin varnish and speckled with sesame seeds. I'd dutifully scribble down names and vague addresses on the legal pad I was filling, trying to connect one place to another nearby.Choosing where to eat is never an easy thing. There are so many variables, so many possibilities. And doing it blind—in a new town, with nothing to go on but instinct and appetite—is like playing culinary Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded but one. Luck is rare, disaster a nearly sure thing.Option paralysis—that's where we eventually found ourselves. Too many restaurants, not enough time, not enough resources, not enough data. "So what are we going to do, Jay? We need to eat somewhere..."On Saturday afternoon, we got lost. Driving around looking for one thing, we instead found a dozen others—dead-end condo developments, streets full of cold neon, a college, and the Space Needle, completely by accident.Laura was driving. I was navigating—which was why we were lost in the first place. And at a certain point, I got fed up with turning in endless, crooked circles, and decided I was hungry instead."Let's just park the car," I said. "I need to eat."Pagliacci Pizza is what we found, the original location on University Way—a neighborhood staple since 1979 and the breeding ground for something like two dozen disparate locations operating today. I had a vague handle on its local-chain-makes-good back story, but I knew Pagliacci was beloved. What I didn't know was anything about the food, which was easily remedied by stepping through the doors and ordering a lot of it, all at once.Pagliacci does slices, whole pies, pastas, calzones, and beers in the cooler behind the register. It's like a decently stocked house party on any campus in America, with decor in keeping with that theme—brightly painted walls, framed movie posters (all in Italian), tables covered with the detritus of whoever occupied them before you.We ordered a Salumi Primo (their brand-new seasonal) and some pasta and beers, and took our little flag to a table in the back, where we sat and waited.And waited.And waited.Pagliacci had maybe six people in the dining room while we sat there. There were more employees on the floor than customers, and yet it seemed as though no one was getting fed. Ten minutes, 15—I can understand that. Twenty minutes starts to push the boundaries of how long any pizza should reasonably take without some terrible tragedy occurring around the ovens. Good thing we had beers. Without them, there would've been no anchor holding Laura and I at the table, and as our wait stretched beyond 25 minutes, we likely would've just got up, drifted away, and gone for tacos or Thai food instead.Patience (and pale ale) won out, though, and eventually our pizza arrived—brought in a flurry of napkins, silver, plates, and apologies. A thin crust, golden and swollen at the bone, shaved fennel, sliced finocchiona salami from Salumi, cracked black pepper, mozzarella, fontina, and little blobs of cool ricotta set like tiny clouds against a cured-meat sky—it looked good and smelled of heat and char and the brine of pickled peppers.I pulled a slice, folded it delicately, ate it in four huge bites, and had another. The crust held up admirably under the weight of the toppings, which were each strong enough in their own right to balance one another—the fennel cooling the bite of the salami, the peppers brightening the smoothness of the ricotta. It was a good pie. Not stunningly so, not an instant killer, but solid and worthy of my knocking off half the thing at a sitting, boxing the remainder, and eating the rest that night at home. It occupied that weird middle ground between godawful chain delivery and heavyweight sit-down artisan pies, which, not for nothing, is a sweet place to be for any pizza outfit: a comfortably centrist position which leaves you worlds better than the worst pies out there and able to steal customers from the best simply by dint of accessibility.Too bad about that pasta, though: baked penne dressed in a tomato-and-cream sauce that tasted of neither, with five cheeses that combined all the savor of dry Parmesan out of a shaker and smelled, all together, like a foot. Dull, bland, soggy, and affectless, it was the kind of thing anyone might make when either too lazy or too drunk to core a tomato without hurting themselves.The only fun we got out of it was searching through the oozing sauce for the "fresh" basil. Laura finally found one wilted little leaf and held it up proudly, as though she'd discovered buried treasure.A couple days later, I was at the office when the fire alarm went off. People slowly made for the staircase, not panicking nearly as much as they do in the movies. Three flights down and we all end up on the sidewalk, staring up at the dark windows, waiting to see smoke, tongues of flame, anything.Come to find it wasn't a real fire, just some contractors tripping the alarm, but we didn't know that at the time. Neither, apparently, did the firemen who showed up. When it started looking as if there wasn't going to be any real action (read: Towering Inferno–style drama and heroics right there on Western Avenue), I started getting hungry. And when it became apparent that no one would get back into the office quickly, I decided a fire alarm was as good an excuse for lunch as anything else, so I worked my way to the edge of the crowd and made a run for it at the corner.Ivar's Acres of Clams was where I ended up—with convenience, closeness, and my own damnable laziness getting the better of common sense or good taste and landing me at a fine table, set for swells, looking out over the docks and water. Like