When it's nice out, Seattle is the most beautiful place in the world. Summer might not start until July 5 (in order to guarantee rain on the fireworks, one presumes), but it sails straight through Labor Day, and everyone in Seattle, local or tourist, does their damndest to soak up as much of that sunshine as they can—which means taking all meals outdoors. The days are long, allowing for lingering over Eton mess at The Whale Wins or sticking toes into the sand at Bongos well into the evening.
Nearly every restaurant in town tries to find someway to squish a few chairs onto the sidewalk, but not all of them nail the magical outdoor dining equation. It's a question of having the right type of food, the right view, and a generally good summer atmosphere. Here's our guide to the best of Seattle's outdoor dining.
Best Deck: Revel
What would your backyard barbecue look like if professional chefs manned the grill? Something akin to the "Grill Shack" at the edge of Revel's deck, where whole animals are cooked over a wood fire. Two floors up from the street, the smell of charring meat and wood smoke wafts along, floating under the soft lighting of the deck, scenting the peaceful observation point as diners look out over the neighboring bars and Fremont streets. At the table, the meat arrives on wooden boards, each pile marked with a flag noting the cut. Sauces and flavorings on the meat keep the grill menu in line with the rest of Revel's Korean-inspired menu, so you should go ahead and order the short rib and pickled shallot dumplings on the side.
Revel's unique style transfers easily to outdoor eating: big flavors, such as the spicy nuoc cham dressing on the corned lamb and mizuna salad, seem to thrive in the open air. The tables on the deck are small, almost all two or four-tops, but you'll want to bring as many friends as you can so you can order from the entire menu. Otherwise you'd miss out on dishes such as the 'smoked oyster po'boy and cornflake' pancake—it's the pickled kohlrabi that really ties those two flavors together into one strangely delicious dish.
Best Place to Imagine You're on a Caribbean Island: Bongos
Dig your toes into the sand, snack on fried plaintains, and imagine you're on a Cuban beach. Save the faint roar of Aurora behind the fence and severe lack of Havana Club rum, Bongos stands in quite well. The outdoor space, situated at the northwest corner of Green Lake, features a giant sandy area with blue and green beach chairs. Kids dig sand castles while parents dig into fiery-sauced, meaty Cuban-style sandwiches.
For those who prefer not to clean the sand from their shoes, the other half of the outdoor seating is on aqua-blue-painted cement, shaded with beach umbrellas. The soft maduros (sweet plantains) served with sweet cream are caramelized to a just-crispy exterior which, in combination with the grill going in another corner of the patio, makes it easier to imagine you're hearing the quiet lapping of waves from somewhere nearby.
Best Light Summer Dinner: Savatdee
There are few better ways to punctuate a hot summer day than a dinner of the Lao salads enjoyed from behind the bamboo plants that shield Savatdee's patio from the traffic of Roosevelt Way. Most of the menu is typical Thai restaurant fare, but the selection of Lao dishes is where the restaurant really shines.
Many of these dishes are some form of salad, including a few variations of lab (also called laab, laap, or larb), a salad of chopped meat, spiced and served in cabbage leaves. The pork salad, lab mou sai keungnai, is a favorite, boosted by flavorful additions of liver and tripe—pork rinds add extra crunch and chew. The papaya salad, called tam mak houng sai badaik on the Lao menu, offers some real funkiness thanks to a generous dose of shrimp paste. Goi goong, a shrimp salad, draws on the nuttiness of toasted rice to add complexity, with makrut lime leaves and galangal popping flavor in among the green beans and cabbage. All of the salads are best eaten with handfuls of sticky rice to help calm the spice. If you order five-stars-spicy, be prepared.
Best Way to Never Leave the Beach: Independent Pizzeria
Madison Park's beach is one of Seattle's favorite places to spend long summer days, and if you tack on a dinner across the street at the outdoor tables of Independent Pizzeria, you can make your beach day last even longer. Barely ten steps from the grassy hill of the see-and-be-seen waterfront, the sidewalk tables hugging the 43rd Avenue side of the building keep you from having to take your eyes off fellow beach bunnies—though you'll want to, to look at the pizza.
The wood-fired brick oven turns out char-spotted crusts with air pockets protruding up, declaring their pillowy texture—they're still sturdy enough to stand up to ample layers of toppings. Independent's version of the four cheese boasts fontina, mozzarella, ricotta, and gorgonzola, tied together with a lightly-herbed tomato passata sauce and a smattering of high-quality olives. The Farmer (grana padano, fior di latte, speck, and a soft egg) highlights the skill of the kitchen, with the egg yolk still runny, weaving in and out of the tender, creamy cheese, pouring out toward the charred polka dots of the crust.
Best for a Date: The Whale Wins
The Stone Way patio of the Whale Wins is the perfect romantic, non-awkward spot for a date. The conversational buzz cocoons you, while the rhythm at the table is slow and steady. Small, elegantly-presented plates arrive alone or in pairs, ready to be a conversation piece if necessary (what is a "pope's nose," anyway?) or simply admired and shared. The food is daring (a pope's nose is a gland from the chicken's derrière), but presented in an attractive, enticing manner. The simple avocado toast (avocado smooshed over an inch-think slice of crusty bread, dressed with bitter greens) is designed for eating in the sunshine, and a slice of almond pound cake with sour cherry preserves screams for splitting as daylight fades away. Most dishes are focused and simple, but the additions of small, powerful touches such as walnut relish (on toasted treviso), star anise vinaigrette (on roasted beets), or pickled French plums (with chicken liver mousse) keep them unique and refreshing.
