Lai Rai  | Vietnamese | $$ | Belltown | 2234 First Ave. | 206-922-3874 | | Reservations accepted | takeout/outdoor seating | noise level: loud | access: no obstacles | men’s and women’s restrooms

The other day, while I peered through the window at Lai Rai Restaurant in Belltown, I heard thumping music overhead, noticed the Red Bull and the blueberry Stoli vodka behind the glowing red counter and thought “this looks like the kind of place where bad decisions are made after midnight.”

But Lai Rai, if you can overlook the clubby vibe, is a Vietnamese restaurant with serious culinary aspirations. Cousins and owners An Nguyen and Ocean Nguyen hired Christopher Ritter, a former sous chef at the critically acclaimed Stateside on Capitol Hill, to riff some western takes on comfort food from the Nguyens’ homeland.

Ritter clearly has chops. The Philly native, who also did a short stint at Serafina in Eastlake, has a firm grasp of Asian umami and can mingle eastern and western flavors without the result feeling forced.

But what this Belltown bistro needs is someone who can synthesize the rest of the experience at Lai Rai. Or at least make it choose what it wants to be. It’s all over the place.

The plates aspire to be on the same playing field as Stateside and Monsoon, the gold standard for elevated Vietnamese cuisine in Seattle. But those plates arrive to a space that can’t decide whether it’s a serious dining room or a nightclub. I’ve come here at 4 p.m. and found the lights turned so low, and the music cranked so high, I thought I’d walked into Ladies’ Night. I could barely read the menu, much less carry on a conversation with a companion two feet away. At the same time, the two TVs overhead also showed NBA games, as if the place also wanted to bring in the sports bar crowd.


I’ve also been here on a Saturday night when the place was too bright and the music only murmured and gave the mood of a weekday business lunch. It’s as if the circadian rhythm of Lai Rai isn’t tuned to the rest of the city.

The ambience was so distracting, it detracted from the food and drink.

What a shame because the food and craft cocktails are excellent.

At press time, lead bartender Michael Catiis, one of the underrated young talents in Seattle, has left the restaurant, but his drinks remain on the menu. A dry gin martini, the London Ikebana, plays off the classic Vesper cocktail with a citrusy sake, while his old-fashioned-esque Improved Oaxacan cocktail is a stellar, savory mescal sipper mixed with Luxardo maraschino and anise liqueur.

On the bar food, staples of vermicelli noodles and sandwiches get gussied up with marbled beef and other high end meats. The beef short rib banh mi pays homage to the Philly cheesesteak — covered in a lava of Beecher’s cheddar doctored with fish sauce and flecked with crunchy, fried shallots. It is drunk food for the late night revelers.

There are also glammed up Saigon-street-inspired shared plates I would go back for: fermented pork meatballs threaded into a lemon grass stalk and then grilled; and charred betel leaf-wrapped beef sausages made luscious with the addition of pork fat.


But the flat iron steak is the umami bomb we all need, a grilled slab with a piquant bite from all the infused koji and fish sauce, a taste reminiscent of your favorite teriyaki. Comes with a side of crunchy “taro tots.”

Many other dishes come with a side of zingy cabbage slaws imbued with a mochi-like chew from the soaked rice paper.

It’s too bad a perfectly grilled pork chop marinated in Sprite was marred by the stale pineapple bun it was served in. And when I saw my mushy shrimp salad drowning in a pool of condensed milk sauce, I wondered if the kitchen was just as dark as the dining room, and maybe the line cook couldn’t see what he was plating.

The dollar signs signify the average price of a dinner entree: $$$$ = $35 and over, $$$ = $25-$34, $$ = $15-$24, $ = under $15 (updated March 2022)