It's totally legit to spend a day exploring Seattle's famous landmarks along the waterfront. In fact, I would encourage you to do so, especially if it's your first time in Seattle. But if you really want to see and taste the Emerald City, you have to know that Seattle is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality. And, in my completely unbiased opinion, Ballard (where I happen to live) is the tastiest of them all.
The One Seattle Neighborhood Food-Lovers Should Know
It's a beautiful neighborhood, to say the least, with leafy streets full of historic craftsman homes and breathtaking views of the snow-capped Olympic mountains. You'll see Seattle history here, too — the Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle's fishing fleet, and the Ballard Locks all call Ballard home.
And you'd best come with an empty stomach. With a huge range of restaurants, craft coffee, killer cocktails (think: boozy milkshakes!), and an entire brewing district to explore, you could spend days eating and drinking. Like so many people who live nearby, when I want to go out, I find it hard to leave.
We end every date night at Renee Erickson's tiny amaro bar, Barnacle, which is hidden next to The Walrus and the Carpenter, her better-known oyster haven. We take guests to The Fat Hen, tucked into a sleepy side street north of bustling downtown Ballard, where I always get sticky cardamom rolls and an avocado Benedict with lemony hollandaise. Weekdays, you'll find me slurping posole with a friend at La Carta de Oaxaca.
C'mon over to explore my favorite places to unwind.
If you only have a few hours: Ballard is accessible by bus and via the city's bike path, the Burke Gilman Trail. Once you get there, Ballard is also totally walkable, but if you want to save your energy for eating, stick to the stops along Ballard Avenue — known colloquially as "Old Ballard Ave."
5413 6th Ave NW; 206.235.6564
Even though Starbucks turned Seattle into a coffee mecca way back in the '70s, it's still an exciting time to drink coffee in Seattle. Case in point: Slate Coffee, a sunny little hiccup of a shop in the hinterlands of East Ballard, where even ordering takes on a new feel.
Don't walk up to the counter! Have a seat — outside, if you can. Relax. Someone will be with you shortly, with a glass of water and a simple menu. You'll order your latte by the ounce as an "espresso with milk," and it will come in a twee cocktail glass — unless you order it deconstructed, in which case it will come in three glasses (one with espresso, one with milk, and one with a combination of the two). So hip it hurts? Absolutely. Delicious? Always.
Tip: Don't leave without a candied orange. Or two.
5431 Ballard Ave. NW; 206.782.8722
La Carta de Oaxaca is not your average Cinco de Mayo Mexican hangout. From halibut-stuffed tacos to steaming posole to banana leaf-wrapped black mole tamales, the food is legit Oaxacan — as are the ladies in the kitchen, whose quaint traditional aprons belie the fact that when the restaurant gets slammed, watching them work from the restaurant's counter seats is like watching an Olympic event. Skip the margaritas in favor of a smoky mezcal cocktail, and end with cinnamon-spiked Mexican coffee.
6460 24th Ave. NW; 206.258.2467
When Copine chef Shaun McCrain makes a salad, it's clear that he cut his teeth at New York's famed Per Se restaurant (among others); every plate coming out of the kitchen begs to be appreciated visually before you can even think about picking up a fork. That salad? It's proof that eye candy can be good for you, too.
Yet dining at swanky-yet-casual Copine is more about the food itself than about being seen there. Make a pilgrimage when you're ready to linger over foie gras terrine, ogle beautifully plated tender agnolotti, and moan at embarrassing volumes after a bite of rib-eye steak. I won't judge you for stopping at their tiny take-away case on the way out.
4743 Ballard Ave. NW; 206.706.3379
Snuggled in a long, sweet space next to Seattle chef Renee Erickson's ever-popular The Walrus and the Carpenter, Barnacle (also Erickson's) is my favorite bar for a few reasons. First, the drinks: Inspired by Italian amaro aperitivos, they're novel but never too sweet. Order the rosy-pink Rinomato Gin Spritz or the Ok Dolce Far Niente. The bites, too, are bold and interesting. (If you want to move beyond the hand-shaved Serrano ham, try the chili-soaked anchovies with saltines, or the octopus terrine). Mostly, though, it's the only place I can swaddle myself in gorgeous blue Italian tile and eat potato chips — see the baskets stocked high above the bar — while a bartender who always remembers my name makes me something new I know I'll love. Saluti!
5427 Ballard Ave. NW; 206.453.3792
Yup, you read right: There's an entire shop devoted to ooey-gooey dark chocolate cake, baked to order and served adorably on a campy wooden board. That line out the door on weekend nights? Wait in it.
How to buy: First, pretend you're a nice person and share a "dark decadence" with a friend. But since you're sharing, might as well also get a boozy milkshake (because nothing improves a milkshake like rye whiskey caramel). And grab some of those smoked chocolate chips, because you want your best cookies to be even better. Then buy a few frozen "hot cakes" to gobble up alone in the comfort of your Airbnb — the business started as a bake-at-home farmers market stall, after all, when the owner used to shout "Get Your Hot Cakes!" to get customers' attention.
6. The Brewing District
Over the last decade, the industrial dead zone between Seattle's Ballard and Fremont neighborhoods has become home to its blossoming "brewing district," where microbreweries and distilleries have taken over warehouses block after block, and turned them into mostly family-friendly tasting rooms that fling their doors open when the weather gets nice.
It's a great way for families to get their brews on without hiring a babysitter — and the constantly rotating roster of food trucks that park just outside almost every brewery makes the dinner question easy. Bonus: Since the brewing district is a popular post-run meet-up mecca for athletes of all shapes and sizes, you don't need to think twice about what you wear.
Honestly, they're all great. Try the ever-changing dry-hopped sour at Stoup Brewing, play corn hole with an easy-drinking "American Blonde" at Populuxe Brewing, or enjoy a citrusy "Triumvirate" at Reuben's Brews.
5107 Ballard Ave. NW; 206.946.9960
Seattle's not a pizza town, per se, but that doesn't mean you can't find a good slice. When he had kids, Ethan Stowell, the city's maestro of modern Italian food, decided he wanted to open a neighborhood pizza joint modeled after old-fashioned New York City pizzerias — the kind where you can down a slice and a Rainier (the city's unofficial favorite beer) on your own, or come with your kids for an unpretentious family night out.
The little ones can have pizza dough fights while you tuck into a hearty salad — the chickpea version with raisins, celery, and lemon is the best. If you're a roller coaster kind of person, order the ever-changing "Big Moses," aka The Chosen Pizza. (From the menu: "Have faith. It will be good.") For his money, though, Stowell's favorite is the Staple and Fancy, which comes with pepperoni, pineapple, and jalapeños. And of course, now every neighborhood wants one.
8. The Fat Hen
1418 NW 70th St.; 206.782.5422
If you were to turn sunshine into a breakfast café, it would look like The Fat Hen, where owner Sammie Jeffs and her crew turn out bubbling egg bakes, lemony Benedicts, and thick levain toasts for the hordes who line up each weekend morning. Our trick: Go on a weekday, when the line dies down, and you can huddle over French press coffee and a sugar-studded cardamom roll while you wait for your order. (For nifty DIY inspiration, lean in close to look at white flagging draped across the windows — each little flag is actually a handmade ceramic tile!)
About Jess Thomson
Jess Thomson is a food and travel writer and the author of eight cookbooks, including A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus, co-written with chef Renee Erickson. Her most recent book, A Year Right Here, is a food memoir about her family. She lives and eats in Seattle, with her husband and 8-year-old son.
Buy Jess Thomson's new book: A Year Right Here: Adventures with Food and Family in the Great Nearby, $23