The New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, recently devoted two full pages with color photos to “Seattle’s 25 best restaurants right now.” The chosen 25, picked from the city’s 2,500 eating places, serve up a melting pot of cuisines heavily weighted toward Asian and Filipino specialties with – and here’s a surprise – very few Pacific Northwest or middle America standards included.
Also surprising is the number of Seattle’s “25 best” located in small and even tiny quarters. One locale selected — Off Alley — is a Rainier Avenue restaurant that serves continental dishes including fried pig head with preserved cherries and Walla Walla onions, in a 6-by-4-foot room with only 12 seats.
The text accompanying the New York Times story explains that the “Seattle’s best right now” story is another in the newspaper’s “Where to Eat: 25 Best” series. (New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco restaurants have been similarly spotlighted.) The New York Times explains the best list will be updated “as restaurants close and open and we find new gems to recommend.”
To select Seattle’s best, the New York Times assigned Teja Rao, the paper’s California-based critic, as well as hiring two locals — Bethany Jean Clement and Brian Gallagher. Clement has been a Seattle Times restaurant critic since 2014 while Gallagher works as an editor on the Seattle daily’s food desk. For each chosen restaurant one of the three provided a capsule review describing that restaurant’s strengths.
For example, when assessing Blotto, a pizza restaurant on 12th Avenue, Clement wrote, “Tucked into the ground floor of a Capitol Hill house, the tiny Blotto makes pizza with a mighty flavor.” Gallagher reviewed Taurus Ox, a Lao establishment on 19th Avenue East, saying, “In a world that may have passed peak burger some time ago, it’s not often a compelling new example of the form emerges. But the Taurus Ox Lao burger manages to be just that.”
Although picking some relative newcomers, the three critics didn’t totally ignore all Seattle’s former headliners. Included in the listing were a few of Seattle’s top-rated establishments: the 73-year-old Canlis was lauded for changing with the times, along with chef Rachel Yang’s Joule, Tamara Murphy’s Terra Plata, and chef Renee Erickson’s atypical steakhouse Bateau and her unmatched Ballard flagship, The Walrus and the Carpenter.
There’s no doubt the three critics were given a daunting task selecting from so many possibilities. Not a simple task, nor one that will be universally admired. It is standard practice to second guess restaurant critics. Reviewers are always certain to hear complaints about why they picked the winners they did and why they didn’t pick others, such as critical favorites like Spinasse, Assagio, Shiro’s, Lola, or Tillikum Place (the restaurant that serves authentic Dutch Babies).
But when it comes to critiquing critics, I can sympathize from personal experience. Years ago when I was a Seattle Post-Intelligencer staffer, I was one of the paper’s four food critics, writing part time (my day job was producing a city column four days a week). When my reviews were published, I received many brickbats and few bouquets. It goes with the territory.
Recently, I pulled out some of the reviews I’d written decades ago, thinking it would be a miracle if any were around today. Yet there are a handful that have endured these many years: iconic establishments like the Pink Door, Salty’s on Alki, Canlis, Ray’s Boathouse, The Hunt Club, Place Pigalle, Palisade, and Café Sport (Tom Douglas’ first restaurant now renamed Etta’s Big Mountain BBQ).
But many of the several hundred I reviewed – about 50 percent – are gone today. Many vanished quickly; others took a while to become a memory. Names of departed establishments include the Cloud Room, Mirabeau, Brasserie Pittsbourg, Le Gourmand, Victor Rosellini’s Four-10 and the Nine-10 that he ran with Mick McHugh of F. X. McRory fame. (After closing McRory’s, McHugh helped set up the 32 Bar and Grill overlooking the Kraken Community Ice Complex at Northgate.)
One of the important things I learned as a restaurant critic is the depressing reality that the average life of a restaurant is one year. That’s right: just one year. It takes a great deal of savvy – financial, managerial, and culinary – to run a successful restaurant. The New York Times was being realistic when it promised to update a city’s 25 best “as restaurants close and open, and we find new gems to recommend.”
One can expect the New York Times to be kept busy honoring its promised update in this city. Recent Seattle Times editions have reported some dozen closures balanced against 26 new openings in the area. Most of those shuttered were smaller places. One recent exception was Marmite, food legend Bruce Naftaly’s latest venue. (He and his wife Sara once ran the highly acclaimed Le Gourmand.)
When Marmite closed the end of July, the restaurant’s Capitol Hill Chophouse space went to Xom, a Vietnamese eatery. I recall a Naftaly maxim: “Extremism in defense of flavor is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of ingredients is no virtue.”
It’s a trifle dismaying that acclaimed enterprises like Marmite have departed while small culturally diverse startups — many of them family-run operations — continue to open. Today more than ever it takes a rare and talented individual to operate a fair-sized restaurant: another Tom Douglas, Ethan Stowell, or Renee Erickson. These chef/owners have been in the forefront of the city’s culinary establishment. But even they have adopted more relaxed menus and have begun using names like bistro, tavern, or BBQ.
One disaffected gourmet characterized this latest restaurant trend as a smash-up between food trucks and pop-ups. However, the fad for “small is beautiful” says as much about our shifting tastes as it does about the search for new favorites. We no longer thrive on the blue plate specials of yesteryear but long to indulge in exotic culinary experiences like the ones described in the Where to Eat series: crisply-fried duck rolls, Chinese style scallion pancakes bedecked with smoked salmon roe, and salmon with geoduck sauce.
A tip of my chef’s toque to those who struggled to identify Seattle’s Best 25.