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Landing on this list is probably a mixed blessing for our finalists. As much as restaurants crave recognition, being singled out as a splurge is an achievement few owners are chasing in this economy. Even the classiest restaurants have spent the last few years emphasizing their affordability and accessibility. So your check doesn't cover a porterhouse and bottle of vintage Cabernet? Why, you can join us in the bar for a really good burger and a beer.
But much of the fun and fantasy of restaurant-going is bound up in high prices. Even if you can't buy the lobster tail to pair with your steak today, there's pleasure in imagining the day when you'll be financially able to order two. Those dreams don't leave the ground in restaurants where the most expensive dish is made with nutritional yeast.
Of course, the entry fee to such experiences is steep - even if you're eating burgers and drinking beer - so it helps to have a friend footing the bill. Should someone offer to underwrite your temporary immersion in luxury, here's where we recommend taking his or her generosity. Per usual, the finalists are randomly ordered, and Erin Thompson compiled our contributors' comments.
Jason and Nicole Wilson's Madison Valley restaurant is becoming like nirvana for a certain class of local grubniks--a white-on-white temple to Chef Jason Wilson's James Beard Award-winning modernist's take on Pacific Northwest cuisine. The renovated 1903 house is beautiful, the restaurant itself wildly popular, and Chef Wilson's food is occasionally revelatory in the way it can make the simplest things new all over again. A bowl of tagliatelle, a piece of short rib, a slip of foie gras--these are all just ingredients until they are put in just the right hands. And thankfully, the chef and his crew have the skills to make the best of everything they touch.
In 2011, Willows Inn was named one of the world's "10 restaurants worth a plane ride" by The New York Times. The Inn serves diners the same menu at the same time, but minutely staggers seating to avert a prosecco rush. Parties are summoned by a clipboard-toting server with the grace and placid voice of a spa assistant. Dinners begin with a series of what the kitchen calls "snacks," which is akin to referring to a Porsche as a jalopy. The opening salvos encapsulate the mysticism, clarity, and subtlety that make a meal at Willows Inn so extraordinary, sometimes with even greater resonance than the more elaborate courses which follow. As surely as Willows Inn's close-to-the-earth cuisine bewitches taste buds, it spins heads and stunts conversation. By the second or third course, most guests are reduced to monosyllabic exchanges meant to determine whether or not they're enjoying the best meal of their lives. Almost every dish is an argument in the yes camp's favor.
It seems that nowadays, the title "sushi chef" is bestowed upon anybody who can cobble together a California Roll at the QFC sushi bar. Thus, "sushi rock star" better describes Shiro Kashiba, the mastermind behind Shiro's Sushi Restaurant in Belltown. Profiled at length in The New York Times and USA Today, the Kyoto-born, Tokyo-trained chef has, since the moment he turned 18, dedicated his entire life to honing his craft. Every morning, he hits the markets and buys only the freshest, highest-quality fish, and measures the levels of salt and vinegar in his sushi rice. Kashiba's meticulous attention to detail ensures that every plate he creates is presented artfully and never contains a trace of that dreadful "fishy" taste. To watch him at work is an integral part of the dining experience, but you must be there as soon as the doors open to secure a seat at his bar--because like most rock stars, Shiro's got groupies.
The prices are sky-high at SkyCity, the Space Needle's revolving restaurant. But suck it up and plunk down some plastic, because there's no more iconic landmark dining room in Seattle. Under chef Jeff Maxfield, the food's actually worth the big bucks. Definitely save room for dessert: SkyCity has been serving the Lunar Orbiter since 1962, making the ice-cream sundae its all-time bestselling menu item. The ice cream is famously enveloped in a cloud of dry-ice smoke that an official Space Needle blog likens to "if you will . . . an atomic explosion in reverse." Cataclysmic analogies aside, the silly dessert is fabulous.
Located in The Bravern, John Howie Steak is decked out to impress the shoppers at the high-end stores next door. The lounge features high ceilings, leather-upholstered chairs, a grand piano, and an alabaster bar. John Howie once offered a New Year's meal for two for $2,011, but their non-holiday menu offers a range of mesquite-grilled steaks with your choice of five different sauces. On the side, pick and choose from Alaskan king crab legs, applewood-grilled lobster tail, Yukon Gold potatoes cakes richly topped with crème fraiche and caviar, and a perfectly executed Caesar salad.
Unlike quaint, formal establishments like Canlis, you can walk into the Met in the standard Seattle work uniform of plaid shirt, jeans, and dark tennis shoes and shout at the TV screen. Whether this is a good thing is debatable, especially if you're going to drop $75 on a porterhouse and a tumbler of top-shelf scotch. The steaks are, however, the dry-aged, Nebraska-raised (or wagyu) kind; and any carnivore, whether he's dressed in work pants and a tee or a three-piece suit, will be able to taste the tender, juicy difference.
4. Cafe Juanita
Let's just imagine for a minute that all those condos and strip malls weren't there and Lake Washington was called Lago di Como. Cafe Juanita, chef Holly Smith's slice of culinary paradise, would be right at home in the Italian countryside. Even when you check back in with reality, it's easy to forget you're in suburbia while sipping an aperitif and stuffing your face with lardo. There's no going wrong anywhere on the menu; the biggest challenge is to not go overboard and order too much at this romantic restaurant. Bring your honey--and a thick wad of money--and share the octopus, an exceptional pasta, and a couple of mains. One bite of the signature stuffed coniglio (that's bunny, baby!) and you'll never want to leave.
Thoughtfulness is clearly chef Jason Franey's strength. He uses great care and precision to coax the biggest flavors from even the smallest dishes. An amuse-bouche of celeriac-and-green-apple soup has the same bold flavors as the seared foie gras with pumpernickel streusel. Franey's modern presentation of classic comfort foods has earned him approving nods by exacting Canlis regulars, and is drawing new fans every day. His attention to preparation and flavor profiles should not be dismissed. And don't be scared off by Canlis' fine-dining reputation: The staff is young, the menu is exciting, and Walt the piano man knows his way around a Lady GaGa tune or three.
2. The Herbfarm
The Herbfarm dominates national best restaurant lists for its seamless service and flawless execution. If you're not put off by the profuse chintz in the dining room, your nine-course dinner, (which typically runs $250 a person), lovingly infused with local herbs, will leave you stunned. The impeccable wine pairings are only one element of a four-to-five-hour sensory journey. Dining here is an event, patience is a virtue, and the virtuous are rewarded.
Much of the love for Renee Erickson's work centers on the redoubtable The Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard, which remains near the top of the city's best-restaurants list. But for your money, I'm going to Erickson's Boat Street Cafe, which manages to summon a summery French vibe in an unexpected basement location. The ambience is eclipsed only by the food, which is reliably excellent. The justly famed bread pudding is always available, but if I were dining on your dime, I'd order whatever's just been added to the menu, including lots of oysters, housemade paté, a salad of locally grown greens, freshly caught fish, and a bottle of white Burgundy. And, OK, maybe bread pudding for dessert.