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A table with several plates of Chinese food on it.

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My Long, Partially Successful Quest to Find Great Food in Seattle After Midnight

Or, how I ended up at IHOP at four in the morning

Seattle’s nightlife scene is notorious for being, well, not much of a scene. Any given internet forum, from Reddit to Eater Seattle’s Instagram comments, is crowded with locals carping about a dearth of ways to pass the time post-midnight. Late-night food, or lack thereof, is a source of particular consternation, especially in the wake of pandemic lockdowns, when many formerly 24-hour spots like Capitol Hill’s Lost Lake and Aurora Avenue icon Beth’s are operating on indefinitely reduced hours.

It’s undeniable that Seattleites’ options for an after-hours bite are more limited than, say, New Yorkers’. But is our city really a gastronomic wasteland come the stroke of 12? I decided to investigate, through the highly scientific method of stuffing my face with everything I could find between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. on a Sunday, a.k.a. Saturday night.

Midnight: Liberty for cocktails and sushi

A table with plates of sushi and glasses of beer.
Sushi at Liberty

We start the night at Liberty, which might look like your typical Capitol Hill cocktail bar — moody lighting, big leather couches — but is distinguished by being one of only a few places in the city where you can get good sushi after midnight. When we roll in just after 12 a.m., the vibe at the mostly empty bar is sleepy; a lo-fi remix of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack is drifting out of the speakers.

Liberty is tucked away on 15th Avenue, a quiet street compared to the hubbub of Broadway several blocks west, and the staff seem slightly bemused at the arrival of our boisterous, six-person contingent. The host double-checks with the kitchen that they’re still able to serve us, and to our relief, we get the green light on the yellowtail. The Fishface — which contains deft proportions of yellowtail, shrimp, jalapeno, pickled radish, and cabbage — is excellent, and at $11 per roll, has great value for price, which is what I’m looking for in a drinking snack.

1 a.m.: La Dive for wine. A lot of wine.

A group of people cheers wine glasses together.

We decide it’s time to press deeper into the nucleus of the Hill. We plan to make it to La Dive in time for some tinned fish and breakfast cereal from their late-night menu, but instead arrive just in time for last call. This bar, too, is mostly empty, though there’s a lively knot of what appear to be 30-somethings in the corner celebrating a birthday. We follow their lead and order “long day home” pours — wine glasses filled to the brim.

“I feel like most of the places that stay open until two aren’t really catering to the wine and tinned fish crowd anyway, you know?” my friend Katharine remarks over a near-overflowing rosé. “I feel like you’ve actually got a lot of options for a [sit-down] meal between 12 and one, and after that you only really have pizza and hot dogs — which is fine, because that’s what I want when I’m drunk anyway.”

She’s got a point; most people aren’t exactly looking for a charcuterie board after emerging, dazed and sweat-soaked, from Neumos or Neighbors. What the people want greets us a few blocks down Pike Street, where the neighborhood’s unofficial afterparty is kicking off.

2 a.m.: Seattle dogs at Hawk Dogs

A hand holding a paper towel with a hot dog on it that’s topped with peppers.

On the corner of Broadway, a DJ is setting up a mixer on a foldout table in front of Spooky Dogs, a hot dog truck painted to look like the Mystery Machine (the owners rebranded from “Scooby Dogs” after a cease and desist from Warner Brothers). A block down, a taco stand greets the crowd emerging from the Comet Tavern with elotes and a speaker bumping a competing bassline. We make a beeline for the stand outside the 76 station, Hawk Dogs.

Ask a dozen Seattleites where to get the best iteration of our namesake dog, which is defined by the accompanying cream cheese and grilled onions, and you’ll probably get a dozen answers, most of them informed by fond memories of a night out on the Hill. The truth is, the best Seattle dog is the one that finds its way into your hand most swiftly come last call, and for us, this night, it is Hawk Dogs.

Clouds of steam fragrant with onion billow around the workers, who move with the cool efficiency of a surgical team to distribute franks to the assembled horde. One pushes briskly through the crowd, herding people into something resembling an orderly line.