Pagliacci, Ivar's has some history in this town: 70-odd years of it, to be exact, beginning as a way for founder and raconteur Ivar Haglund to sell fried fish to aquarium visitors, progressing through chowder, lobster thermidor, and oysters Rockfeller to several satellite locations.A run that long bestows on a restaurant one of two things: enough experience to turn venerable or so much exposure as to become a fixture—invisible to the locals, hidden in plain sight. Restaurants with some years behind them should continue to improve, grow, and change over the years while keeping true to their core ideals. They should attract customers by the generation—sons eating where their fathers did, daughters dining at Mother's old table. Trading mightily on the solidity and permanence of their presence, they should struggle doubly hard behind the scenes to stay relevant and loved, fighting with the kind of tooth-and-nail viciousness rarely seen in the aged outside of Hollywood or the modeling industry.Those who can do all of the above successfully become venerable. Those who can't rest on past laurels, trade on name recognition and ancient specialties, and live a kind of half-life as retro destinations for tourists and those who ate there the night of their senior prom.That, in a nutshell, is where Ivar's finds itself today. Why in all those 70 years couldn't someone figure out how to make a decent fish fry? One that didn't just lie there on the plate, blanding itself to death? The wild-caught salmon with herb butter, the goat-cheese-and-Portobello-stuffed chicken, the napoleon on the apps menu—all these were warhorse dishes 15 years ago. Serving them today comes off as a combination of deliberate anachronism, blind kowtowing to the culinary appetites of Midwestern sightseers, and always making sure there's something on the board that Grandma will be willing to eat before taking her bursitis medicine.The room at the downtown waterfront location is pretty and comfortable. I like the bar, the model ships, the windows looking out over the water and the working boats. The liveried servers are polite and know how to keep their thumbs out of the soup. But after two visits (one to the dining room, one to the fish bar next door), nothing I ate made me want to ever come back.At this point I had something of a theme going: classic Seattle. And my third restaurant was the first I chose with the calculated notion of getting something of a baseline read on the fertile soil from which Seattle's current restaurant scene sprung.So I went to Dick's.In the world of cheeseburgers, I subscribe to a kind of atomic model of judgment. At the center of a diagram of all the cheeseburgers out there—in the nucleus of ground-beef Americana—there is the ideal, the greatest cheeseburger in the nation. Lucky for me, I've had it. It's the green-chile cheeseburger served at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico, and it stands alone as the single greatest achievement in the cheeseburger maker's art.Around this Apollonian archetype circles a cloud of great, historic cheeseburgers, like electrons surrounding a nucleus. The Double-Double from In-N-Out is there, the cheeseburger with hot sauce from Schaller's in Rochester, New York, a Tommy Burger from L.A. Following a Bohr model, one shell out from these are the great restaurant burgers, and one shell out from that are the great situational burgers—ones which might be considered among the greats only under certain circumstances.This is where Dick's burgers come in. Hot and damp and a little bit sloppy, foil-wrapped for ease of consumption, made from meat that actually tastes like meat (and not like all those American kobe burgers jamming up menus these days), loosely packed and gummed together by melted cheese mixed with mayo and pickles and shredded lettuce—I would've killed for a burger place like this back when I was still drinking more and using my body like a chemistry set for testing strange and powerful pharmaceuticals. And because a part of me still remembers those days with blurry, nostalgic affection, I felt at home the minute I saw the long line snaking out from the walk-up window at the Dick's on Broadway: the off-duty cooks and waitresses, the night creatures, the midnight gleam of hunger and nausea in the eyes of the weaving club kids holding tight to the outside rail, eating by the yellow glow of headlights.Dick's fries are hand-cut, which is nice. But they're also kept under a heat lamp. So unless you time it just right, the ones you get will likely be soggy and limp. No matter when your bag of fries comes, though, they'll be salty as hell—which is excellent when you're drunk, tongue numbed by shots of Jäger, brain stuffed with cotton from one too many passes at the bong, or when you're still trying to fight off a hangover at 3 the next afternoon. The milkshakes are thick and rich, hand-blended from nothing but syrup, milk, and ice cream.But for me, it's really all about the burgers. Of course, this 56-year-old drive-in isn't making the greatest ones in the world. No one would expect it to. But what Dick's is doing is offering a lovely example of the situational-burger experience, a middle-of-the-night oasis for those badly in need of something to cut the gallons of beer sloshing around in their gut, a brightly lit landmark by which to steer through the dregs of the evening, a place where "good enough" can—with the addition of a little weed, a lot of whiskey, or just the right amount of youthful nostalgia—become something that approaches perfection.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

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