Renovation and new menu update the Queen without sacrificing classic spirit.
It’s not easy rehabbing royalty. Just ask Trevor Greenwood, co-owner of the Cantinetta restaurants. Last December, he and several partners struck a deal to buy Queen City Grill, thus averting the closure of that Belltown institution. The goal was to preserve a precious piece of restaurant history that dates back well before 1987, when Peter Lamb, Robert Eickhof and Steve Good launched Queen City Grill, possibly even before 1910, when Queen City Saloon opened at the corner of First and Blanchard.
Along with Greenwood, who once bused tables here, the new owners include bar manager Kevin Stewart, who spent 14 years tending this bar early in his career. For these alums, overhauling The Queen was, in Greenwood’s words, “a labor of love.” The renovation took five months and was extensive. In addition to gutting the bathrooms and installing new wiring and plumbing, they soda-blasted the brick walls, uncovered and restored the original old-growth floor boards, refinished the mahogany booths and bar and refurbished the decorative tile and Art Deco glass.
The result is a restaurant that feels fresh but retains a handsome patina of age. It also very much looks like a member of the Cantinetta family. Sconces set between the building’s original transom windows give off a peachy glow. Boudoir lamps tucked into the windowsills illuminate the secluded booths. White cloths cover a few tables up front, set along a church-pew banquette, a regal nod to formality in a place that is, at heart, still a saloon.
Queen City Grill ★★½
2201 First Ave., Seattle
Hours: dinner 5-11 p.m. daily; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; happy hour 5-6:30 p.m. and 10-11 p.m. daily
Prices: $$$$ (starters $9-$18; entrees $16-$39)
Drinks: full bar; wines from Washington, California, Italy and France
Service: warm and observant
Parking: on street or in nearby lots
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
The restaurant reopened in late May but it took longer to get the kitchen on track.
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Over the summer, chefs came and went. At one point, Brendan McGill, another Queen City alum, was cooking, but with several restaurants of his own to oversee (Hitchcock, Bruciato, et al), that was only a temporary fix.
Initial visits revealed a kitchen struggling to achieve consistency. I found expertly seared and seasoned Neah Bay king salmon, but unevenly fried Dungeness crab cakes that were way too salty. An exquisite seafood fritto misto included scallops, squid and smelt, but lackluster aioli. Plump Manila clams were steamed in a nondescript broth. Lumpy house-made ricotta anchored a salad of crisp-tender snap peas and tough pea vines. Spicy collard greens and bland black-eyed peas accompanied a fat pork chop, juicy to the bone.
By Labor Day, Greenwood had persuaded Brian Cartenuto, the opening chef at the original Cantinetta in Wallingford, to pull up stakes in Florida and return to Seattle. The menu still hews closely to The Queen’s traditional mix of steak and seafood, but Cartenuto’s combination of sass and soul is just what this old gal needed.
On the sassy side, there’s braised baby octopus in a vinaigrette warmed with allspice and a touch of harissa. Its arms, crispy at the tips and otherwise firm without being chewy, embraced piquant greens, cured olives and golden raisins. Halibut, a fish always in need of pizazz, gets plenty of it. The deftly seared fillet sat atop an aromatic fumé of fennel, saffron and tomato. Chili-stoked gremolata finished that zesty broth, which harbored tiny mussels and clams and dainty basil spaetzle.
Meat-and-potatoes fans have two steaks to choose from, a filet and a New York strip, the only two entrees in the $30 range. I can vouch for the New York. I detected some dry-aged funk under the torrent of watercress and chive butter that melted across its exterior crust and seeped into the peppery bordelaise sauce underneath. The steak’s sidekick, colcannon croquettes, are elevated Tater Tots: panko-breaded, deep-fried nuggets of mashed potato speckled with kale.
On the soulful side, chicken soup with wild rice, slivered shiitakes and a couple of airy dumplings was just the balm it sounds like. A whiff of Parmesan and a touch of sherry vinegar gave the broth depth and a welcome lift. I wanted to pick up the bowl and drink the dregs.
Pasta is surefire comfort food as well. Joe Obaya, pasta maker for all the Cantinetta restaurants, fashions the noodles used here in specials that change every few days. Cavatelli were so adorably tiny that using a spoon was the most efficient way to scoop them up, along with their tomato-sweetened pork ragu. Carrottop pesto sounded like great idea for tagliatelle, but the flavor of the greens was faint and the thick, creamy sauce lay heavily on the supple noodles. (Worth noting: If you ask for a half-portion of pasta, the kitchen will oblige.)
Cartenuto’s playfulness extends to desserts. He retired the tiramisu, I hope temporarily; it was one of the city’s best. He resurrects the Pavlova, a classic dessert dating to the 1920s. He updates it with vanilla-steeped pineapple, sumac ice cream and fresh mint loosely arranged over baked meringue that’s crisp but soft and light inside. The best thing about the “molten” carrot cake isn’t the spice cake or its puddinglike filling of carrot curd and mascarpone but its companion: fabulous butternut squash ice cream studded with candied carrot chips.
Like many in Seattle, I have fond memories of Queen City Grill, which has had its ups and downs over the decades. I last visited when I reviewed it 10 years ago. I was pleased, though not really surprised, to see Lorenzo Boini still waiting tables, as he’s been doing here for 30 years. A number of seasoned pros work the front of the house, led by general manager Amon Mende, who spotted me every time I tried to sneak in. Eating here again, after so long, was like reconnecting with an old flame and finding that the spark is still there.