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Seattle Food FAQs From First-Time Visitors, Answered

Big questions about the city’s dining scene, including why Seattle puts cream cheese on hot dogs

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Seattle dogs with cream cheese as a main ingredient are often a mystery to newcomers.

Navigating Seattle’s robust restaurant scene can sometimes be overwhelming for first-time visitors — but it’s certainly worth the effort. To help visitors navigate all the different terms, dishes, neighborhoods, and names around the city, here’s a quick FAQ.

Q: What food is Seattle famous for?

A: As you may have heard, this city takes its seafood seriously. Salmon is such a part of the area’s culinary identity that Sea-Tac airport throws a mini ceremony each year for the special Copper River salmon flown in from Alaska. Tourists are also fond of dodging flying fish at Pike Place Market. Shellfish is a Seattle staple, from the many places to slurp fantastically briny oysters to those that serve up geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”), an enormous, coveted clam that sometimes catches newcomers off guard with its odd appearance. Look out for it at popular places like Lark in Capitol Hill, How to Cook a Wolf in Queen Anne, and Fremont’s excellent Japanese soba shop Kamonegi. But Seattle does many cuisines well, and is perhaps known best for its many incredible Asian restaurants, particularly Vietnamese and Japanese. Pho is ubiquitous around town, and teriyaki — that sticky-sweet Japanese-American dish — is a Seattle specialty, popularized by Toshihiro Kasahara at Toshi’s Teriyaki Restaurant in the 1970s, with John Chung putting a popular Korean spin on the classic.

Q: What the heck’s a Seattle dog?

A: It’s a hot dog or sausage slathered in — wait for it — cream cheese and grilled onions. The origin story goes back to the late-1990s, when a bagel cart in Pioneer Square went a little rogue. Though it sounds strange, these concoctions are surprisingly good, whether grabbing one at Pike Place Market or one of the many sidewalk stands around town. Want to try the most extravagant version in the city? It’s the salmon roe-coated homage at dramatic bar Deep Dive underneath the Amazon Spheres.

Q: Should I bother waiting in line at the original Starbucks?

A: Depends on your patience. Starbucks’ faux-riginal location in Pike Place Market always has an epic line (the true original was nearby at the corner of Western and Virginia), and getting inside just to see some old signage and order a mocha that you can get anywhere else probably isn’t worth it. But do check out the company’s sleek, modern, copper-plated Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room on Capitol Hill (1124 Pike Street), where fresh specialty beans are piped directly to baristas serving a variety of intriguing concoctions, with or without syrups and whipped creams. The space is even home to a full bar, and a high-end Italian bakery called Princi has taken up residence to ply customers with flaky cornetti and other breads and pastries baked fresh all day, every day.

Q: What is the nicest restaurant in Seattle?

A: From a French steakhouse to a Northern Italian dining destination to world class sushi, there are many places in the city worth dropping serious bucks. But perhaps the most well known fine dining mainstay is Canlis in Queen Anne. Old-school yet relevant, this striking restaurant — whose chef Brady Williams won a 2019 James Beard Award — has been serving outstanding multi-course meals since the 1950s and is still family owned and operated. One of the only permanent menu fixtures, the Canlis salad, is an icon; the rest of the menu rotates, and the service is without peer.

Q: Where do Seattle locals eat?

A: As any traveler might notice when they first come to the city, there are many different neighborhoods on the outskirts that have thriving dining and bar scenes. Most locals try to avoid tourist spots, such as Pike Place Market and the Space Needle wherever possible, choosing to stick close to home when going out to eat, while avoiding traffic and maddening parking situations. Of course, there are some neighborhoods with more robust options than others. Capitol Hill seems to open up a hot new spot every week, the International District is a destination for many fantastic Asian food, and both Fremont and Ballard are popular areas for some of the city’s young rising chefs. West Seattle is a bit of a trek from Seattle’s main hub, but has gorgeous views of the water and plenty of great restaurants, including Marination Mai Kai and the famous fried chicken of Ma’ono (which both tourists and locals love). Head to South Seattle and you’ll find local favorites such as Island Soul (Caribbean and soul food), the new restaurant Homer (Mediterranean), and some of the best smoked meats in the city at Emma’s BBQ. When in doubt, head to any one of these great coffee shops for a caffeine fix and blend in with the crowd.