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Feb 18, 2013 11:02 AM

Is Walrus & Carpenter “the most important” restaurant in Seattle?

Bon Appétit magazine recently announced its list of “the 20 most important restaurants in America,” selected by the magazine’s restaurant editor, Andrew Knowlton. The selection is described as not the fanciest or trendiest restaurants or the ones with the most stars, but rather “the places that define how we eat out,” the “fearless spots that drive chefs to innovate, restaurateurs to imitate, and the rest of us to line up. In short, “the restaurants that matter right now.”

Given that criteria, one Seattle restaurant made the list – The Walrus and the Carpenter. I think W&C is a perfectly fine place, even though the oysters there aren’t any better than those at a number of other Seattle venues and the selection is quite limited. My reason for going to W&C is its prepared fish and shellfish dishes like mackerel crudo, scallop tartare, and squid with romesco. But, as nice as these dishes are, the choice of W&C as the “most important” restaurant in Seattle strikes me as odd. What do other Hounds think?

For what it’s worth, I found a number of other choices on Bon Appétit’s list equally if not more puzzling. But I understand that this is in the nature of, if not the raison d’être of, such lists.

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  1. I find the choice of the word "important" to be the most odd thing about the list. Are restaurants ever important? Innovative, sure. Inspiring, I can dig. But important...hmm. Methinks this is another example of food culture taking itself too seriously.

    I think W&C is one of the restaurants in Seattle that defines the Pac NW dining experience - solid cooking, lack of pretension, jovial ambiance, character and, of course, celebrating shellfish. Whether it is THE defining restaurant for Seattle (or "restaurant that matters," whatever that means)...well...I haven't lived here long enough to say definitively.

    I'd be interested in what others think is a better alternative for the area.

    27 Replies
    1. re: reiney

      I think that's it right there. When outsiders think "Seattle," fresh salmon and shellfish immediately come to mind. Regardless if we happen to make the best NY style pizza or chicken n' waffles, since those aren't "our" dishes we get ranked high in seafood by default.

      1. re: d8200

        With that as the criteria, Ivar's, Ray's, Anthony's or Salty's comes to mind.

      2. re: reiney

        Important. Fearless. It "matters". Those are words with no essential meaning used by lazy writers. I have never, even in my most euphoric dining experience, thought to describe the food as "important". And what, in our day and age, does 'fearless' mean? At that level of service, everything has been tested, vetted, and very well thought out. I fully understand the challenge of excellence but that is more a product of consistency, technique, practice,and intelligence. Rather the opposite of 'fearlessness'.

        1. re: TheCarrieWatson

          Excellent point, TCW. Your observation could easily launch me into a diatribe about the current public appetite for style over substance in music, food, and many other aesthetic experiences. Not to take anything away from David Chang or Grant Achatz, but I still get very excited about a skillfully prepared plate of food with balanced and nuanced flavors, even if it is a classic that has been around forever and that I’ve had many times before. My wife gets tired of me saying it, but the classics are classics for a reason. So, for me, a big yes to the qualities of “consistency, technique, practice, and intelligence.” That is why I keep returning to places like Nell’s, which hardly ever gets mentioned on this Board, perhaps because it is a place where the white- and grey-haired set fill most of the tables, and is probably considered stodgy by many as compared with the noisy, high-energy vibe at places like Walrus & Carpenter. I like the food at W&C, but the flavors are certainly more punched-up and assertive than at places like Nell’s, Altura, or Book Bindery. I think of it in the same terms as the difference between concentrated, fruit-driven “new-world” style wines vs. the more subtle and nuanced style of “old-world” wines. Both styles have their place and can be enjoyable if the wine is well-made, but there’s a reason why “new-world” wines have gained such an edge in popularity. And, to further reveal what an old fuddy-duddy I am, I much prefer listening to a great jazz artist in a club where people quietly concentrate on the music, than a concert where flashing lights, special effects, and other similar production values are as important, if not more so, than the artistry of the musicians. Yes, I understand that artistry and substance aren’t necessarily incompatible with entertainment and style. And I suppose that places like W&C and Revel (another of my favorite places) demonstrate this. But there is still a difference between entertainment and artistry, and these days, when the two collide, as Food Network exemplifies, entertainment usually wins.

