Pioneer Square is the muddy spiritual center of Seattle. Part of the historic city that burned down in 1889, the neighborhood was rebuilt to be a full story higher up, creating a warren of catacombs that is today a tourist attraction. Pioneer Square has been a hotbed of nightlife (including gay nightlife), a gathering place for artists and yuppies, and a provider of services to the down-and-out, thanks to its large number of missions and homeless shelters. Occasionally, it’s been a symbol of Seattle’s decline or renewal as a city.
It’s also, not incidentally, a great place to eat right now.
The past year has seen an impressive array of restaurants open in and around Pioneer Square: The ʔálʔal Cafe (pronounced “all-all”) opened in the Chief Seattle Club, a Native-led nonprofit that provides housing and services to homeless people. Ohsun Banchan provides incredible (and gluten-free) Korean meals and snacks. Rojo’s Mexican Food (which immediately became one of the best vegan spots in town) now occupies the former Il Nido space. Saigon Drip Cafe gave the area a contemporary spin on Vietnamese food and coffee. Ballard Vietnamese restaurant Monkey Bridge now has a second (and much larger) location on First Avenue. Ephesus opened as a wine bar and meze specialist on Occidental Square; not far away Darkolino’s, a new Italian spot attached to a streetwear store, took over the space that used to be the London Plane cafe and bakery. The massive Railspur development is already home to tacos-and-tequila joint Tacolisto, and the Hotel Westland is slated to open there next year, with a restaurant and bar attached.
This influx of restaurants follows the easing of pandemic lockdown restrictions, which left Pioneer Square businesses in a precarious position. “Pioneer Square still has a relatively low residential rate,” says Lisa Howard, the executive director at the Alliance for Pioneer Square, a neighborhood nonprofit. So when people stayed home during the worst waves of COVID-19, the area turned into something of a ghost town. “The pandemic meant that we lost our office workers, game and event traffic, and tourists all in one fell swoop,” Howard says.
That was a blow to a neighborhood that had been on the rise. “There was a burst of interest in Pioneer Square in 2012 with [restaurateur] Matt Dillon doing Sajor and London Plane... a lot of little places popped up,” says Lex Petras, who owns South of Mill (formerly Altstadt) on First Avenue. “Pioneer Square has always seen this boom-and-bust — up and down, up and down — and we just went through another one.”
As restrictions eased, some restaurant owners complained publicly about crime that was impacting their businesses. London Plane co-owner Katherine Anderson wrote an open letter to city leadership in 2021 saying that her staff felt unsafe after being threatened and spat on (her cafe would close in late 2022). Jonathan Fleming, the owner of Pioneer Square D&E, told KIRO 7 that his restaurant had been vandalized and had furniture stolen from it. (Citywide violent crime rates hit a 15-year high in 2022.)
But Pioneer Square has recovered. People are once again attending sporting events and concerts at nearby Lumen Field and T-Mobile Park, and many white-collar workers, including those at Weyerhaeuser’s, a major corporate employer in the area, have returned to the office. Putting a new restaurant here no longer seems like a gamble.
Concerns over neighborhood safety have diminished as well. Seattle-wide crime rates in the first half of 2023 were down compared to the same period last year, and if you look at the crime tracker maintained by the city you’ll see that there have been 302 incidents reported in Pioneer Square this year, including 77 incidents of violent crime. To the east, Chinatown–International District saw 627 reported incidents, 170 of them violent, and to the north, the downtown commercial core had 1,362 incidents, 274 of them violent.
Anecdotally, Pioneer Square doesn’t feel unsafe, or even empty, the way it often did in 2021. Office workers are out picking up lunch on weekdays, and gameday and concert crowds pack the streets on weekends. There’s often live music in Occidental Square and little of the open drug use that’s common on Third Avenue.
Petras says that when he put grass and planters out in front of his restaurant, “Everyone I know was like, ‘Oh, these are gonna get trashed.’ And I was like, let’s just see. A couple of [plants] have been pulled out and I’ve had to replant, but for the most part, we’re not getting crazy stuff happening.”
That’s not to say everything is back to normal. As of May, only 51 percent of downtown workers are back in the office Tuesdays through Thursdays, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. Remote work is still common — which is why Petras turned what was a beer hall into an all-day bar and cafe where laptop warriors can plug in. Many, if not all, of the new additions to the neighborhood cater to some combination of Zoom-from-wherever workers and people on their way to events.
And there’s another change to Pioneer Square: “We have a beach open for the first time ever!” says Howard. It’s called the Pioneer Square Habitat Beach, and it sits right next to the ferry terminal. Check it out, and pick up some to-go containers from Ohsun before you do.