For any longtime Seattleite, the evolution of Ballard into one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods sometimes elicits a shake of the head. For decades the domain of elderly Scandinavians, the butt of at least a third of the jokes on Almost Live, and largely a food wasteland outside of Ray’s Boathouse, Ballard’s status as the most vibrant part of Seattle’s food scene seems hard to believe. But here we are.
The clearest sign of this is the sheer amount of money being invested in the area. Bastille established that large, lavishly decorated restaurants could succeed outside Seattle’s downtown core, and the recently opened Stoneburner is continuing that tradition. As more and more condominiums and high-end apartment buildings open, and as the city continues to recover economically, expect the trend to accelerate. But amid the flurry of “sophisticated” newcomers, there’s still striking diversity, with plenty of room for dive bars, ethnic hole-in-the-walls, and homey brunch spots—to name just a few.
Geographically, Ballard’s food scene centers around Ballard Avenue. The southern border is marked by Renee Erickson’s The Walrus and the Carpenter and Ethan Stowell’s Staple and Fancy, two restaurants housed within one building. That model laid the groundwork for a sort of restaurant symbiosis that Erickson later replicated with The Whale Wins, which shares space with Joule over in Fremont—a neighborhood that’s shaping up to quite possibly be next year’s Best Food Neighborhood.
While the city as a whole has jumped on the oyster craze, Walrus still manages to remain at the top of the heap (or perhaps the midden) with impeccable freshness and a delicious assortment of smallish plates, with the grilled sardines a particular highlight. Staple and Fancy’s emphasis on family-style Italian dining and eclectic wine list make it a jewel in Stowell’s crown.
Walking the length of Ballard Avenue highlights the mixed bag of the neighborhood’s offerings. You’ve got 20-somethings celebrating the weekend by congregating at bars like King’s Hardware, BalMar, and the Matador. There’s the much-beloved La Carta de Oaxaca, packed nightly by crowds looking for a fix of mole pork and banana leaf–wrapped tamales, while Shiku proves that sushi and craft cocktails can coexist.
Intimate spaces also abound: Ocho remains one of Seattle’s best tapas spots, offering a bevy of creative takes on classic Spanish dishes, while Hazlewood is one of the city’s least-appreciated cocktail bars; the upstairs couches are one of Seattle’s great first-date settings. Then there’s the savior of more than one of my mornings, the chicken-fried chicken and eggs at Hattie’s Hat, which somehow seemed slightly tastier when they called it the Mother and Child Reunion.
But Ballard’s food offerings don’t just straddle its main avenue. Just north of Market Street you’ll find Cafe Munir, source of some of the best Lebanese food in the city, while to the east you’ll find our best pizza, Delancey (see page 73). Ditto The Fat Hen, with its small but classic brunch menu, or Se ñ or Moose, the recently spruced-up but still homey Mexican joint on Leary Avenue.
Then of course there’s Ray’s Boathouse. While it might be the venerable ancient among Seattle’s seafood restaurants, Ray’s remains a source for consistent, well-executed food, and the upstairs cafe boasts one of Seattle’s greatest views. Plus, an ambitious remodel has updated the decor.
Another Ballard longtimer—established in 1990—is one of Seattle’s oldest, largest, and most successful farmers markets, offering an eclectic mix of farmed goods, prepared foods, and flowers plopped among the street’s trendy boutiques (retro furniture, expensive frocks) and restaurants. A touchstone for the neighborhood, summer Sundays at the market, in particular, take on a tone of revelry, with street musicians, kids and dogs playing, and the sun shining. It’s one place you’re likely to see a sampling of all the types of people who call Ballard home—or at least their favorite dining destination.
Sure, there are other great food neighborhoods in Seattle; we live in a city with a rapidly growing food culture, and Ballard can’t rest on its laurels. But for this year at least, it stands apart for its stellar collection of culinary choices, a diverse crowd, and density. What a difference a decade or two makes.