          1. re: TheCarrieWatson

            A side discussion: what would an "important' restaurant be? I'd say one that develops a business model that does not utterly depend on selling people too many calories or too much liquor. That would be important.

            1. re: bourbongal

              Hi, bourbongal:

              Well, I think Tom did a great job of showing us what definition *BA* gives for "important", but I find that definition vapid and useless.

              If you think about it, by BA's definition, Jacques dans la Boîte is more important to a lot more Seattle people than is Walrus & Carpenter.

              I think the point here is that BA has coronated *itself* the arbiter of "importance" for its readers, and the $$$-driven feedback loop is that we'll all feel "important" to become cognoscenti and/or to spill our filthy lucre there. Notice how BA snuck in the 2nd person into "defines how WE eat out"?

              For me, before I could label a restaurant "important", it would have to do at least one of 3 things: (a) have truly advanced the state of the culinary arts (at least in our region); (b) be the *only* place offering a certain cuisine, approach, etc., skillfully executed; or (c) have a unique and very high historical, aesthetic or cultural value to go with its good food.

              FWIW, I like your definition better than BA's. Good luck selling magazines or boosting anyone's hedonic calculus with it, though.


              1. re: bourbongal

                I'd define an important restaurant as one that actually impacts peoples' lives in a meaningful and positive way, is genuine about its motives, and serves excellent food in doing so.

                For example, one that not only pays its staff living, sustainable wages (with benefits) but also lobbies publicly for others to follow suit. Or a restaurant that specifically hires and trains homeless youth (like Fare Start). That would be "important."

                The rest is just innovative or interesting.

                1. re: bourbongal

                  I think food banks, soup kitchens, and the food we're serving in our public schools are important. W&C might be sensational, but there's nothing truly indispensable about it. It's a luxury, not an imperative.

                  1. re: TheCarrieWatson

                    Wow, I really like restaurants, and owned a couple in Ballard for 30 plus years, and I have to heartily agree with TheCarrieWatson on this, especially the school lunch part. That is important! Hunger in America is important. Restaurants are interesting and entertaining, not important.

                    1. re: Fidalgo Burk

                      My wife and I are planning a (first) visit to the Walrus & the Carpenter, and are very excited about it. We're anticipating a great experience. If it lives up to our expectations, it will be expensive, extravagant, and an experience that we will remember for years. And that's great. But, again, it is a luxury that is afforded to a relatively small contingent. When people start referring to things like music, food, art, etc. as 'important', my guard goes up. There are a handful of instances per generation of artists that are truly 'important' but you can't just throw that word around willy-nilly or it loses its meaning.

                      1. re: TheCarrieWatson

                        I think we have probably bludgeoned to death the meaning of “important” on this thread. But just to be clear, my previous comments about music, art, etc. didn’t have anything to do with “importance.” My comments were focused on the very different subject of style vs. substance, which has to do with the concepts of excellence, skill, and artistry, not “importance.” Obviously, I’m defensive about the suggestion that I throw words around willy-nilly. I have my faults, but I don’t think this is one of them. I am very clear about the difference between excellence, skill, and artistry on the one hand, and importance on the other hand. I also understand that “excellence” in preparing food isn’t important in the sense of addressing social issues like hunger, health, and nutrition. Finally, I understand how lucky I am, as are many Chowhounds, to be able to seek out and experience “excellence” in food. It’s a luxury that isn’t available to many others.

                        1. re: TheCarrieWatson

                          Carrie, Like Tom, I fear the beating of a dead horse here, but I just have to add that I think restaurants can be (and sometimes are) "important" within the limited context of that part of human culture that is gastronomy. My definition would have nothing to do with people lining up, but would center around the degree to which a kitchen's innovation advances the culinary arts and inspires other chefs across a broad geographical area to follow and to further explore new directions.

                          I also think restaurants can be important if they offer a classic cuisine, with a special level of excellence in every aspect. If I am not mistaken, BA placed New Orleans' Cochon on their list. I don't think Cochon meets BA's own criteria (people don't line up and I don't think their preps are especially influential), but it IS important in that it is a place where people from around the world can taste an expertly prepared Cajun pork-based menu, without traveling deep into Acadiana. As a big city resource representing one of the very few original American cuisines, it is indeed an important restaurant.

