HELLO! WELCOME TO A NEW ERA in Seattle Times restaurant coverage. Which restaurant do you love the most? Which one do you wish you’d been warned about before you spent your time — and your money, and your stomach space — there? In a renewed effort to watch over our booming food scene, my colleague Tan Vinh and I will now review restaurants for you, bringing dual — and sometimes dueling — perspectives on all kinds of places. Also joining the team: food reporter Jackie Varriano, specifically charged with scouting out what’s happening all around Seattle’s neighborhoods.
Our new way of looking at reviews will hold Seattle’s restaurant scene to a higher standard. We’ll tell you about the city’s best places, of course, but when we feel you should be warned, we will write negative reviews — something other outlets here seem afraid to do. We’ll also be taking a more egalitarian approach, giving careful consideration to all kinds of places at all kinds of price points, all across the Seattle area. And we’ll tell you about the stories behind the food, going beyond a rundown of atmosphere, service and dishes.
You may already know my byline: I’ve told stories surrounding food for The Seattle Times for five years now. Or Tan’s: He’s had the only job that’s arguably better than food writer — covering cocktails — for even longer. Sometimes Tan and I will write about places together, as we did with our recent evaluation of Seattle’s pricey new rooftop restaurant-and-bars. More often, we’ll do separate reviews. As we start out, we want to share our thoughts on how we’re going about this — with, we hope and trust, input from you.
Dining out can be expensive, and we’re going to hold restaurants accountable. If a big-name chef opens a place that just isn’t that good, we will alert you — although with so many interesting places that are new, we think Ethan Stowell’s forthcoming third edition of Tavolàta can probably go without a review. We’d rather tell you about Il Nido, pasta genius Mike Easton’s first foray into a dinnertime restaurant, or vaunted Altura’s more affordable Italian place, Carrello, coming this fall. We won’t review Matsu, with much the same menu as the owners’ existing Momiji and Umi Sake House; we will (gladly!) go to San Kai when it opens in Edmonds to eat at chef Ryuichi Nakano’s counter, since everybody loved his sushi at Tangletown’s Kisaku.
We believe all kinds of restaurants, run by all kinds of people, at all kinds of price points, are worthy of full-length reviews. Spice Waala started out as a farmers market food stand, and you deserve to know all about it. Details on any and all excellent dumpling spots will be coming your way. Bars making interesting food — such as chef Mutsuko Soma’s new Hannyatou — are definitely part of our purview. We’ll continue the Seattle Restaurant Classics series, honoring the beautiful, affordable and tried-and-true, with previous tributes including Tai Tung in the Chinatown International District, Chace’s Pancake Corral in Bellevue and Ezell’s all over the place. It won’t happen often, but if a hugely popular chain like Shake Shack comes to town, we’ll wait in line to tell you whether it’s worth it (and what’s deeply wrong with their French fries).
As part of seeking out diverse greatness in Seattle-area restaurants, we’ll tell the stories of the people behind the food — not just whether what’s on the plate or in the paper wrapper is good or not. We’ll try to put restaurants into meaningful cultural context in a city that’s morphing like mad. We will avoid “food trend” stories that belittle or fetishize other cultures. We’ll admit when we don’t know something and share how we learn — by eating, reading, cooking, talking to chefs and maybe their moms, too.
We aren’t anonymous — that’s close to impossible these days, and it also doesn’t matter. Even the faces of critics who try their hardest to go unrecognized are known to some in the industry (and those who donned disguises once upon a time didn’t necessarily enjoy anonymity, either). We’ve already found that there’s not much a place can do to up its game at the last minute, and that no restaurant can inject joy where there isn’t any. We’ll make reservations under aliases in order to visit unannounced. We’ll give new places a month to get their feet under them, then eat at least twice before we write, unless otherwise noted. The Seattle Times will pay for our outings.
While giving star ratings to restaurants has become controversial, Tan and I will continue this tradition — but in an anti-traditional way. The star-rating system has historically privileged fine dining for its level of service, meaning that the places most of us can afford to truly love — like the ones we feel so lucky to locate in a tucked-away space, the perfect-in-their-own-way neighborhood spots or the city’s best pizzerias — are left out in the cold. We want to meet restaurants where they are, assessing how well they do what they set out to do, not hold them to an arbitrary, antiquated standard. We’ll give a much-anticipated place from a top-notch chef in a historical space three-and-a-half out of four stars — and we’ll also give a spot in a mall serving the best xiao long bao we’ve ever had the same stellar rating. You deserve to know what’s best around here, at every level, and the people making it deserve the accolades. We also won’t hesitate to give low ratings to places we don’t think are worth your time and money. And, of course, we intend to write honestly, compellingly and evocatively enough that you’ll be able to tell whether you want to go to a given place or not, the subjectivity of stars aside.
Sound level and accessibility matter. Not to sound crabby, but we like to be able to hear ourselves think — and our friends talk — when we’re out somewhere, so we’ll let you know how noisy places are. And we want everyone to be able to enjoy our dining scene, so we’ll assess accessibility and the bathroom setup.
We’re extremely excited to eat a lot and consider it very carefully for you — we love so much about what’s happening in and around Seattle right now, and we’ll let you know what we dislike, too. We pledge our allegiance to your eating happiness, and to the betterment of our restaurant scene. We’re so glad to put our eyes, ears, stomachs, brains and hearts to work for you. In a time when much feels difficult, let’s enjoy this together. Ready?