Much like a teenager full of secrets and rainbow coffee drinks, there’s a lot going on in Ballard. Some of this neighborhood is an earthy-crunchy suburbia, some is an industrial wasteland of crates and shipping equipment, and some belong to the locks that let boats through as tourists watch in pure awe, because they came all the way from Cincinnati and that’s all these locks do?
The center of Ballard is where all of the action happens (with a few other spots sprinkled throughout the neighborhood), and it’s a landmine of choice restaurants - but only if you know where to go. So we’ve put together a guide to our favorite places to eat here.
You can’t call yourself a Seattleite unless you’ve chased down some raw oysters with champagne at The Walrus and The Carpenter at 4pm on a Saturday. It’s the perfect power move for a casual date or impressing out-of-town friends. Grab a seat at the marble bar overlooking the oysters waiting their turn to be shucked and share some of the best small plates in the city. Also, a cocktail at The Barnacle Bar next door is mandatory with every visit.
If you know someone who irons their jeans, you should take them to Copine, a French-ish spot where each dish is more elegant than the last and the service is incredible. Food-wise, you’ll want the roast chicken, the excellent steak, and the tagliatelle with speck and a soft egg.
There are plenty of great Sawyers in this world. Like Huckleberry Finn’s trusted leader, and the bad boy from Lost. But unlike these fictional characters, this Sawyer is a very real restaurant - and we’re glad it exists. It’s clear from the shell of this place that it used to be a sawmill, but the nice interior set the scene for any kind of upscale scenario. The menu is all over the place, but we really like the rotisserie porchetta and the oxtail nachos. Always end things here with either a cookie dough semifreddo dilly bar or the homemade Choco Tacos.
San Fermo is a romantic little white house with some of the best Italian food in Ballard and the charm of an indie rom-com scene. When it’s cold, get a bowl of l’amatriciana and a brown liquor cocktail, and when it’s warm, sip glasses of wine on the porch with chickpea flatbread. No matter what season you’re in, make San Fermo your date night or special occasion secret weapon.
You might be familiar with Paseo, which means you might be familiar with the story of how a family-owned sandwich empire was bought by an investor at an auction, and never was the same. Un Bien is the new-ish sandwich shop run by the family who started Paseo. It’s an exact replica of the original Caribbean menu, and after one bite, you’ll realize you never need to eat at Paseo again. Get the roast pork sandwich, the fire-roasted corn, and don’t wear a shirt that you care about, because you will spill on it (this food is worth every OxiClean spot treatment).
The logo for Mean Sandwich is a giant open mouth, and it’s an accurate representation of how we look while eating here. This new-ish sandwich joint f*cking rocks. The space is small and has that old school deli-counter feel, but the ingredients and flavor combinations are modern - try housemade thick-sliced corned beef with mustard, pickled cabbage, and a fistful of mint, or the chicken cutlet (our favorite thing here). Everything is from scratch, down to their bread pudding for dessert (made with day-old buns), and there’s a backyard patio for warm-weather sandwiching.
Some of Seattle’s best barbecue can be found inside a room with logs of firewood stacked on shelves and a chain-link fence dangling from the ceiling. Bitterroot is perfect for when you need some smoked brisket in your evening, but maybe you’re on a date, and want to keep things a bit more upscale or you don’t feel like sharing a paper towel-lined picnic table with a family and their screaming children. Always start with the jalapeño hushpuppies (covered with mustard sauce), get the hot links, and note that the mac and cheese could probably serve four humans.
Yes, it’s a small chain, but Li’l Woody’s makes one of our favorite burgers in the city. This is mainly because you can put fig preserves on your burger here and they have really good cheese fries. The Ballard location is a little roomier than the others, so it’s a nice group hangout spot.
Ballard Pizza Company is essentially Bar Cotto’s answer to a slice joint, which means it’s a) awesome, and b) one of the closest things to New York pizza you’re going to get west of the Mississippi. Grab a spot at a communal table under the string lights with some friends for a casual slice and salad, or order a pie to-go and take it home. Be sure to check out the daily-rotating slices, which are typically equal parts odd and delicious, like “salumi bits,” which involves jalapenos and tiny specks of crispy salami. Add a draught cider or glass of wine and Friday night is saved.
Pestle Rock is doing Thai food differently than mostly everyone else in Seattle. The dishes here are from the Northeast “Isan” region of Thailand, so this is where you come to try something new (like crispy marinated chicken wings coated in Thai chili and lemony noodles with garlic-steamed pork belly). Take into account the super-friendly staff and cozy red-brick interior, and you might never want to order delivery Pad Thai again.
Gracia is an upscale Mexican spot with tacos so good that we’ll forgive the fact that the chips aren’t fresh. Come for happy hour (before 6pm) to get the best per-taco value (four dollars each as opposed to $14 for two), and be sure to include the beer-battered rockfish and lamb barbacoa in your rotation. Gracia works for a first date, group dinner, or even a solo margarita before heading home after one of those days where tequila is necessary.
Ray’s needs no introduction, except that they have valet parking, which is pretty great. Come with people you like, sit outside and feast your eyes on the Puget Sound sunset views, pass around some fish and chips or crab cakes, and call it a day (or, technically, a dusk).
Delancey is the pizza experience that couldn’t be farther from your futon, Netflix, and six-pack ritual. It’s a cool pie place where you’ll want to call ahead and make a reservation for a celebratory dinner involving wood-fired pizzas with super-charred crusts and fancy vegetables (get the brussels sprouts with leek vinaigrette and goat gouda). The pizzas don’t hold up well, and you might need to use your fork and knife, but they taste delicious. The place is very minimally designed, which means you’ll actually have to come up with things to talk about. After a couple bottles of red, we think you’ll manage.
So, you took your random out-of-town acquaintance to the Ballard Locks and you should have known it would be alarmingly anti-climactic. Luckily, the same underwhelming experience will not happen at Red Mill across the street, where you can get a diner-style burger, a paper sack full of the best onion rings in town, and a milkshake in an outrageous flavor like s’mores or truffle mint. You’re not coming here for the ambience - you’re coming here to spread out at a picnic table while meeting your monthly quota for fry sauce.