                          Likewise I think that many artists and musicians become "important" within the arts scene, and leave a lasting influence on their peers and succeeding generations. That's a somewhat lower standard than declaring an artist to have truly revolutionized their medium. In one decade alone, music saw the appearance of artists like Lennon & McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, and it is hard to look at their bodies of work and lasting impact and say that they were not "important." World peace, an end to hunger, and the elimination of disease are obviously more important than any the work of any chef or composer, but culture has its own significance to who we are, and important work is done in that sphere.

                          Of course I agree that any restaurant should compensate and treat its employees fairly and engage in socially responsible practices. It would be nice to see a "Top 20" list based upon that criteria now and then as well. But for now I expect that what drives food critics to rush to their keyboards will continue to center on the flavor, presentation, service, and ambiance that a restaurant has to offer.

                          Enjoy your visit to W&C!

                          1. re: Gizmo56

                            Hi, klsalas:

                            There are a few of us Ballardites who wish the cognoscenti had picked on a different neighborhood...

                            I actually moved out to avoid the condos, restos and traffic.


                            1. re: Gizmo56

                              Yeah, I definitely overstated my point. I actually went back to delete that 2nd post but it was too late.

                              1. re: Gizmo56

                                As long as we're all beating up on the "beef" filling in British frozen lasagna, I guess I'll put my foot in my mouth and jump in too.

                                Gizmo, I agree with your points about both restaurants and music. If "important" has any meaning, it has to be different from "the newest hot place in town." I think first of places that create a new approach that others follow. Chez Panisse was one of those. There may have been other chefs as good or better than Alice Waters, but she's the one who really created a following of imitators that was all her own. She also showed many customers that they should be concerned with the provenance of the food they eat in a restaurant. Not that other restaurants didn't, but she's the one who succeeded with it big time.

                                With my helmet and body armor on, I have to say Starbucks was another. They had more to do with changing (and improving) the way coffee is sold and drunk in the US and in many other countries. For years, new coffee places felt they had to compete with, and outdo, Starbucks. Their mentor Peet's never had that kind of copying and competition. Thus, Starbucks was a game changer.

                                I also agree with Gizmo about restaurants that define or epitomize a regional cuisine, like Cochon or Commander's Palace in New Orleans.

                                1. re: RandyB


                                  I agree that innovation that results in a new and lasting approach to how and what we eat (or drink) is a significant achievement. But I have a nit to pick about singling out Cochon and Commander’s Palace as “restaurants that define or epitomize a regional cuisine.” As I understand it, you were agreeing with a previous post, in which Gizmo described Cochon as “indeed an important restaurant” because of being “a big city resource representing one of the very few original American cuisines.” I have spent quite a bit of time in Louisiana, and recently ate at Cochon (both the original restaurant in New Orleans and the new restaurant in Lafayette) and Commander’s Palace. The Creole food at Commander’s Palace is excellent, as are many of the Cajun-influenced dishes at Cochon. But the fact of the matter is that there is an abundance of places in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana where you can enjoy excellent Creole and Cajun food. It’s an embarrassment of riches and a food lover’s dream. Different places have different specialties. Some may be the place to go for Cajun boudin, others specialize in po’ boy sandwiches, and others feature traditional classics like gumbo. Collectively, they are ALL important representatives of these cuisines. Maybe I am misunderstanding the point you and Gizmo are making, but what useful purpose is served by singling out one or two restaurants and making them seem “special” or “unique” as representatives of Creole and Cajun cuisine? Maybe this inevitable under-inclusiveness is the fatal flaw in lists like the one in Bon Appétit, which seems merely to add further cachet to restaurants that are already well known and heavily hyped.

                                  1. re: Tom Armitage

                                    New Orleans has a number of restaurants that feature classic Creole cuisine (like Galatoire's). It likewise has many restaurants that have dishes that are largely based on Creole cooking but feature a lot of innovation, such as Commander's Palace. There are quite a few restaurants that have some Cajun dishes on their menu, and which are very good, like Brigtsen's. But I don't know of many that center exclusively on Cajun cooking and specifically on pork, in the way that Cochon does, and I certainly can't think of any with a chef with the skills of Donald Link.

