Image: Taylor Shellfish Farms
Tourism season is winding down in Seattle now, but a tourist recently stopped us, asking, “We’d like to visit the fish market—where is it? Isn’t it Pikes Place where you go for seafood?” As lifelong Seattle residents, we’re used to visitors adding an “s” to the Pike Place Market. But I’d never stopped to realize that the iconic Seattle image of vendors tossing salmon back and forth would give the impression that The Market, as we call it, is a fish market, let alone where one would go in search of a salmon dinner. (There are restaurants in the Market that serve seafood, but it’s really more of a cultural experience than where to go to enjoy a salmon dinner.)
A CITY OF NEIGHBORHOOD EATERIES
This got us to thinking about seafood in Seattle. It’s easy to draw up a short list of the top most highly regarded seafood spots in the city, but the reality is that every well-respected Northwest-cuisine restaurant in the city offers at least a couple of seafood dishes during peak season (typically salmon and halibut) that rival dishes you’ll find at the most frequently mentioned places. As just one example, we had dinner recently at Autumn, a neighborhood restaurant on Phinney Ridge that’s far off the tourist track, and we had sockeye salmon with sweet corn puree, red pepper bits and asparagus that was medium-rare and beautifully prepared. It was actually the best salmon dish we’ve had this season. (Autumn is helmed by chef Brian Clevenger, celebrated for his prowess with pasta.)
Let’s start with the basics. The fresh seafood season in Seattle runs roughly May through October. Outside of these months you can expect frozen products, which isn’t necessarily bad: The best restaurants do wonders with flash-frozen salmon so that you wouldn’t even guess it’s frozen. But you’ll have the best experiences during peak season.
COPPER RIVER SALMON IS GOLD
The best salmon you’ll likely ever have, Copper River, is flown into Seattle from Alaska with much fanfare in late April or early May. The hype is justified. Copper River salmon is deep red in color and rich with oil that makes it more flavorful than most other salmon. It’s said that the fish acquires its extraordinary flavor due to its need to store up fat reserves in order to make a challenging, 300-mile migration along the length of Copper River. This delicacy demands high prices, at least for the first few weeks, when Copper River king is what’s available. A few weeks later, Copper River sockeye arrives. It’s less expensive than king, but it’s an even deeper color, even richer, and in our opinion, more flavorful. The allure of Copper River salmon isn’t only that it’s a delicacy, it’s also extremely limited, with a season that lasts only through early July. But salmon is just one option among many.
HALIBUT ALSO STARS
Halibut is a mainstay on Seattle plates in the summer, and it’s just as worthy as salmon. Since halibut is mild flavored, look for preparations that give it a lift—maybe a mango salsa or chimichurri. If you are a fish-and-chips lover, halibut is markedly better than cod; it’s firmer, meatier and all around tastier.
SEATTLE’S SHELLFISH SCENE
If you’re in the mood for crab, bypass flavorless snow crab and go straight for the local delicacy, Dungeness crab. It will be costly, but worth it. Just be sure to ask if it’s fresh, for the best flavor and texture. While frozen crabmeat can work in some preparations, such as pasta dishes with a sauce, frozen crabmeat is often disappointingly dense and soggy. As an added note, it’s not common in Seattle to find whole-crab dinners; the same goes for a “crab boil.”
The Northwest is known for its oysters, and oysters-on-the-half-shell, slurped at an oyster bar, will give you the truest sense of differences between varieties. We prefer them on the smaller, meatier and slightly sweet side. Types that fit this description include Kuushi, Kumamoto and Shigoku.
Clams are a Northwest classic, as well, and best simply steamed in a garlic and white wine broth. It’s really impossible to offer any particular place that offers steamed clams, since they are ubiquitous here on bar menus and as appetizers.
AND YET MORE SEAFOOD
Additional local wild fish varieties include a number of white-flesh fish that are extremely versatile, lending themselves to a wide variety of preparations. These include rockfish, ling cod, Pacific cod, petrale sole and sablefish, which is also referred to as black cod, though it’s not actually a member of the cod family. As a note, if you see black cod on a menu, don’t even hesitate to order it; sablefish is unlike any other fish. It’s rich and soft, “cutting” like butter with each bite. Sablefish is typically prepared in an Asian style, with soy and miso. Columbia River steelhead, a type of trout, isn’t wild—it’s farmed, reared in net pens on the Columbia—but that shouldn’t stop you from ordering it. It’s sustainably raised, and it’s delicious.
With all the fresh seafood here, sushi bars in Seattle are legion, and the topic merits an entire post of its own. As a teaser, any foodie Seattleite would tell you that Shiro’s Sushi, in Belltown, is the city’s iconic sushi spot. Shiro’s serves sushi with precision and flair in an unassuming space; their omakase menu promises a peak experience.
SOME OF OUR FAVORITE SEAFOOD SPOTS
- Anthony’s Homeport (Kirkland) and Anthony’s Pier 66 (Downtown Seattle waterfront) are middle-of-the-road restaurants with a lengthy menu of locally caught seafood, along with other options; these are waterfront restaurants with outdoor decks and gorgeous views. Anthony’s restaurants are ideal for families.
- Local Tide (Fremont) is a hole-in-the-wall spot serving innovative seafood dishes that are surprisingly affordable, in a casual setting. Their sandwiches, bowls and entrees take classics to another level with delicious twists, resulting in dishes that are nothing short of revelatory; The Seattle Times recently sang their praises.
- RockCreek (Fremont) is one of the city’s best seafood restaurants, with a worldwide focus: Fijian, Hawaiian, Chilean and Japanese fish are among the offerings. Oysters here are unfailingly delectable, and their Hawaiian hamachi crudo is absolutely sublime.
- Seastar Restaurant (Bellevue) earns its reputation as the star of Seattle-area seafood restaurants. They have a raw bar and a lengthy seafood-centric menu, served in upscale, contemporary surroundings. Their petrale sole is heavenly—buttery and crunchy, with a light panko-and-Parmesan crust.
- Taylor Shellfish Farms (several locations) is more of a casual seafood bar than a restaurant, but it’s the standard-bearer for fresh local shellfish. You can be sure that everything you have here is at its apex of flavor and freshness.
- The Walrus and the Carpenter, in Ballard, sets the bar for its seafood preparations: Its chef, Renee Erickson, is a 2023 semi-finalist for a James Beard “Outstanding Chef” award. You can expect beautifully presented fresh oysters and small plates that feature local produce. The pea vine salad with blue cheese, bacon, hazelnuts and sultanas has delicious bursts of flavor. A lengthy wine list and innovative cocktails add to the enticements in this beautifully designed white-on-white space.