Shiny new restaurants are a dime a dozen in Seattle, but our old-school, solid-gold greats deserve the love, too. Well-priced, locally owned, community-centered and timelessly tasty is what we’re after in this series — and sometimes that comes with a side of politics.
The 5 Spot: 1502 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle; 206-285-7768; chowfoods.com/5-spot; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Waiting at the top of Queen Anne Hill — Seattle’s highest — The 5 Spot is a paragon of a certain stripe of American dining. Yes, that is real steam rising from the big, three-dimensional coffee cup on the retro sign outside (from a steam generator, not real coffee). Inside, you’ll find burgundy Naugahyde booths, honey-colored maple paneling with tables to match, sturdy wooden chairs and frosted light fixtures reminiscent of a schoolhouse. Open for three decades now, the place is high-ceilinged and friendly-feeling, more 1930s or ’40s charm than nifty-fifties diner gleam. Sweet-smiled servers wear plaid shirts and white aprons.
The side of The 5 Spot with the swooping curve of a bar features a huge painting of Mount Rainier, misty in the distance among noble trees, ready to be the pattern for the flannel lining of a cozy old sleeping bag. Seats here offer a view of the busy, nothing-fancy open kitchen, with sizzle, clatter, Spanish and laughter to be overheard. Sample soundtrack: The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” This is an early-bird-special, breakfast-all-day kind of place, with big portions including extra milkshake in a frosty silver cup. Because this is present-day Seattle, the eggs in your omelet are cage-free and the mushrooms are locally foraged; a handsome B.L.T. gets an avocado upgrade and Macrina bread. The golden French fries here — not too skinny, not too fat — make you feel like everything’s just right.
The 5 Spot’s dinner menu, along with a few daytime specials, has been roving the regional cuisines of the United States since the beginning, settling in, say, New Orleans for a few months (with the beignets getting so much love, they’re here to stay). And because this is the present-day U.S.A., and because owner Peter Levy is fed up with the current administration’s immigration policy, that menu’s now gone further than ever before. This summer, it’s “Comida sin Fronteras,” or Food Without Borders, which includes dishes from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. A dollar from every entree sold goes to the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
Levy, who says he feels “extraordinarily strongly about this,” is not mincing words. “We are more than a bit incensed at our government and the soulless, reptilian-brained, blathering leader of the free world,” he wrote in an email detailing the program. For him, it’s a matter of personal belief and business, too. “Our kitchens are probably at least 50% Latino,” he says (he also runs Seattle’s Endolyne Joe’s, the High Life and TNT Taqueria). Meanwhile, the restaurant industry, here and beyond, is in the midst of a labor shortage, and Migration Policy Institute research puts immigrants at 17% of the U.S. labor force and twice as likely to be employed in food prep as native-born workers. Another M.P.I. analysis found that food prep and service is the number-one occupation among DACA-eligible workers.
An explanation of Comida sin Fronteras on The 5 Spot’s menu and website notes that it features “the foods of the immigrants seeking nothing more than a better life for their families,” expressing hope for “a common-sense agreement … that allows these immigrants to join the rest of us, most of whose family came from another country in generations past.”
To underscore the issue, The 5 Spot built a wall. Three panels bearing topical artwork now divide the bar from the dining room — one of them, of weathered corrugated steel, depicts a dove with a branch of peace in its beak, nesting atop a familiar orange wad of hair. The 5 Spot puts out a call to a roster of local artists for each new menu theme, and plenty more original drawings and paintings are here to represent this one.
“Fun at the Wall” by Curtis Dee Stairs shows children playing soccer in front of a border wall painted with stark crosses and “HECHO EN MEXICO,” the tops of palm trees and the setting sun visible just beyond it. Another, by Samantha Montes de Oca, casts President Donald Trump as a puppetmaster, the strings dangling over another border wall. A Day-Glo work, “Dangers of a Washington State Migration” by Aaron Larson, has a man holding a box of Washington apples at its center — he’s grimacing, maybe, or ready to scream, and he’s surrounded by handcuffs, a border patrol helicopter, other instruments of enforcement and terror.
The place is also decorated with bleached cow skulls, hanging bouquets of dried red peppers, poufs of paper flowers. The 6-foot-tall statue of Lady Liberty in the back — she’s always watching over the proceedings at The 5 Spot — wears a cowboy hat and a colorful drape of blanket. Levy says he should’ve covered her eyes.
Noelle Huerta, The 5 Spot’s chef, grew up in the Bay Area; her mother’s from Mexico, her father from Italy. She says her favorite piece of Comida sin Fronteras artwork is “Strength in Unity” by Natalie Brewer. It shows hands of many different shades reaching up, with words like “WHEN WE ARE UNITED NO ONE CAN STOP US.” Huerta says to her, it means “We need to support everyone. We have to be in it for everyone. We’re all humans … whether you like it or not.” She estimates the response to the program has been “99% positive,” with just a couple people who’ve thought it was too much. “If you’ve got to ruffle some feathers,” she asserts, “it’s totally worth it.”
And, “Everybody loves the food,” Huerta notes, including the staff. “My entire kitchen crew is of some sort of Latin descent,” she says. “A lot of them have come here for better lives for their children, for their families.” Recipes for the special menu — Honduran tacos fritos, Guatemalan pollo pepián, lots more — came from staff members, and taste-tests ensured proper representation of how a grandma made it or remembrance from childhood. 5 Spot cook Patricia Ayala taught Huerta how to make pupusas, the cheese-filled heart of the menu’s enormous, gloriously messy El Benedicto Salvadoreño. “And now it’s one of our most popular dishes,” Huerta says happily.
5 Spot owner Levy says that the culinary themes usually run for about four months, but they’ve not yet put an end date on this one. The fundraiser’s netted just over $3,000, and he hopes to see that double. “This is the first menu that we’ve ever stepped outside the continental U.S. in 30 years …” he says. But: “This is what America is today.”