                                    Folks in New Orleans tend to look at Cajun as "country food" and rightly look upon Creole cuisine as their own tradition. Yes, you can find all-Cajun restaurants if you venture "elsewhere in Louisiana" but part of what makes Cochon a valuable restaurant is that it is within easy reach.

                                    I think it is a singular place. To me, that makes it "Important." I don't think it is the best restaurant in New Orleans, but I think it occupies a position of genuine importance. I fully recognize that what makes it "important" to me might not make it important to others.

                                    By the way, Tom, there is no Cochon in Lafayette. That location has closed:


                                    1. re: Gizmo56

                                      I understand your point of view about Donald Link providing some interesting Cajun-inspired food in a city dominated by Creole cuisine. So I won’t quibble with you about whether or not this makes the New Orleans Cochon “important.” I know that in your post you only mentioned Cochon, but I think my response was colored by Randy’s inclusion of Commander’s Palace. Anyway, I’m really surprised that the Lafayette Cochon closed. I was in Louisiana just last month, and ate twice at the Lafayette Cochon, once on Monday, Jan. 21 and again the next night in order to partake of the whole pig that had been charcoal roasted in a Caja China that night (yum!). The restaurant seemed pretty busy on both nights, and no one leaked a word about closing, despite the fact that I had some long conversations with the staff. There were certainly places in Cajun Country where I had more “authentic” Cajun cuisine, but I enjoyed the food, the space, and the ambience at the Lafayette Cochon and was looking forward to a return visit. I’m really sorry to see it go.

                                      1. re: Tom Armitage

                                        I agree that was a very nice space they had in Lafayette.

                                        1. re: Tom Armitage

                                          Hi, Tom:

                                          Where would Jacques-Imo's fit into your NOLA pantheon? I had an ethereal dinner there a year ago.


                                          1. re: kaleokahu

                                            Focusing just on the food at Jacques-Imo’s, not the “scene,” I had mixed results the last time I ate there, and nothing hit the "ethereal" level you experienced. It didn’t make me anxious to return to deal with the line, the wait, and the scene. But that was quite awhile ago. I’d defer to Gizmo, who I’ve discovered knows a lot more about NOLA and Louisiana cuisine than I do. On my visit to New Orleans in January, one of my faves was a weekend brunch at Coquette on Magazine Avenue – kind of upscale and trendy, but the food was really, really good.

                                            1. re: kaleokahu

                                              I love that this discussion has segued into NOLA. Having not visited W&C, I feel a sudden license to opine.

                                              With some trepidation, I offer that Commander's and Cochon could be considered "important" restaurants. I have to disagree with Tom especially as to Commander's--it's .25 c martini prix fixe lunches, turtle soup with sherry, and splendid dining room are quite singular. It has been operating since 1880. I suppose you could quibble about the cajun vs. creole provenance--I had an excellent maque choux with crawfish on my visit--and innovativeness of the dishes on the current menu, but as for “restaurants that define or epitomize a regional cuisine," it's hard to see how it does not qualify.

                                              I understand that Donald Link is widely recognized as an innovator in the NOLA restaurant scene. Of his stable of restaurants, I have been only to the NOLA Cochon, and liked it very much. I have paged through his book "Real Cajun," and have some understanding of his roots and approach to Cajun food. Maybe Cochon's importance stems from its position in the mid-range price point, offering Cajun and soul food dishes that are simple and homely in concept, but fine-dining level in execution and quality control. I'll admit I'm not convinced of this one; I think perhaps Cochon Butcher could be considered more "important" in making meaty, toothsome stuff even more accessible without sacrificing quality.

                                              I liked Jacque-Imo's on a visit many years ago. I just can't remember well enough to rate it in terms of enduring significance. I will say I also visited the branch in NYC (that may have since closed) and it was not on the same level.

                                              1. re: equinoise

                                                I like Cochon Butcher as well. I would just note that they widen the lens beyond Cajun there (their excellent muffaletta sandwich for example). My key reason for pointing to Cochon as "important" is the way it so lovingly and thoroughly builds a menu that presents a full spectrum of Cajun pork dishes. I don't know of any other restaurant doing that, with the same level of skill, in any major city.

