Champagne Diner | Seattle Times Critic’s Pick | ★★½ | Updated diner/New American | $-$$ | Interbay | 945 Elliott Ave. W. #201, Seattle; no phone; champagnediner.com; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. every day; no reservations
Champagne Diner is so pretty inside, it’s like a dream. You know you’re in a diner here — the long counter with its swivel stools, the color-flecked tabletops, the dove-gray upholstered booths — but you don’t know exactly when or where. This isn’t 1950s reproduction, chrome-edged and jukebox-jangling with insistent nostalgia for a time best left behind. It doesn’t feel quite present-day, either; too spacious, too tasteful, calm, even. The room seems less Americana than subtly, futuristically Frenchified, with slender brass arms holding glass bar shelves and a flock of matching, stylized birds flying across the opposite wall.
Champagne Diner is hard to find, hidden in a nondescript building behind another likewise one along a stretch of Interbay’s busy Elliott Avenue. Close to Seattle’s center, the area remains improbably industrial — though not for long, with thousands of Expedia employees coming to the company’s new headquarters under construction a stone’s throw away. For now, it feels like nowhere, a cinematic disconnect from whatever the city’s becoming. Trains go by just outside the windows, and behind them loom silos full of grain. The coffee is strong, hot and far better than diner coffee needs to be, ideal for sitting at the counter on a rainy day.
The coffee comes from Dorothea, a careful little local roastery that Champagne Diner co-owner Bryn Lumsden says created a special diner-but-better blend. Lumsden also runs Pioneer Square’s Damn the Weather, another understatedly lovely place to eat and drink that, notably, brought the world the Caesar salad sandwich, with buttery brioche slices besting croutons. It’s not available at Damn the Weather anymore, lamentably, but Champagne Diner takes the Caesar-salad-sandwich spirit: known-quantity favorites, elevated meaningfully instead of irritatingly. Chef Brian Miyamoto grew up in Hawaii, helping open Masaharu Morimoto’s first location there; here, he’s worked at Restaurant Zoe, Art of the Table and L’Oursin. His Champagne Diner menu plays with diner classics like a “tuna melt” made with Pacific cod, Gruyere and cornichons, or a PBLT with pork belly taking bacon’s place.
Champagne Diner’s best results, foodwise, may cause freaking out, as in the case of the omelet and its captivated audience at the next table one lunchtime. “This is so good,” the eater-of-it said to her companion more than once, then told a server, “It’s silly good.” It’s true — mine, too, was a fluffy miracle, un-Americanized with just the right amount of pecorino/Gruyere blend and a sprinkling of chives. The refined sides: very thin slices of tasty country ham from Tails & Trotters and, recently, a summer vegetable ragout including lots of lobster mushrooms. The unrefined side: very thick slices of Texas toast made with bread from good ol’ Franz. The omelet functions as the place’s basic diner breakfast — no bacon and eggs here, with other “Eggs & Things” rotating from the likes of shakshuka to loco moco — and it’s pretty much perfect.
Same with the veggie potpie, noticeably peppery with lots of thyme, its small majesty of a pastry lid all glossy, buttery brown and lightly layered, melting into the savory filling on the underside — another ideal thing for a rainy day, and a dish where meat will not be missed. A half-dozen plump fried oysters, still burning hot, get served with malt-vinegar aioli, a minor but ingenious innovation.
More esoteric and equally outstanding: a chilled mussel roll, like a lobster one but far less expensive (two for $13.95) and arguably more interesting, with fennel bulb for crunch, rich Old Bay aioli and bright pickled shallot, all stuffed into fluffy, fresh, toasty rolls and prettily dressed with licorice-y fennel flowers. More basic and also great: Champagne Diner’s single big-ticket item, a gargantuan 36-ounce Painted Hills grass-fed rib-eye for $75, cooked exactly medium-rare, served with two sides and the excellent anachronism of winey, creamy, mushroomy sauce Diane — they say it’s for two, but seems more like four. With or without this meat-fest, the mashed potatoes are required eating, silky smooth and luxurious with a deeply reduced, just-right-salty chicken gravy.
Service is super-friendly here, such that you might not mind if they seem to lose your order for a bit. It was more distressing when things in the kitchen went sideways on a few occasions. The grilled half chicken ― free-range from Mary’s, a big portion plus mashed potatoes for $19.50 — seemed not only abundantly brined but tragically oversalted on its crispy skin. The threads, no pieces, of Chilean crab in the Cobb salad tasted watery, while the lettuce was overdressed until limp and the egg overcooked to dry-yolked and rubbery. Stingy gravy and meat proportions in the loco moco made it less like a hero surfer’s breakfast, more like an afterthought. Ovaltine pie: There’s a reason Ovaltine lost out to hot chocolate, and the tough crust was hard to get a spoon through.
But why have dessert at Champagne Diner when you can have bubbles? Natural wines are de rigueur these days, but not always dining-friendly; the ones chosen here taste less like kombucha-aggression, more like pure enjoyment, with or without food. Lorenzo Primo sparkling Italian rosé looked fruity-dark in the bottle but poured out apricot-colored and unsweet, smelling like hay and sunshine, fizzing with extra-celebratory enthusiasm and personality (and an affordable by-the-bottle choice at $32). Swick Wines’ K-Hungus red, from Washington, got served chilled here, cleverly cooling out some complicated flavors and astringent pounce — at $13.95, the top end of a changing by-the-glass list in which servers are well-versed. Beer nerds will find a brief A-list of drafts, bottles and cans, with the likes of Holy Mountain and Matchless (plus Montucky Cold Snack for their disappointing friends).
And as cocktail aficionados would expect from a sibling of Damn the Weather, Champagne Diner pours a mean set of mixed drinks. The layered Rhinestone Buck — rye, apricot, lemon, ginger beer, bitters — balanced sweetness and pucker, countering fruitiness with booze and bite for a crisp, refreshing whole. A Golden Old Fashioned with Calvados, gin, Benedictine and bitters looked aglow with its single big ice cube, and the oddity of twin base spirits tasted like the best experimentation, the kind that’s very well thought out.
Champagne Diner’s overall thoughtfulness holds lots of promise. The menu’s updated but not off-putting, offering something for everyone, from the esoteric joy of the chilled mussel roll to a comfortably familiar “drive-in style” burger or huge block of tasty ketchup-covered meatloaf. It’s splendid to find yourself in a place where even the lighting has a witty oddity to it, where a fun and funny soundtrack ranges from Anita Baker to ZZ Top but you can still hear yourself think. It’s old-school carefully balanced with new, and it feels like the right kind of déjà vu.
Champagne Diner: 945 Elliott Ave. W. #201, Seattle; no phone; champagnediner.com; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. every day
Recommended for the dreamy updated-diner setting, gorgeous house omelet, excellent vegetable potpie, crispy-hot fried oysters, chilled mussel roll, enormous rib-eye, silky mashed potatoes, exceptionally well-chosen natural wines, beer nerds’ favorites and very good cocktails.
Prices: $-$$ (“Eggs & Things” $10.99-$14.95; soups/salads $8.95-$16.95; sandwiches/burgers $ 12.50-$14.95; plates $14.95-$19.50; cowboy-cut rib-eye $75)
Drinks: full bar (cocktails $11.95) and natural-wine list (glasses $8.95-$13.95, bottles $27-$99.95, also available to go at the same price)
Noise level ranges from tranquil to convivially moderate, with music at a nonoverwhelming level and tables well-spaced
Service is knowledgeable and super-friendly, though delays may occur
Access: no obstacles, two gender-neutral restrooms