Steven, Here are true Chowhound destinations:
Indochine: Downtown across from the museums. Be sure and order the Tuna plate--it's remarkable. A do-not-miss restaurant. (You'll need reservations)
Il Fiasco (Sixth Avenue) offers solid Italian fare.
Asado (Sixth Avenue) Argentian beef with flair. (Reservations will be needed here too due to the crowds.) Primo Grill (Sixth Avenue) mixed European menu well executed. The Pick Quick (Pacific Hwy in Fife). Outdoor munching of the best hamburgers and fries in the South Sound. Tatanka Take-Out (Pearl Street) for terrific Buffalo tacos. (Well worth seeking out.) Finally, if you're a true Chowhound, El Compadre` (40th & McKinley) for authentic (non-Azteca) Mexican that would thrill Anthony Bourdain. (Be careful in this neighborhood, lunch is a safer time.)
I live in Tacoma (work at U of Puget Sound) and have to say that Tacoma is a bit food challenged. I am happiest in hole-in-the-wall places, but sadly, despite its history, Tacoma lacks even those. In the last 6 years the city has gone though a real "renaissance" but in terms of food this has mostly meant high end restaurants that have big price tags, but serve, at best unimaginative, and at worst, downright bad food. (Sea Grill downtown is a prime offender). With due respect to Leper, I'll take issue with several of the suggestions made:
Indochine opened to great fanfare, but came down with a crash b/c of its truly awful service (horrors stories of folks waiting an hour or more for drinks or starters, wait staff quitting, etc). But the food was good (although not as good as their cousins in Federal Way) and I returned several times. More recently, however, I went twice in the last month and the service was fine, even speedy. Unfortunately, this came at the cost of the food which had taken a turn for the insipid and uninspired. I can't recommend it and wouldn't return.
I like Il Fiasco and their spagetti & meatballs are terrific, but at $18 a plate, it feels a bit steep.
Asado is so loud it hurts (and I am not somebody who is sound sensitive). Ditto with Primo Grill, although compared to Asado it's like a church on an early Mon morning (but if you do go to Primo, DO get their calamari with saffron starter which is terrific).
So where to go? El Compadre I would absolutely recommend. Also Mexican and hole-in-the-wall-y is Veulve a la Vida (tamales are good, although not consistently). The unfortunatley-named Sars (on N. Pearl) is the closest to good Thai we get in Tacoma (especially if you stick to Thai dishes like shrimp with basil which is executed beautifully). Unfortunately, it serves no liquor nor allows BYO, a drawback if you want to tone down the heat with beer (and they do REAL hot). The Southern Kitchen serves Gumbo on Fridays in the summer that is very good, but they often run out of it, so call. Six Olives has some of the best fries I've had and Eve, the bartender there makes a killer drink (Martinis, especially). There are a couple of good Vietnamese Pho places on S. 38th (Vienna Cafe, for instance, not a Pho place, but serves great sandwiches on terrific bread). South Tacoma Way has a number of good Korean places (search the chowhound site for recs).
In sum, there are plenty of places to eat in Tacoma, but to recommend? I find myself hard pressed.
I'd like to add a plug for El Compadre! I stopped there on a Chowhound recommendation for take-out at 9:00, just as they were closing (I'd called and they'd said 9:30, thinking I was talking about the grocery store). When I asked if there was anywhere else nearby, the really nice woman said she'd make me a torta anyway if I wanted. It was delicious - sauteed, tender chicken with avocado and I think onions...
Delicious food and really nice people.
As for the driving-to-Tacoma part of your question, you have a wealth of choices in Portland and few if any in Olympia. But check the archives for raves about La Tarasca in Centralia, just two minutes off the highway. This is a real hound destination, and it has maintained its quality for years. Suggestion: you will be filled to the gills, but don't pass up the flan, and consider taking a few tamales with you. The tamales have marvelous corn flavor the way their (also marvelous) tortillas do.
driving to: the thai orchid!! theres one on west burnside (around 21-23rd) in portland and also one in vancouver downtown (sorry i cannot recall what street). they are very authentic, with very fresh ingredients, and authentic ingredients too (like thai eggplant, delicious). they offer squid as a regular menu option (try requesting squid in place of shrimp or chicken in any other restaraunt, the thai pavilion in olympia said NO! in no uncertain terms!) and their curries are the best i have ever had.
despite the refusal to alter or replace dishes to include squid (you have to order one of the few actual squid dishes to get squid) i can reccomend the thai pavilion in downtown olympia as a great place to eat! the owner is very friendly and personable (although the cook is rather strict, c'mon, its easy to replace an ingredient!), the food is authentic (so many places americanize) and always consistantly fresh and delicious. the best, well only place to get good thai in olympia area.
in parkland (slightly off the beaten track, but just up the street from tacoma) is 'from the bayou'. it is on graham street, just off of pacific, and a 1/2 block from PLU. this is just good food. period. everything is spicy, and not adjustable, so not for the 'faint of palate'. the alligator is devine, the crayfish ettoufee is dilerious, and they make the best channel catfish ever, shipped from mississipi. everything is fresh, and made daily, and cooked for hours....the decor is just amazing. the owner is very nice. the service is alway exemplary. reservations are a must. everyone wants to eat here! oh, did i forget the gumbo? ooooh, thats good there!
on jefferson street, in downtown tacoma, is the ROCK. best pizza in washington (dont bother with any of the other rocks, they cheap out or do it wrong, especially LACEY ROCK: yuck, just yuck, only the downtown original is sooooooo gooooood). the downtown, or original ROCK has pizzas that are baked over fruit wood chips in a brick oven (the other ones use GAS, and cheap out on toppings and portions but charge the same). they have wonderful toppings, and the best ceaser salad (with handmade dressing) around. our favorite are the vegetarien 'swan song" (we have proccutio added) which has a white sauce, mozzerella, marinated mushrooms, roasted summer squash, herbed cream chese, and pecans. the one we order most is 'crazy train' (most menu items are named after classic rock-n-roll) which has a red sauce, pepperoni, bacon, sausage, cherry peppers, and onions. the best pizza period! their beers are handcrafted, and delicious. the service is prompt, friendly, and fun. again, go to the downtown tacoma one it is perfect, the others are NOT good. show up early, it gets crowded in the evenings, especially on weekends.