Part of Chef Brendan McGill’s expanding restaurant family, Café Hitchcock has a promising pedigree, location and menu, as it seeks to become a morning-to-night hangout.
The all-day cafe is having a moment across the country — from Danny Meyer’s Daily Provisions in New York to Gjusta in Venice, California — but it’s hardly a new idea. Here in Seattle, places like Café Presse, Ba Bar and Oddfellows Café have been morning-to-night hangouts for years. As more and more of us work fluid hours in the gig economy, or long days at the office with little time for meal prep, restaurants that blur the lines between diner, deli and dinner house make a lot of sense.
Café Hitchcock, among the latest to compete in the genre, occupies a prime spot for attracting hungry workers and commuters. It’s on First Avenue, where the ramp from Colman Dock disgorges ferry walk-ons, midway between Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market, in the Exchange Building, a gorgeous art deco office tower that looks as if it broke away from Rockefeller Center. (The Seattle landmark, completed in 1929, actually predates the New York City complex.)
The cafe belongs to chef Brendan McGill’s expanding restaurant family, the love child you imagine could result if McGill’s Bainbridge flagship, Hitchcock, had a weekend fling in Paris with one of its Hitchcock Deli cousins. Gilt-framed mirrors hang along one paneled wall; the opposite wall is roughened masonry. Butcher block abounds. Seating is at counters, booths or against a banquette where tables are easily merged to accommodate impromptu groups that might be unwinding from the workday, or extending it.
Café Hitchcock ★★½
818 First Ave., Seattle
Hours: breakfast 7-11 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner/happy hour 3-8 p.m.
Prices: $$/$$$ (breakfast $7-9, lunch $11-$15, supper $7-$19)
Drinks: cocktails; wines by the glass; local brews on tap include Iggy’s Honeybrew kombucha
Service: smooth and attentive
Parking: on street or in nearby lots
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Gleaming gray tile backs the open kitchen, next to the counter where you place your breakfast or lunch order. It is stacked with Macrina Bakery pastries and Silvia’s spectacular homemade biscuits. Before we get to those, let me just say the honey-drizzled hazelnut granola with house-made yogurt and chunky apricot preserves is sheer ambrosia. But those biscuits exert a powerful pull. They are big, golden, light yet sturdy enough to encase an egg sandwich that oozes cheddar and fennel-onion jam. Go whole hog and get Hitchcock’s excellent bacon on it, too.
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After that, you may not be hungry again until 3 p.m., which is when the evening menu kicks in and table service begins. But for those seeking lunch (at or away from your desk) eight sandwiches (built on Macrina Bakery bread), a soup and a few salads pretty much cover all the necessary bases.
A few items to consider: The “Puerco Rican” holds warmly spiced, smoky minced pork and red cabbage slaw jolted with oregano on a torpedo-shaped potato roll slathered with cilantro-lime aioli. The pastrami on rye contains a quarter pound of meat — thinly sliced and as gloriously fat-rimmed as you’d expect from the navel end of the brisket. I found the ratio of meat to crisp sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing ideal, but for three more bucks they’ll double the amount of pastrami. Just saying.
“Banh Girl,” made with turkey on a crusty potato square, is banh mi lite, but plenty perky due to a happy collusion of pickled daikon and carrot, sriracha, jalapeño and aoili spiked with fish sauce and lime. “Club Med” is a lusty sandwich sans meat. Eggplant and mozzarella star; garlicky tomato confit and herbed aioli lend supporting pizazz. When I ordered the sandwich to go, they thoughtfully put the crispy fried onions in a small container so they wouldn’t get soggy.
The recent watermelon gazpacho was more vegetal than fruity, bracingly sharp and spicy, but thin, like a liquefied salad. I preferred the actual salads. Roasted cauliflower had a lot of delicious razzle-dazzle in the form of pickled raisins, pistachios and a pinch of harissa. Chile oil and lemon added welcome spark to the less flashy lacinato kale salad with Puy lentils.
An evening cocktail, a beer or glass of bubbly might lead to a flirtation with local oysters, cheese or charcuterie, possibly even a full-blown commitment to dinner. There’s a first-rate roast chicken, conveniently cut into pieces, making it easy to share or save some for tomorrow’s lunch. The bird’s briny juices now mingle with the sherry vinaigrette that dresses basil-laced panzanella — bread salad done right, a true summer delight, made with chunks of ripe tomato and big, ragged sourdough croutons.
A re-imagined “Caesar” scores with whole leaves of Little Gem lettuce, salty strips of cured herring, crispy wafers of baked grana and a soft-cooked egg. Skookum Bay Manila clams are steamed with bacon in a honey mead broth worth drinking to the last drop. For that purpose, they provide a big spoon, along with a seafood fork, should you not want to slurp from a clam shell, as I did. Try fish baked in parchment and appreciate how the waiter deftly slits the paper pouch and turns it back with the tines of a fork, revealing Neah Bay rockfish, sea beans, radishes and fingerling potato and releasing the heady aroma of a sauce that tastes equally of butter and the sea.
Chef JJ Johnson has overseen the kitchen since its April debut. He was McGill’s first mentor long ago at Il Bistro and has been Hitchcock’s chef de Cuisine for the past 2 ½ years. Johnson is grooming chef Andie Lieberman to take over the cafe’s p.m. program. Dinner was introduced in May, but has struggled to find an audience. The hours were scaled back in June. Now happy-hour small plates and dinner items are combined on one constantly changing menu. Weekend brunch may be in the offing, and McGill is seeking a permit for sidewalk seating.
The pedigree, the location and the moderate prices for high-quality food make Café Hitchcock likely to succeed. McGill has more than the usual incentive to make that happen. The cafe conveniently sits on his regular “flight path” as he commutes between his Winslow and Seattle restaurants. As of last month, he added a new gig, cooking at the revamped Queen City Grill in Belltown, where he got his first Seattle restaurant job in 2001. The new owners are former colleagues. He doesn’t expect to be there long term but says, “I want the place to have a great, long-term success.” I wish the same for Café Hitchcock.