Each time visitors looking for a "local" meal implore a Seattleite to tell them where the best seafood restaurant is, they're surprised to get hemming and hawing in response. The visitor just made the native as uncomfortable as if he or she were to call the Market "Pike's Place" (people, please: there is no 's').
No question, Seattle's got great seafood. But that place out-of-towners dream of, where they sit in a nautically-themed restaurant and order a simple grilled salmon entrée while gazing out over Puget Sound? It exists mainly in the tourist corridor, where fulfilling that fantasy is far more important than serving up the finest Dungeness crab, freshly-shucked oysters, over-sized geoduck, or shockingly sweet spot prawns.
The thing about great seafood in Seattle is...it's everywhere. No top-notch restaurant in town got there without executing crisp-skinned salmon or flaky fresh halibut. Anyone searching for great seafood in Seattle should simply go to whichever restaurant in town sounds the best to him or her. Excepting Dick's Drive-In, there will likely be great local seafood on the menu.
A better question to ask of a local would be, "Where do you go to eat seafood?" Here are a few places that I'd give as an answer—after annoying the heck out of everyone with the typical "my own kitchen" answer.
There are a lot of restaurants in the International District serving up shrimp and crab, but at Sea Garden, these creatures greet customers enthusiastically as they walk in. The live tanks that line the entrance of this old-school Cantonese seafood spot are consistently filled with active, extraordinarily fresh crab, spot prawns, and geoduck—and whatever else is in season.
When ordering crab in black bean sauce, diners can either pick out the crab by pointing, or give a size (over two pounds for the best meat-to-shell ratio), and a server brings it by the table for approval. Spot prawns are an un-missable local seasonal specialty, this is the place to try the stunningly-red, sweet-as-can-be sister to regular shrimp. In the salt-and-pepper prawns, they come (and should be eaten) head and tail on. You can ask for them to be subbed into any shrimp dish on the menu.
After over three decades in business, only the décor has lost any luster at Sea Garden. On any given night you'll find large families, small groups of Chinese businessmen, and tables full of hipster friends, all up to their elbows in crab shells as they request another order of the braised cod with tofu and pork.
Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market
Unlike the expertly-cooked Chinese dishes that the chefs turn out of Sea Garden, the counter-people at Taylor won't do a heck of a lot with shellfish after it's ordered. Put in an order for oysters or fresh-cooked crab at the counter, and expect to get just that—shucked or cracked—at a seat at one of the high bar tables. This is a simple seafood counter, but they serve their own farm's shellfish, so it's impeccably fresh. The friendly staff will talk to everyone, from oyster rookies to old-bivalve-hands, about the variety of oysters that are available, customizing a tray to fit tastes, or handing off a bowl to self-serve some of Xinh's famous oyster stew.
Visitors are wise to try the geoduck, which, if they're up on Bizarre Foods episodes, they'll know is the giant phallic clam that can take two men hours to pull from its burrow in the sand. While whole geoduck is expensive to buy whole, here eaters can sample a pile of geoduck crudo, shaved thin for the best texture, at a reasonable price.
Marination Ma Kai
The rare trifecta of Seattle restaurants: waterfront, great view, and terrific food. Most of the food at this Hawaiian-Korean outlet of a taco-truck skews carnivore, but Marination Ma Kai serve up a uniquely Seattle-style fish and chips. As tempting as the Spam sliders are, there is something iconic, and somewhat fulfilling of that tourist fantasy, to have local cod, beer-battered and panko-crusted with hand-cut fries, while smelling the saltwater. Dipping the huge chunks of tender fish into the miso tartar or kimchi tartar sauces, one wonders how nobody has thought of these umami-laden combinations for livening up the blank slate of fish and chips before. Get the full experience by arriving via the King County Water Taxi (leaves right from downtown) and crossing the bay to West Seattle by boat. And don't forget a boozy shave-ice for the boat ride home.
Anchovies & Olives
As mentioned earlier, there aren't that many really amazing places in the city where seafood is the declared specialty. Anchovies & Olives, though it lacks the tourist-baiting view, does not veer from its laser-like focus on serving incredible seafood. Ethan Stowell's restaurants have a well-earned reputation in town for incredibly bold, Italian-inspired flavors, fresh pasta, and Northwestern ingredients flowing out of open kitchens in simple but beautifully designed restaurants. Anchovies & Olives fits the bill perfectly, separating itself from the other half-dozen Stowell spots with its seafood-heavy options.
The menu opens with oysters, which tend to be served with ample garnish, great for those who like their oysters with some clothes on. From there, diners can choose small plates of raw, sliced fish called crudos (the buttery escolar is a crowd-pleaser), or small starters like Stowell's signature soft-cooked egg with anchovy. The pasta section doesn't stray from seafood either, offering options like uni-butter and manila clam linguini served with bottarga (cured tuna roe) and Fresno chili. The menu finishes out with a handful of cooked seafood entrées, where the seared Copper River sockeye salmon can be found on a bed of herb jam.
There are whiffs of righteous snobbiness that can be associated with food movements, but Mashiko, or Sushi Whore (the restaurant's website and Twitter handle), brings light-hearted irreverence and impeccable quality to the sustainable sushi movement. When Mashiko converted to a menu of exclusively sustainable seafood, it was the first existing sushi restaurant in the country to. This means there are occasional sushi classics missing (no bluefin tuna here), but any sushi-seeker who values flavor over name-brand fish varieties is in for a treat, as Chef Hajime Sato devises incredible dishes from what's in season and sustainable. Eel is replaced with catfish, monkfish liver with sablefish liver. Rather than limit the menu, enthusiastic eaters discover new fish that were previously ignored by sushi chefs taking the traditional route. And lucky for eaters everywhere, the switch didn't eliminate oysters, which are sustainably farmed, leaving Mashiko's incredible starter—sake-poached oysters—intact.
About the author: Naomi Bishop is a Seattle based food and travel writer. Find her wandering through words and worlds on her blog, TheGastroGnome, where she claims that being a GastroGnome is not about sitting idly on the front lawn of culinary cottages. Follow her explorations of cooking and culture around the world at @GastroGnome. Get restaurant suggestions and locate local eats in the Northwest from her app, Unique Eats of the Northwest.