You don’t open a restaurant because you want to get rich. Restaurant work has always been physically and mentally demanding, and today in Seattle owner-operators have to deal with a host of headaches: rising costs, supply chain problems affecting everything from building renovations to food orders, and a labor shortage that makes finding workers more difficult. This year, as we survey the Seattle dining landscape to give our awards for 2023, we’re celebrating the new (or reopened) restaurants that have persevered and given the city’s dining scene a little bit of joy, a smidge more variety, or an extra oomph. Below are the spots with more oomph than the average restaurant.
Restaurant of the Year: Layers Green Lake
What’s a sandwich? At Layers, a sandwich can be literally anything between two slices of bread. The grilled cheese has dates and jalapeños; the house specialty has slow-roasted pork belly, Fresno chiles, pickled onions, and chicories; Layers’ salami sandwich is a riff on a banh mi elegantly piled in the middle of a Dutch crunch roll. (All the bread is baked on site, naturally.) What you get from a sandwich here in terms of flavors and textures is what you get from a sit-down meal at one of Seattle’s best restaurants; a single bite is a revelation.
Owners Ashley and Avery Hardin built Layers’ reputation as a food truck, and their devoted regulars have followed them to the new lakeside location, where they’ve added sensational breakfast biscuits and pastries from London Plane alum Ellary Collins. They’re creating new regulars now too. “We had someone come in for breakfast,” Ashley says, “then they went for a walk around the lake, and they came back for lunch. And that was their plan from the get-go.” Others will order sandwiches to eat there, then get to-go sandwiches for dinner. Layers is a place you simply don’t get tired of.
Best Comeback: Ludi’s Restaurant
When Ludi’s closed in 2019 after the Filipino American diner lost its lease, it inspired an outpouring of grief from its working-class downtown customer base to Seattle’s most famous Filipino chefs. When Ludi’s returned this June, it was the revival everyone needed, and not just because of its comfort food — the longanisa, the lumpia, the weekends-only pancakes slathered in bright purple ube-coconut sauce. Even back when it was a cozy dive/diner called the Turf, Ludi’s had a homespun, welcoming quality, an atmosphere cultivated by owner “Tito” Greg Rosas, who started as a dishwasher there in 1978. The restaurant has gone through four locations since then, all in the same narrow slice of downtown, though its present incarnation is its most light-filled and welcoming. (In the old days, Rosas says, there was a “bad element” sometimes that came with people who drank at the bar in the morning; Ludi’s serves alcohol but is no longer dive-like.) No matter who you are, you can come in and get the same great treatment. Earlier this year, the musician H.E.R. showed up, security and management in tow. Rosas was unfazed. “Are you a celebrity?” he asked her. “Yeah, but you’re a celebrity too,” she replied.
Best New Bar: Dark Room
There are a lot of cocktail bars in Seattle, but how many cocktail bars have the chops to concoct a drink that combines sake, three aperitifs (sesame-infused Suze, Cap Corse, Aperol), and celery bitters? And how many would call it Nigorni Weaver? Just one: Greenwood’s Dark Room, where co-owner Matthew Gomez lets his bartender imagination — and his puckish sense of humor — run wild. There’s a drink that comes garnished with a Polaroid of you drinking it and another that comes in a Spam container. But don’t mistake whimsy for a lack of seriousness. Dark Room is that rare cocktail bar where you can have a great dinner. The bar food from co-owner Amy Beaumier includes gems like incredible kimchi pimento cheese and a hot dog on a shokupan bun she makes herself. And both owners want to build Dark Room not just into a neighborhood institution but also a platform for other bartenders and chefs of color — and a truly superlative bar. “I would like for us to be at that level where people are coming from all over the United States or the world,” says Gomez. Dark Room may well get to that level.
Best Takeout: Bapshim
Wes Yoo had more than enough going on running WeRo, his Ballard Avenue Korean restaurant. So why launch a lunch bowl takeout place from WeRo’s back door? For one thing, when Yoo lived in the neighborhood, he realized there weren’t enough lunch places in restaurant-heavy Ballard, and too few spots serving light but filling fare. Enter Bapshim. The purple rice or green bowls are loaded with pickled and refreshing vegetables and topped with day-changing marinating meat or tofu. Yoo has hardly publicized Bapshim — he’s still staffing it up and hoping to add some Korean-related retail goods in the space — but nearly everyone who has stumbled upon it is a convert. In the city of our dreams, there are as many Bapshims as Chipotles.
Most Delightful Surprise: Rojo’s Mexican Food
Rojo’s arrived without media hype or widespread press releases; the vegan Mexican restaurant just kinda showed up this March in the Pioneer Square space formerly occupied by pasta legend Il Corvo. It’s the brainchild of Daniel Rojo, a 26-year-old former punk-scene kid from the Skagit Valley who started it by cooking vegan Mexican food in his kitchen in Edmonds during the height of the pandemic and delivering it to customers himself before serving food at markets around the city. The soy al pastor is a flag-planting type dish from a newcomer: through the magic of an achiote paste and vinegar marinade plus grilling it with pineapples, the “fake meat” is imbued with genuine char, crispiness, and a welcome punch of sweetness. At $10 for three tacos with rice and beans on the side, this also happens to be one of the best bargain lunches in all of Seattle.