Our guests often ask what restaurants we recommend. Our immediate answer is to visit the dining hot spot of Ballard, north of downtown, where some of the city’s best restaurants are concentrated along Ballard Avenue in a district often referred to as Old Ballard. Turn-of-the-century brick warehouses here have been transformed into dozens of trendy shops and restaurants, and the tree-lined streets buzz with activity, especially in the evenings.
If you’re not a local, it can be challenging to figure out where to even start. Here’s our personal, well-vetted guide to Ballard restaurants where you’ll be treated to Northwest ingredients, innovative dishes and top-notch service in lively, beautifully designed settings.
Atmospheric Meals at Stoneburner
We return to Stoneburner again and again for inspiring contemporary dishes with Italian roots served in a vibrant, atmospheric space. The architectural elements alone are stunning: With its barrel-vault ceiling, antique pressed-tin ceiling tiles, riveted metal archways and massive wrought iron gates (all decorative elements that were brought in), you might expect to see a restaurant like this in Milan or Rome. The entire front façade is a window wall that opens when the weather is nice, and there’s an airy outdoor dining pavilion.
The space is large and Stoneburner easily accommodates lots of diners, so there’s always a sense of joyful conviviality in the air here. One of our favorite spots is perches on swivel stools at the huge curving bar, where we can watch cocktail masters perform liquid magic in a theatrical setting.
Pasta, handmade in-house, and pizza, charred in a stone oven, are cornerstones of the menu, but grains and vegetables have nearly equal billing, and after their turn in the fiery oven and saucing, veggies absolutely shine here. The snap pea salad with Marcona almonds and pecorino (a spring/summer dish) is addictive, as is the French bean Caesar. We almost always order the fresh catch, as it’s unfailingly treated deftly and nicely paired with a delicious sauce or broth.
Impressive Contemporary Dishes at Sawyer
Sawyer drew the attention of the James Beard Foundation when it became a nominee for “Best New Restaurant” in 2019. It’s easy to see why when you visit this high-ceilinged temple to contemporary American fare. Inside a building that was originally a sawmill, the restaurant is expansive, with soaring ceilings, super tall (operable!) windows and a white-on-white palette. Their covered deck with roll-up garage doors is one of our favorite dining spots.
Every dish here is inventive, often with unexpected pairings that amplify flavors and textures. One of our favorite small dishes is savory wood-grilled artichokes with anchovy hazelnut remoulade and Parmesan. Even their house salad is an extraordinary flavor bomb—a combination of rotisserie chicken, goat cheese, dates, almonds and cornbread croutons. Seafood dishes rotate depending on the season; right now their King Salmon with sesame rice and mushroom dashi is rich with umami flavor.
During Covid, many Ballard Avenue NW restaurants installed outdoor dining pavilions in a restaurant row that is starting to look like it just might be a permanent fixture. All the outdoor seating just adds to the cachet of this exciting district. Dining in Old Ballard is such a hot ticket, it’s best to have a strategy: Make reservations two or three days in advance, opt for early bird dining or eat out earlier in the week (check first, though, since many places are closed Mondays and Tuesdays).
Italian Farmhouse Fare at San Fermo
For special occasions, we often head to San Fermo. It’s as notable for hand-formed pasta and other elevated Italian fare as for its simply lovely farmhouse chic design. This intimate restaurant is housed inside connected twin historic houses (built in the 1850s, and considered to be the oldest intact residential structures in the city). With lace curtains at the windows, a welcoming front porch and cheerfully mismatched China plates, San Fermo is downright charming.
The interior is all rambling rooms and passageways. You might find yourself dining in the tiny front room in view of the bustling open kitchen, in the slope-ceilinged attic or on a covered deck edged by a brick wall; space heaters and blankets keep you cozy no matter the weather. There’s also a spacious sidewalk dining pavilion.
The menu changes with the seasons, but for a delicious tribute to fall and winter, you might try the orecchiette with Beast and Cleaver Sicilian lamb sausage and morel mushrooms. (Beast and Cleaver, right here in Ballard, is an exceptional artisan butcher shop.) If it’s available during your visit, spring for the King salmon with summer squash, tarragon, garlic, mint and almonds. It’s as beautifully plated as it is delicious.
New American Food at The Ballard Cut
You really feel like you’re in Old Ballard at The Ballard Cut, with dark wood furniture and finishes, amber lighting and a sepia tone mural of old-time Ballard on the back wall. This newcomer to the Ballard foodie scene (it opened in June 2020) has been making waves with its focus on Western European comfort food using fresh farm ingredients. The Ballard Cut also boasts an extensive list of Japanese whiskeys.
It’s a surprise to us how under-the-radar this place is despite some of the best elevated cooking in Ballard; maybe this is because it’s still so new , but we love this place, and everyone who has eaten here on our recommendation raves about it.
Every dish here is layered with interesting flavors and textures, with multiple steps needed in the preparation. For example, the Coulotte steak is dry-brined and sauced with charred scallion-walnut salsa verde, and the accompanying potatoes are elevated with roasted red pepper pimento aioli. The choices are diverse, with everything from steamed clams and mussels to grilled octopus, venison tartare to crispy pork belly. The house-made pasta is always treated with great care; on a recent visit, we were transported to a forest in fall with tender furls of pasta holding intensely flavorful wild mushrooms in an alfredo-style sauce.
Smoke-Infused Flavors at Samara
Samara produces spectacular dishes from its cozy confines on a quiet neighborhood street just a few minutes northwest of Ballard Avenue, next to a cocktail haven and an eclectic wine bottle shop. A blazing wood-fired oven is the centerpiece of this cozy, convivial establishment, and it turns out exquisite seafood, heritage meats and seasonal produce dishes with complex flavors enhanced by a smoky char. The buttered Dungeness crab with tarragon on a charred rice cake is one of the most-inventive and crave-worthy dishes we’ve had, while the applewood-smoked magret of duck with brandied berries, couscous and pistachios has great depth of flavor and richness with just the right balance of sweet, savory and crunchy.
Since Samara is off the beaten path, you’ll be much more likely to rub elbows with Ballardites here. To make a full evening of it, stop by popular Baker’s, next door, for inventive cocktails before your dinner reservation, and wander next door to peruse the nicely curated collection of wines at Molly’s.
Upscale Eats at Staple & Fancy
A member of the Ethan Stowell restaurant empire, which boasts more than a dozen highly regarded restaurants throughout the city and beyond, Staple & Fancy serves Italian-inspired food and craft cocktails inside a 20th-century brick warehouse-turned-restaurant. The space glows in the evening with amber lighting and flames leaping in the wood-fired grill. Despite being a large space, the ambiance is intimate and the service is seamless. S&F is one of the district’s best special occasion restaurants. Before your meal, treat yourself to drinks and apps at the highly vaunted The Walrus and the Carpenter (celebrated for its beautiful treatment of local oysters), in the same building.
During Covid, S&F has shifted to a multi-course tasting menu of seasonal dishes. The menu changes regularly, but fall options include Hamachi crudo, strozzapreti with prawns, tomatoes and sofrito, and salmon with shishito peppers and mushrooms. The light ricotta cheesecake with roasted strawberries would be a lovely finish to what is always a memorable meal here.