Bryce Martin and his father were on a trip to London to see the Seattle Seahawks play the Oakland Raiders when they received a flattering surprise and confirmation that all their hard work was paying off. Talking innocently to their neighboring passengers, the two revealed what they did for a living.
Martin’s family has owned and operated Island Soul, the beloved Columbia City Caribbean restaurant, for more than 15 years. “Everyone around us was like, ‘What? Oh, wow, I love that place!’ They were from all over, too: Edmonds, Lynnwood. I never fathomed something like that would ever happen.”
The popular soul-food spot—which serves mouthwatering Calypso wings, impossibly delectable curry mussels, and gooey mac ’n’ cheese, among many other specialties—is truly a south-end destination eatery. But it’s also one of many destination eateries in Columbia City. In fact, the one-block strip from Edmunds to Ferdinand Streets is possibly the densest and most delicious cluster in the Emerald City.
La Medusa, the divine Italian place with homemade pasta, crisp blackened vegetables, and the best baked cheese money can buy, is a neighbor to Island Soul, along with the Columbia City Bakery, which provides baked goods to restaurants all over Seattle, and Bob’s Quality Meats, a boutique butcher with a long history in the south end.
On the other side of the street, there’s El Sombrero, a pitch-perfect family Mexican restaurant serving traditional platters like a trio of enchiladas and giant burritos, and Geraldine’s Counter, a sought-after, welcoming brunch spot offering chicken-fried steak, pot pies, and pancakes galore. These six businesses form a thriving group that attracts hungry mouths and lots of traffic in a neighborhood that’s seen dramatic changes over the past two decades.
“I actually like the density,” says Martin, who with his sister took over Island Soul from his parents in 2010. “As parking gets more difficult, people from the neighborhood are coming in a lot more, I’ve noticed.” His restaurant is regularly packed: “Everybody’s got lines out the door,” he says. “I don’t think anybody’s mad at it.”
One such proprietor, James Ackley, owner of Bob’s Quality Meats, comes from a family of Seattle-area butchers. In many ways, he’s seen all that the restaurant business and Columbia City has to offer. His grandfather was a butcher with shops in both Yakima and Pike Place Market. Ackley’s father, brothers, uncles, and cousins all worked in meat markets. And his adopted children also work for his shop, which his family bought in the 1970s after taking over for a friend and prior owner who had passed away. Before that they occupied a larger butchery in West Seattle, now defunct. Now his restaurant supplies meats for neighboring and downtown restaurants and individual home cooks.
Ackley, who is mostly retired now, personally took over Bob’s in the mid-1990s, buying the shop from his parents. Back then, the neighborhood was more unsavory, he says. Illegal activity happened out in the open and often—drugs, prostitution, even the occasional drive-by, he says, though some of the local sex workers were his customers. They’d come in and buy meat to feed their family after working, he says.
But, as the years went on, more outside money flooded Columbia City, and many of the locals were forced to move out—a cycle that is perpetuated today. Nevertheless, the area’s charm subsists. Much of that charm can be found in the tantalizing, flavor-bursting block of eateries in the neighborhood’s heart.
“It’s always been a diverse area,” reminds Ackley. “It’s been a great neighborhood for a long time and it still is a great neighborhood. It’s kind of like its own small little town within a big metropolitan city.”
As things in Columbia City continue to change, one thing should remain certain: With a plethora of options—homemade spaghetti and meatballs at La Medusa; jerk chicken from Island Soul; housemade smoked sausage from Bob’s; a chicken burrito from El Sombrero; a fresh baguette from Columbia City Bakery; hash browns and an egg sandwich from Geraldine’s—no one should want for fine cuisine. And no one, we should hope, will ever go hungry.