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Rooms with a view: Does Seattle have any great waterfront restaurants?

With fanfare, Seattle's “big three” view restaurants have re-modeled and re-branded these past few months. Will the facelifts re-energize Salty's, Palisade and Ray's?

By Ronald Holden

February 20, 2013.

In 1985, Gerry Kingen bought a tumbledown waterfront building in West Seattle called the Beach Broiler and added it to his portfolio of seafood restaurants in Portland and the South Sound. That restaurant, Salty's on Alki, sits on Harbor Avenue two miles across Elliott Bay from downtown.

“It's a million-dollar view,” says Kingen. It's also a $10-plus million a year restaurant, in the Top 100 top-grossing, non-chain restaurants nationwide.

Of Seattle's Big Three water view eateries, Salty's is probably in the best location to weather the storms of fickle public opinion — not to mention complaints that it's overpriced. (Somebody has to pay for that million-dollar view.)

Salty’s owner is also a restaurant pro. Kingen is the man behind the Blue Moon Tavern, Boondock's, Lion O'Reilly's and the Red Robin’s gourmet burgers. (The next venture for Kingen and his wife/business partner Kathy is barbecue. But that’s another story.)

Salty’s has a well-developed event and catering business. The restaurant boasts as many seats, on its lower level, as the ballrooms in Seattle's downtown hotels. It also hosts a popular weekend brunch. Best of all, Salty's sits on prime real estate, and is planning to develop some of its underused space (like the parking lots) for a small, luxury hotel.

Salty's doesn't buy traditional advertising, relying instead on its well-trained staff  “to share their knowledge, sense of adventure and excitement,” explains Kingen. To stay in touch with Salty’s client base, the Kingens have compiled an email list of 100,000 names. Client feedback may prompt a change now and then (a new napkin color, for example). But the Kingens are more interested in promoting that buffet of crab legs to their client list. And it’s not just tourists, either; up to two thirds of Salty’s guests are locals.

Palisade, on a low bluff at the southern tip of Magnolia, overlooks the Elliott Bay Marina and Smith Cove. The twinkling lights of downtown Seattle — sometimes blocked by cruise ships — are three miles to the southwest. Palisade is owned by Restaurants Unlimited, the parent company of Palomino and Cutters, among many others, which has nurtured a goodly share of local talent (Chef John Howie, for example).

Like its competitors, Palisades targets customers who are looking for a “celebration” restaurant. The restaurant is celebrating its 20th birthday this year with a few new menu items and what GM Doug Zellers (brought in from the Washington Athletic Club a couple of years ago) describes as cleaner, fresher tastes. Ryan O'Brien, a star at RUI's Portland City Grill, was tapped to run the revitalized kitchen with an “elegance on every plate” mandate. Says Zellers: “People had kind of forgotten about Palisade.” At one point, the vaunted Sunday brunch even lost its signature seafood buffet; it was quickly reinstated.

But Palisade, for all its uniqueness and prestige, is not a stand-alone store. It’s one restaurant in a $150 million company (and a small part of an even broader private equity portfolio, Florida-based Sun Capital, at that). As a result, it may not be getting the attention it deserves.

There's been a refreshing coat of paint and a new layer of upholstery; the signature Ocean Tower (oysters, lobster, crab legs, prawns, etc.) now arrives table-side on a customized metallic stand shrouded in a cloud of dry ice, as dramatic an entrance as one can imagine. But is that enough to make Seattle pick Palisade when it comes time to celebrate?

On Shilshole Bay in Ballard, Ray's is six miles outside downtown. It began life as Ray Lichtenberger's  boathouse 60 years ago, with a glowing neon beacon (RAY'S) to signal sailors approaching the Ship Canal locks and Lake Union. The immutable attraction here is the stunning sunset view across the water to the Olympics, but it's more than location that brings people here today. Upstairs, in the informal café, there's Ray’s reliable fish & chips, plus a bar with craft beer. Next door, a full-on catering venue. Downstairs, in the Boathouse proper, two iconic dishes: Alaska King Salmon and Sake Kasu Sablefish, both created by Ray's first chef, Wayne Ludvigsen, and carried forward by the incumbent, Wayne Johnson.

Ordinary seafood is not enough, though. “Today's diner is more worldly,” says co-owner Russ Wohlers. So Ray’s has made some adjustments.

The kitchen is updating traditional recipes with techniques from the Nathan Myhrvold school of modernist cuisine. The owners have remodeled, emphasizing the restaurant’s relatively low ceilings and awkward length by evoking the intimate interior of a Chris Craft yacht: dropping the ceiling even further, accentuating contours with gold lighting, referencing the water with more blue tones and adding a 30-foot bar in the middle of the room to break up the space.

Lastly, in a nod to post-2008 economic reality, Ray’s has added smaller plates, lower price-points and more exotic flavors and cocktails to its menu, all in an effort to appeal to its target audience (the acknowledged decision-makers when it's time to select a restaurant): women in their late 30s.

“Our research showed that Seattle locals hadn't been to Ray's in four to seven years,” says marketing consultant Ken Grant, brought in to spearhead the re-branding. “There are 5,000 restaurants in King County, so we can't be a museum. We're in the entertainment business; we have to tell a story.” With the right story, Ray's hopes to go from a $9 million restaurant to a $12 or even $14 million enterprise.

“We'll still have around 50-percent tourists,” Wohlers acknowledges, but more locals seem willing to spend the $50 per person cost of a dinner. So how do you modernize without scaring away your regulars?  At Ray's, it looks like you rock the boat — a little. Just enough “to be on the leading edge again.”

None of these restaurants offers particularly bold flavors or innovative dishes; that's probably not possible at Seattle's top view and celebration restaurants. Exquisite food requires enormous artistic concentration by a talented team and a willingness on the part of diners to experiment. Those conditions simply don't exist — maybe cannot exist — in popular restaurants with 250 to 400 seats that serve a thousand or more meals a day. What Seattle’s view restaurants do, generally, deliver is quality ingredients, properly prepared, and served up with a drama befitting their spectacular setting.

That means careful plating, polished service, a few food towers and some sizzle. Best of all, you get a taste (albeit a very mild one) of what Seattle's vaunted food scene is all about.

Along with a really great view.

Seattle writer Ronald Holden blogs at Cornichon.org. He can be reached at editor@crosscut.com.

View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2013/02/20/food/113044/Seattles-decent-waterfront-restaurants/

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Printed on July 28, 2014