                                                I love Commander's too. Beautiful, historic, and it has been a well spring for many great chefs, including the Northwest's own Tory McPhail, who runs the operation now. The service there is a wonder to behold.

                                                I have to stop thinking about NOLA or I'll be hopping a plane....

                                                1. re: equinoise

                                                  Hi, equinoise:

                                                  Re: segueing into NOLA, it's a good counterpoint to anyone deigning to pronounce on the "importance" of W&C (or anywhere here, really, with the possible exception of The Herbfarm). With all respect to NYC, San Francisco, and the rest of USA, IMO NOLA is in league only with itself. The sooner we admit it, the easier it will be to catch up.


                                                  1. re: equinoise

                                                    Don’t get me wrong, equinoise, I share the love for Commander’s Palace. I ate there last month and had a fabulous experience, as I almost always do. I’m a huge fan of the elegant riff they do on Creole cuisine and think that the kitchen, under the present leadership of Chef Tory McPhail, is better than ever. And the service is always amazing. I also ate at Galatoire’s where the preparation of classics like shrimp rémoulade and crawfish maison was as good as ever and my order of redfish was cooked to perfection. The classics at Galatoire’s may be more “basic” than the preparations at Commander’s, but as a New Orleans institution, Galatoire’s clearly has its own claim to “importance.” Are Commander’s and Galatoire’s important landmarks of New Orleans? Of course. Is Cochon worthy of praise for making new interpretations of Cajun cuisine available in a city where Creole cuisine takes center stage? Yes, even though I’ve found the food at Cochon somewhat uneven. My only point is that I have a long list of wonderful places to eat in New Orleans (a list that I’m constantly adding to), and when I stop to ask if one place is "more important” or “better” than another, first I get dizzy thinking about it, then I get bored and conclude it really doesn’t make any difference. I’m happy to spread my love around without worrying about who I love more and who I love less, or which places on my list are “important” and which are not. Okay, enough of this. Now I have to plan my next trip to Louisiana.

                                            2. re: Tom Armitage

                                              Special and representative, a place to send people who want to experience an excellent display of a particular cuisine, yes; unique (in the literal sense of the word), not necessarily. (I am speaking of regional cuisine, not innovators like Chez Panisse.)

                                              I agree with your point about under-inclusiveness. The idea of a "most" important list makes even less sense than a "best" list. I cringe when I see a topic that includes that word, or a phrase like "best Chinese." Imagine a board where a topic was posted: "Two week vacation, what is the best state, or country in Europe, to visit?"

                                        2. re: TheCarrieWatson

                                          W&TC is neither tremendously expensive nor tremendously extravagant as restaurants go. The oysters and small plates can add up of course ... depending on how much you like to eat.

                                          I will say that regardless of what you think about BA piece, Renee's small-ish menu focused substantially on raw, cured, smoked or pickled dishes, forcemeat, cheeses etc. is, in my experience, uncommon. Anecdotally she seems to be leading that trend -- particularly when you consider that they pickle themselves, house smoke meats, make their pates, custards, terrines etc. in house and source just about everything else locally and seasonally.

                                          The restaurant has certainly captured the imagination of visitors for the last couple years. I think part of why is that the restaurant embodies its neighborhood -- Ballard -- as much as, if not more than, Seattle. Of course Ballard is (and for 100 years has been) a part of Seattle but it was an independent city that had (and as a neighborhood continues to have) its own distinct identity.

                                          The restaurant's location tucked away in the back of early 20thC. Kolstrand building -- looking out towards the industrial ship canal waterfront and bookended by the Ballard hardware warehouse and Kolstrand Marine Supply just below the Ballard Avenue Landmark District strongly evokes blue collar maritime old-Ballard, while the whitewashed and whimsical decor, the music, the people (notice that bartender Anna Wallace disproportionately ends up in pics of the restaurant?!) and the food all strongly evoke new-Ballard/ modern Seattle. The restaurant feels authentic and I think gives visitors a tantalizing sense of what living in Seattle can be like.

