Although it's sometimes hard to see through the haze of butter sauces and sesame vinaigrettes that surrounds a year of eating out, we've reached that time when we're compelled to reflect on what we've learned. Rather than cherry-pick favorites from the countless meals I documented in 2012, I've selected 10 contemporary local dishes which are emblematic of the Seattle food scene's current state. While not necessarily the most delicious or interesting, each represents a developing conceptual trend which stands to blossom in 2013. If I'm reading the plates correctly, we'll be eating very well next year.
Trend: Chef collaboration
Dish: Petit Paquets
Restaurant: Skelly and the Bean (now closed)
Zephyr Paquette's ambitious "kitchen incubator," a ready-made Capitol Hill restaurant for chefs looking to test menu items and gauge diner sentiments before signing their names to expensive lease agreements, opened and closed in 2012. But Paquette contends the project's legacy was the success of Kedai Makan, the Malaysian food stand which plates nasi lemak for farmers-market shoppers; 314 Pie, an Australian meat-pie truck; and the forthcoming Miyabi on 45th. Paquette, whose local cooking career dates back a decade, isn't adverse to community collaborations: She relied on friends to supply the tables and chairs which furnished Skelly, and asked former customers to buy gift certificates to underwrite her opening costs. But her support of fellow chefs pointed toward a trend more promising than the Kickstarter campaigns which last year seemingly advanced every cookbook, video, and food truck. While Seattle chefs have always cooperated, the philosophy this year reached new heights with pop-up juicery JuiceBox inhabiting La Bête during off-hours; Joule and The Whale Wins sharing space at the Fremont Collective, an arrangement which betters the Kolstrand Building's setup; and Ethan Stowell and Heather Earnhardt erecting a windowed wall between Rione XIII and The Wandering Goose, their new Capitol Hill restaurants.
Trend: Institutional improvements
Dish: Pastrami poutine
Restaurant: Cultivate, 1218 N.E. Campus Pkwy., 685-3622
The University of Washington this year debuted Cultivate, its first sit-down, full-service restaurant. "We wanted students to have a unique option and not have to go downtown to get it," head chef Amy Belknap explained. But serving high-quality, nutritious, sustainable food in an institutional setting is becoming less unique citywide. In addition to Cultivate, the Seattle Center this year swept away the last traces of the former Food Circus, booting Orange Julius to make room for concessions run by leading local restaurants. The Armory's now home to branches of Skillet, Pie, Eltana, La Spiga, and Plum, among other smart choices. And down in SoDo, Starbucks this summer installed an open-to-the-public corporate cafe heavy on fresh produce and global preparations.
Trend: Cocktails coexisting with food
Dish: Niçoise salad
Restaurant: Vessel, 624 Olive Way, 623-3325
Seattle was at the forefront of the craft-cocktail movement, but bartenders are increasingly—and admirably—concocting drinks which don't overshadow what's on the menu. While an equal respect for food and booze has always informed the restaurants of Brian McCracken and Dana Tough, now readying to open a smoked-meat jubilee alongside Tavern Law, it's heartening to see new venues such as The Innkeeper, Rumba, and Bitterroot heed pairing logic.
Trend: Bitter breakups with happy endings
Dish: Fried chicken
Restaurant: Heaven Sent, 3427 Rainier Ave. S., 722-3229
Chefs may be in a collaborative mood, but serious philosophical fights are inevitable in the restaurant business. Fortunately, eaters are sometimes the beneficiaries of resultant breakups. At Heaven Sent, the mini-chain Ezell Stephens opened after a legal settlement prevented him from selling chicken under his own name, the peppery, thick-skinned drumsticks help explain the clamor which erupted over Ezell's when Stephens was in charge. And defectors from Ethan Stowell's empire are responsible for Blind Pig Bistro, one of the best restaurants in the city.
Trend: Permanent niches
Dish: Peanut-butter-cup molten chocolate cake
Restaurant: Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery, 5427 Ballard Ave. N.W., 420-3431
Food trucks don't have the luxury of offering lengthy menus, but the wisdom of specialization is thankfully migrating indoors. Autumn Martin's new chocolate parlor, which takes jarred cakes as its theme, presents a model for focused restaurants beyond the ice-cream, cupcake, and pizza categories.
Trend: Unbridled expansion
Dish: Fried artichoke
Restaurant: Rione XIII, 401 15th Ave. E., 838-2878
Three was the new two this year, with Maria Hines adding Agrodolce to her two-restaurant portfolio, Renee Erickson opening The Whale Wins, and Scott Staples rejoining the three-location club with the return of Restaurant Zoë. In a culinary culture led by newly minted James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur Tom Douglas, who's making plans for his 13th edible endeavor, no stigma is attached to stretching oneself thin. But the most intriguing 2012 expansions landed Seattle names on the opposite coast: Via Tribunali and Beecher's Handmade Cheese both opened New York City outposts. Which chef will next move beyond the city's boundaries? The smart money's on Ethan Stowell, who popped out two projects this year: "We have talked about moving out of Seattle, but there would have to be a very strong reason," he recently told Nation's Restaurant News.
Trend: Desirable chains
Dish: Buffalo Chickin' Wings
Restaurant: Veggie Grill, 446 Terry Ave. N., 623-0336
Seattle's progressive, sustainable mind-set is usually at odds with the chain-restaurant format. But many of the 2012 restaurant openings which occasioned the most plotzing were engineered in faraway corporate offices. The responses to Wingstop, Veggie Grill, and the forthcoming Kukai Ramen in Bellevue—the chain's first location outside Japan—were rapturous. And Shanik, a spinoff of the legendary Vij's in Vancouver, was easily the year's most anticipated newcomer.
Trend: Tasty vegetables
Dish: Spring-pea flan
Restaurant: Restaurant Marché, 150 Madrone Lane N., Bainbridge Island, 842-1633
Doing right by vegetables isn't a purely Seattle concern: Chefs across the country, including those sequestered in meat-centric regions, are paying more attention to their herbivorous obligations. But happening upon vegetable dishes which outshine their meaty counterparts on a menu is a trend so pervasive and rewarding that it deserves mention.
Trend: Pioneer Square planning
Dish: Spaghettini with anchovies, chili, and olive oil
Restaurant: Il Corvo (in the process of moving)
If you'd struck it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush, you might have celebrated with an opulent meal at a restaurant in Pioneer Square. But the neighborhood long ago shrugged off its gourmet reputation, catering primarily to lunching tourists and thirsty sports fans. That could change under the leadership of Mike Easton, who's in the process of relocating his Il Corvo lunch counter from the Pike Street hill climb to the address previously occupied by Built Burger, and reigning James Beard Best Chef in the Northwest, Matt Dillon, who's imminently debuting Bar Sajor at the corner of Jackson Street and Occidental Avenue South.
Trend: National love for Seattle
Dish: Crispy fish skins
Restaurant: The Walrus and the Carpenter, 4743 Ballard Ave. N.W., 395-9227
Of the "industry experts" polled last week by Eater, a full 25 percent named Seattle as the world's best dining city. "Portland's totally played," sniffed Eater co-founder Lockhart Steele. Although most of the Seattle fans cited only Sitka & Spruce and The Walrus and the Carpenter, the attention bodes well for the entire food scene.