Servers have a beautiful side ice chest for waters, wines, and juices, so that service never suffers by being further from wait stations. With few tall buildings around, the early evening sun flows down at the perfect angle to bathe dinners in a glow that makes everyone—and everything—look phenomenal.
Family-Friendly: Uneeda Burger
There's something nostalgic about sitting at an oversized picnic table in the sun and chomping down on an absolutely classic burger. Uneeda creates that feeling without resorting to the cheap tricks of old-school signs or cutesy décor.
The simplicity of the big, open, wooden deck is matched best with the simplest of burgers. The menu offers a slew of options, from an emmer-based veggie burger to a manchego and lamb burger with tempura lemon slices, but the classic is the one that reminds you of what a burger should be: a medium-thin quarter-pounder patty of local, all-natural, Painted Hills beef, the added cheddar melted until it has become one with the burger, a creamy secret sauce, and a toasted sesame seed bun. It's a testament to the skill of a place that no window dressing is needed, and to the confidence in the classics that no brioche buns or fancy tricks are used. The sides are not as impressive, except when the fried cheese curds appear on the specials list, but the onion rings will do in a pinch—and save room for a hand-dipped strawberry shake.
The counter order/table service set-up makes for quick service and the deck offers an easy way for families to carve out some space for kids to play.
Best Outdoor Happy Hour Snacks: Maximilien
Digging into Penn Cove mussels while sitting in the sunshine and watching ferries to-and-fro across Elliott Bay is the quintessential Seattle dream. In actuality, there are very few places in Seattle where good local seafood is served with such a killer view, but Maximilien does it—and the mussels and a glass of rosé will set you back only $11 at happy hour (5 to 7 p.m. on weekdays).
Nestled into a corner of the Pike Place Market, Maximilien charges prices fitting for its touristy location and million-dollar view. But at happy hour the prices dip, making the signature mussels and a cone of Belgian frites eminently reasonable. The open air seating is sandwiched between a view of the water with mountains that seems to stretch until the edge of the world and an adorable rooftop community garden whose harvest is donated to a local food bank.
Best Finger Food: Meskel
Ethiopian food might not be your first thought for outdoor eating, (so much stew!), but with a tree-shaded porch lifted off the street and surrounded by a decorative fence, the setting alone should convince you otherwise. There are two things that never fail to improve the taste of food: eating it outside and eating with your hands. You can do both by sitting on the spacious Central District patio of Meskel, picking up dried beef stew called qanta fir fir with spongy Ethiopian injera bread. Not that the food needs any help here, where the kitfo (raw chopped beef, with warmed spiced butter) bursts with freshness and flavor.
Unlike so many of the Ethiopian spots that crowd this part of Seattle, Meskel's strength is not in its vegetarian platters, but its meats, and its ambiance. On occasional warm summer evenings, they'll even fire up the large grill on the side of the patio for a grilled meat special. The porch of the old house comes complete with corner fountain, and the basement is transformed into a full bar, from which drinks can be ordered for anywhere in the restaurant.
Best for Impressing Out-of-Towners: Tamarind Tree
Tamarind Tree is an excellent Vietnamese restaurant, but that isn't enough to set it apart in Seattle, where pho shops are a dime a dozen and bánh mì are more common than hoagies. But this spot stands out from the crowd: the black-clad servers bringing by grilled tamarind quail clearly understand the art of service, helping to explain the extensive menu and its almost equally lengthy partner, the drinks menu. From the latter, select a traditional Vietnamese drink such as soda sửa hột gà (egg yolk, condensed milk, and soda water), or Vietnamese-inspired cocktails.
The orange awning and faux waterfall on the patio are done just tastefully enough not to seem hokey as you nibble away at shrimp mousse on sugarcane. Many Vietnamese restaurants lack the creature comforts—service, beverage options, and thoughtful décor—that Tamarind Tree does so well. And while it raises many bars, it doesn't seem to raise the price much.
Best for a View: Marination Ma Kai
Alki, the spit of West Seattle beach facing back towards downtown and the location of Marination Mobile's second brick-and-mortar spot, offers a complete view of the downtown skyline, bested only by a foreground of ferries and ships to-ing-and-fro-ing. And it turns out that Spam sliders go really well with a view of the Space Needle. Hawaiian-inspired dishes (including Portuguese sausage sliders and shave ice) share the menu with globally inspired mash-ups that make you realize what the fusion trend could have been, had it not been the 90's. Kimchi quesadillas with Hawaiian-style kalua pork demonstrate it best, but the menu also includes a nod to the bay-front location with a mostly traditional fish and chips—served with miso tartar sauce, of course.
Blue and green Adirondack chairs on the broad beachfront patio make it easy to sit around all afternoon, admiring the view, as does the window from the patio to the bar, so convenient for ordering another round of drinks.