10 Iconic Seattle Restaurants That Everyone Needs to Try at Least Once

By Jackie Varriano  |  June 27, 2016
Credit: Cafe Flora

With the rate that the Seattle food scene is growing, it’s easy to only focus on what's hot and new. But we wouldn’t be at the culinary high point that we are today without the iconic restaurants that paved the way. Some of them are quaint, neighborhood joints serving up fresh handmade pastas and suckling pigs, while others are dramatic landmarks featuring tuxedoed waiters and immersive nine-course meals. These are the Seattle restaurants where everyone should eat at least once, the places that have weathered recessions, fickle palates and even fires to keep bringing the best wood-fired pizzas, coconut pies and clay pot catfish to Seattle. 

  • Credit: Cafe Flora

    Cafe Flora
    Year opened: 1991
    How it made its mark: This cozy little Madison Valley spot has been a haven for vegetarians for nearly 25 years. It is the place to go for seasonal vegetarian, vegan and even gluten-free options like Oaxaca tacos with cheesy mashed potatoes and black bean stew and a portobello Wellington.
    Why go now: Relax in the timeless greenery-filled atrium, noshing on summer squash blossom pizza and strawberry rhubarb salad. Or go for brunch for kombucha tonics, blueberry lemon curd pancakes and asparagus scrambles.

    2901 E. Madison St.; 206-325-9100

  • Credit: Dahlia Lounge

    Dahlia Lounge
    Year opened: 1989
    How it made its mark: Tom Douglas is now considered to be one of the titans in the Seattle food scene, but Dahlia Lounge was where it all began. It was the spot Downtown to get market-fresh food and helped earn Douglas his first James Beard Award in 1994.
    Why go now: Yes, you can still get coconut cream pie and bread salad — but fans also flock to this mainstay for roasted Peking duck, burrata with Calabrian chiles​ and bowls of farro studded with fiddlehead ferns.

    2001 Fourth Ave; 206-682-4142

  • Credit: El Gaucho/Facebook

    El Gaucho
    Year opened: 1996
    How it made its mark: Paul Mackay first opened his Belltown steakhouse in homage to the original (1953–1985), bringing tuxedoed waiters tableside emulsifying dressing for Caesar salads, chopping steak tartare and carving Châteaubriand. Now his son Chad runs the show, which has expanded to include El Gaucho spots in Tacoma, Portland, Bellevue and along Seattle’s waterfront at Aqua.
    Why go now: The old-school cigar room may no longer be in use, but exceptional service is one thing that never gets old. While steakhouse classics like escargot and French onion soup are still on offer, there are always seasonal updates like sautéed fiddlehead ferns and roasted corn to accompany your hunk of perfectly prepared meat. Go there now to enjoy a bottle of its special 20th-anniversary Cab.

    2505 First Ave; 206-728-1337

  • Credit: Colin Bishop

    Cafe Lago
    Year opened: 1990
    How it made its mark: Not only has daily fresh pasta been the name of the game at Cafe Lago since this slice of Italy opened in Montlake, but it was the first restaurant in Seattle to feature a wood-fired pizza oven. And the restaurant still sources Applewood from Wenatchee for margherita pizzas and more.
    Why to go now: Classics like the béchamel lasagna never get old, but there are also tantalizing seasonal specials to be had. Get there in July for dinner for two that includes salads, a shared appetizer and two entrees ($45).

    2305 24th Ave. E; 206-329-8005

  • Credit: Maneki

    Year opened: 1904
    How it made its mark: Any restaurant that was opened at the turn of the century, shuttered (and subsequently ransacked) during the Japanese internment, reopened in 1946 and continues to be one of the toughest tables in town is one to be celebrated. It's the place people come to kick back, celebrate and be treated like family as they down plate after plate of snacks. 
    Why go now: For the same reason people have been going to Maneki for 100 years: incredibly fresh sushi, Japanese drinking snacks like tako-yaki, chilled tofu hiya-yakko, pork croquettes and chicken karagge and sake.

    304 Sixth Ave S; 206-622-2631

  • Credit: Ray's Boathouse/Facebook

    Ray’s Boathouse
    Year opened: 1945/1973
    How it made its mark: Ray Lichtenberger first opened his Ray’s Boathouse coffee shop on Shilshole Bay in 1945, constructing the now iconic red Ray’s sign in 1952. Things were casual, with coffee and fish and chips, until new owners refurbished the boathouse into a seafood restaurant in 1973. It quickly became the spot to highlight local Olympia oysters, spot prawns and Copper River salmon.
    Why go now: Not only has the incredible view of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound remained unchanged, the seafood is as good as it has ever been. Also, Ray’s has survived two fires, expanded its rooftop deck, added more casual fare, and put in new window seats this past spring.

    6049 Seaview Ave NW; 206-789-3770

  • Credit: Tulio

    Year opened: 1992
    How it made its mark: This upscale Italian spot located inside the Hotel Vintage Downtown was the spot for power lunches and celebrity sightings, all done with impeccable service and delicate, homemade pasta.
    Why go now: Chef Walter Pisano serves up timeless favorites like sweet potato gnocchi alongside creamy burrata with fava beans, clam linguine and rib-eye. He’s also built an impressive grappa library, with more than 40 labels to swirl, smell and sip.

    1100 Fifth Ave; 206-624-5500

  • Credit: Amber Fouts

    Year opened: 1999
    How it made its mark: This recently expanded Capitol Hill spot was one of the first to present Vietnamese food in a stylish, contemporary way. Sibling owners Eric and Sophie Banh won hearts with crispy imperial rolls, catfish served bubbling in a clay pot and lốt, and they even opened a Bellevue outpost of Monsoon in 2008. 
    Why go now: Last year Monsoon opened a rooftop bar, complete with a slushie machine spinning two icy cocktails perfect for hot summer nights. Alongside the original favorites, check out hot seasonal items like sautéed sweet corn with morels and grilled bavette with butter lettuce, pineapple and cucumber.

    615 19th Ave. E; 206-325-2111

  • Credit: The Herbfarm/Facebook

    The Herbfarm
    Year opened: 1986
    How it made its mark: Washington’s answer to Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, The Herbfarm has long been the gold standard in hyper-local, seasonal food. A fire destroyed the original restaurant in 1997, but the Herbfarm kept going, and after a bit of shuffling opened in its current Woodinville digs in 2001, sourcing much of its produce (and two pigs) from its own farm. Many Seattle heavyweights have passed through the kitchen including Jerry Traunfeld (Lionhead, Poppy) and Edouardo Jordan (Salare).
    Why go now: The nine-course themed tasting menu changes weekly and chef Chris Weber always has something special up his sleeve. Themes for this summer include June’s Silver Spoon, Nine Songs of Summer, and The 100-Mile Dinner. There’s only one seating per night for the five-hour dinner, and it’s always an incredible experience.

    14590 NE 145th St; 425-424-2925

  • Credit: The Harvest Vine

    Harvest Vine
    Year opened: 1998
    How it made its mark: When this neighborhood staple opened in Madison Valley, it felt like a private club where chefs knew your name. Bateau’s Taylor Thornhill and Justin Legaspi both cut their teeth at the Basque spot, turning Seattleites on to plates of dry-cured chorizos, delicate tortilla espanola and multitudes of Spanish cheeses.
    Why go now: The open kitchen is still as mesmerizing as it was when the doors were first opened. Go for the grilled pata negra pig, the blistered Padrón​ peppers and a bottle of Spanish red.

    2701 E. Madison St; 206-320-9771