Sophisticated and Laid Back, Café Hitchcock Is What Downtown Needs

Brendan McGill expands his Bainbridge-born brand in all the right ways.

Brendan McGill has been busy lately. Fresh off the opening of Bruciato, the high-end pizza place that is neighbor to his original Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island, the chef has turned his attention to Seattle. Though there’s already an outpost of his deli in Georgetown, this time, he is taking on downtown, just at the edge of Pioneer Square. There, his Café Hitchcock (818 1st Ave., 467-5078) offers an all-day rotation of experiences—from morning pastries to afternoon deli sandwiches to the more recent addition of a posh happy hour and dinner.

He’s picked a superlative spot. Inside the Exchange Building, with historic landmark designation, you can pause and look upon the lobby with its art deco flourishes. Inside Hitchcock, they’ve stripped down the guts of the 2,000-square-foot space to expose pipes and brick. But rather than calling it a day, they’ve gone a step further and added smart touches to enhance the industrial ambience—gilded mirrors, subway tile, and beautifully grained wooden banquettes and tables, all inset into a larger wooden frame that’s painted a beguiling, smoky gray-blue.

What I especially love about Café Hitchcock is that it’s what downtown has been sorely missing: a sophisticated but laid-back restaurant that’s a departure from overpriced mediocrity. The menu, pared down to just a dozen items for dinner, doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but rather entice with classic, French-leaning dishes, heavy on seasonal Pacific Northwest provenance. There’s pâté, made with ground pork shoulder and liver, pistachios, and bacon from McGill’s own pigs and served with an intense whey-fermented mustard, as well as a croque-madame sandwich. But there’s also a lovely chilled asparagus salad, the perfect tips lined up crossways on top of the bottoms, waiting to be disheveled, with a tart dollop of green goddess dressing hunkered in a yellow pool of turmeric oil, a creamy cloud of burrata, and chive blossoms scattered about.

Neah Bay rockfish comes en papillote (in paper) and exhales a steamy sigh when the server cuts it open to reveal the delicate, mild-flavored fish, salted with sea beans and made heartier with roasted fingerling potatoes and tiny, earthy turnips. An herb butter at the bottom could have been more luxurious; the whole affair needed just a bit more flavor. But the roasted half of a Mad Hatcher chicken was a testimony to everything chicken should be. Though there’s no wood-fired oven here as at other McGill venues, the server explained to us (after we’d enquired whether the bird was cooked sous vide, since it was utter perfection) that they’ve done their best to mimic the preparation of the chicken in keeping with their other menus. Twenty-five minutes in the stove yielded white meat that not only gushed juices but was adroitly seasoned in a way that doesn’t just read salt, but chicken. That’s right, poultry actually has a flavor all its own when prepared well, which is rare. The skin was a gleaming golden brown that fought with just the right effort to stay adhered to the flesh before gracefully giving way to the fork. A watercress and wild radish salad with its cider vinaigrette added a playful splash of acidity. This may be the best roasted chicken in the city, and I hope that the kitchen under Chef de Cuisine JJ Johnson, of Hitchcock on Bainbridge, can uphold the excellence.

What’s also great about the restaurant is the happy hour menu, offered from 3 to 7 p.m. Besides the usual cheese plate, pickles, and charcuterie, also on offer is one of the entrées; when we were there, it was the fish, priced at $12 instead of $16 (both a steal, really) as well as dishes you won’t find on the dinner menu, like spring vegetable tartine, a seasonal soup, and Toulouse-style pork sausages with green lentils (all under $10). It’s a happy hour menu with meat (literally and figuratively), designed not just to offer you their lowest-cost items but to actually feed you handsomely at a good price point—and I love that they go the extra hour, allowing those who don’t work right around the corner plenty of time to get there and indulge. More restaurants should take note. The happy hour drinks are on point too, with two craft cocktails for $6, $7 house red and white wine, and $2 off house cocktails. I went with a reasonably priced $10 brut rosé.

Dessert was only one choice: strawberries and rhubarb roasted compote-style—syrupy, sweet, and warm, with a zabaione melting a bit too quickly into the fruity bath. It was delicious, but I couldn’t detect any marsala wine (or other liquor) in it, which would have juxtaposed nicely with the berries. Nonetheless, we left happy and with our tummies and wallets still comfortably full. NICOLE SPRINKLE