                                          Interestingly Ballard has historically been the center of the Scandinavian community in Seattle -- which has been primarily Norwegian. You can see the roots from the local Nordic Heritage Museum and their annual festivals, the Leif Erickson statute on the Ballard waterfront and the Sons of Norway Hall, to Bergen Place, our contemporary grass roofed library and our large annual Syttende Mai parade. Amandus Kolstrand, the founder of Kolstrand Marine was of Norwegian heritage and was a fishing industry innovator. He designed and manufactured a number of pieces of equipment for the salmon trolling industry. Later he sold Kolstrand to Thomas Breiwick, another Norwegian. W&TC chef Renee Erickson lives in Ballard. The menu at W&TC is not Scandinavian as such but occasionally you will see influences like smoked herring tart or mackerel crudo and aquavit based cocktails like the Norwegian Wood.

                              2. I find it interesting that we still ask "Best ****?" or "Is *****?" There is no right or wrong answer. Responses are merely preferences. Bon Appetit should be ashamed of itself!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: firecracker

                                  Bon Appetit should be ashamed of itself for a lot of reasons, this is just the tip of the iceberg!

                                2. Hi, Tom:

                                  So many of this type of listings and rankings are corrupt, I don't put any stock in them anymore. Robert Parker, Andrew Knowlton, who cares?

                                  When food/wine writers stick to expressions of sensory truths about specific restos/wines, the money-spending public is far better served IMO.


                                  1. Tom, I think I will use the article in BA as a basis for replying here;

                                    " The selection is described as not the fanciest or trendiest restaurants or the ones with the most stars, but rather “the places that define how we eat out,” the “fearless spots that drive chefs to innovate, restaurateurs to imitate, and the rest of us to line up. In short, “the restaurants that matter right now.”

                                    I can see why they listed W&C for this reason...

                                    Correct on your statement (you are such a fine appreciator of all of our culinary riches) - we can get oysters that are as fine several places in town just as well (that said, we are lucky, and also, a well-shucked oyster isn't about cooking, it's about sourcing, and a good shucker mostly).

                                    I think how W&C relates to the 'mission statement' of BA's comments is more about the other items you mentioned, and the vibe and tone of the place.

                                    "Mackerel crudo, scallop tartare and squid" (charred, with romesco, etc.) are still exciting dishes for much of the country - and frankly around here - to me - as well still.

                                    It may not be 'important', which I find a very self-important puffy term for BA to impart to any on the list that they can convey such status....

                                    But - since a magazine such as BA wants to look out for (follow- rather than create IMO) or at least call out trends, and that places such as W&C are sourcing carefully, and working with producers to bring pristine foods, well brought up and nurtured from soil or ocean to their diners tables in an atmosphere with camaraderie and a fairly straight-forward way with a bit of edge and fun - then yes, - it is important.

                                    As in 'now', very interesting, and worthy of going to stand on line for dinner. I think we have such a plethora of great places here in SEA and the PNW (seriously - we can all just go to Willows Inn with a few $$ and an hour's drive?) - I think we may be spoiled a bit with our riches, or just not see what is right here all around.

                                    That said with not a moment of self-congrats, but more astonishment. I am amazed that we could ever take for granted the joy and pleasure that we live in such a place - including all of it's producers, maker's-of-alchemy, and consumers.

                                    This is a GREAT town to eat in, to shop for food to make at home, to participate in culinary anything if you want. Riches, riches abound, and perhaps they were just finding some place to hang that on that is 'of the moment' and shows a local vibe as well as can be done?

                                    1. Somewhat sadly, I don't think any restaurant in Seattle deserves a place on the list of the 20 "most important" in all of America.

                                      I love living in Seattle, and I also love eating in Seattle. But I don't believe our current scene has any restaurants that are "fearless spots that drive chefs to innovate, restaurateurs to imitate, and the rest of us to line up" -- at least not at a Top-20-in-the-nation level.

                                      We have great local ingredients, we have chefs with undeniable flair and technique, but I don't think we have anything that is truly charting new directions in gastronomy in some truly important way, at this time.

                                      If I were to steer a visitor with only one night in Seattle to a place to eat, it might well be W & C. Right now it is pretty much the quintessential contemporary Seattle dining experience. But oc course that is a different criteria entirely (although folks do "line up").