Katharine, who grew up 40 minutes outside of New York City, says that this — waiting in line for a hotdog at 2:15 a.m. — is one of the only times she feels proud to live here. “This is what a city is supposed to be like!”

There’s a raucous, organic camaraderie on the corner this evening, the kind that can only blossom spontaneously from a perfect union of proximity, inebriation, and greasy food — in other words, urban nightlife.

“It’s actually starting to make me feel a little emotional, thinking about how we didn’t have this during COVID,” she says.

I can’t tell if she’s talking about the hot dogs or the genially unruly crowd, but either way, I agree wholeheartedly. So does Melvyn Marroquin, who’s waiting in line behind us at the toppings bar. He lives just a few blocks away, and decided to take a break from packing up his apartment to get a last Seattle dog before his move to Los Angeles tomorrow morning. He says that his native LA definitely has more plentiful late-night options than Seattle, but “man, I’m going to miss ending nights with Chinese from the ID.”

As it happens, that’s where we’re headed.

2:40 a.m.: Purple Dot for Chinese food

The exterior of the Purple Dot Cafe

The last light rail of the night left Capitol Hill at 12:40 a.m., and the buses slow to a crawl at this hour, so we’ve got a designated driver to ferry us to our next feeding. (The lack of public transit late at night probably has something to do with Seattle’s stunted nightlife.)

When we arrive at Purple Dot, a Cantonese diner that stays open until 3 a.m., it’s about 2:40, which fills the former restaurant worker in me with deep guilt and self-loathing — there’s nothing worse than a big crowd coming in just before closing. But we’re far from the only people still here, at least: By the fish tank, a couple in club attire is shoveling down noodles with admirable intensity. Another large group is seated near us, passing around what appear to be chicken wings. And across the street, Honey Court, a dim sum spot that regularly stays open into the very wee-est hours, is still buzzing when we leave around 3:45.

4 a.m.: IHOP for uhhhhhh, pancakes?

A table with cups of coffee, water glasses, and a plate of pancakes.

Now we have truly entered the witching hour, the time where “all roads lead to IHOP,” as my friend Sammy puts it. We head back up north to the Hill for the final leg of our journey, and the bright blue sign emerges out of the darkness like a lighthouse guiding lost ships to bacon.

The Capitol Hill IHOP is lively at this time of (morning?) night. Someone wearing elf ears and a fluffy fox tail sits sedately sipping coffee, while someone at the neighboring table types furiously away at a laptop beside a neglected plate of toast. The person in the elf ears is soon joined by a companion wearing fairy wings and pink-and-white striped tights.

As we sit, picking at a plate of blintzes and a milkshake, a crew of what appears to be off-duty drag queens filters in, followed by another group, who soon begin passing a handle of vodka around the table. The IHOP employees are kept busy by what appears to be a steady stream of DoorDash and other to-go orders.

“It really says a lot about the options [this time of night] that so many people would be DoorDashing IHOP,” Katharine says.

The person working on their laptop and the enthusiastic imbibers leave. An older person with a newspaper replaces them — this is the time when people beginning their days mingle with those ending them. Capitol Hill IHOP at 5 a.m. is where the veil between worlds grows thinnest, where the boundaries between night and day blur. Or maybe we’re just getting delirious because it’s 5 a.m. and we’ve been eating since midnight.

We intend to end the night (or rather, start the morning) with a bagel at Cafe 1921, the recently rebranded My Favorite Deli, which sits on the corner next to the Neptune in the U District and opens at 5 a.m. But the deli is, to our consternation, closed on the weekends, and we lack the willpower to locate a suitable alternative.

It seems fitting that we should end the night thwarted by an establishment’s somewhat irregular hours — and illustrative of the fact that it’s not easy to score a good bite in this city 24/7. But if you know where to look, and you’re in the right company, it’s always possible to have a good time.

Purple Dot Cafe

515 Maynard Avenue South, , WA 98104 (206) 622-0288 Visit Website

La Dive

721 East Pike Street, , WA 98122 Visit Website

Liberty

517 15th Avenue East, , WA 98112 (206) 323-9898 Visit Website