Dining out can be pretty easy these days. We all have our favorite neighborhood spots that we know and love, our go-to joints where we order the same dish time and time again. Those signature spots are fantastic because they’re easy. They’re consistent. They’re within reach. But sometimes eating at a restaurant can be more than simply fulfilling your basic need for sustenance. It can be an adventure full of new sensory experiences. Every now and again we have to go out of our way for a perfect meal. Sometimes we have to spend a little extra. Whether it’s because of overall culinary achievements and creativity, a celebrity chef, incomparable views or one exceptional dish, these 17 restaurants all have their reasons for being worth a road trip from wherever you live in the Northwest.
1. Bearfoot Bistro, Whistler, B.C. If an unforgettable multi-course, seasonal tasting menu by award-winning chef Melissa Craig wasn’t enough, carve out some time to visit the Belvedere Ice Room (kept at -25 degrees Fahrenheit, you need a parka, which is provided) for a vodka tasting, or book a champagne-sabering experience with Bearfoot Bistro’s enigmatic owner and host, Andre Saint-Jacques.
2. Hawksworth Restaurant, Vancouver, B.C. Chef David Hawksworth was the youngest chef to be named to the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame. His food is sophisticated and elegant, and the interior of his restaurant matches what comes out on the plates. There are plenty of fine dining restaurants in Vancouver, but Hawksworth Restaurant is worth a visit for an immersive sensory experience.
3. Dim Sum in Richmond The Seattle International District has its fair share of dim sum restaurants, but a long wait at the U.S.-Canadian border to Richmond, B.C. is more than worth it. The city is full of incredible dim sum spots like Fisherman’s Terrace or Jade Seafood, where you can get something as simple as har gow (shrimp dumpling, which many agree is the measuring stick for good dim sum) or more exotic like duck webs (this is exactly what it sounds like).
4. Vij’s, Vancouver, B.C. Seating at Vij’s is first come, first serve for dinner. If you don’t arrive early, you will wait, sometimes for hours. Vikram Vij, the restaurant’s owner, has been lauded for being one of the pioneers of modern Indian cuisine and for steering it toward the realm of fine dining. The recent opening of Shanik, a sister restaurant in Seattle, brings Vij’s a little closer to home, but a visit to Vancouver to the original is without compare.
5. The Willows Inn, Lummi Island The goal at Willows Inn, according to acclaimed chef Blaine Wetzel, is to tell a story about the land. He accomplishes this by creating the freshest prix fixe menu possible, using ingredients that are fished, foraged and farmed daily. It’s recommended that diners who are not staying at the inn should book their reservations at least two weeks in advance. Considering the caliber of the cuisine, you may want to plan further ahead.
6. The Inn at Langley, Whidbey Island Another island destination makes this list, and for good reason. Chef Matt Costello serves a six-course meal full of ingredients from farms, farmers markets and the waters nearby. During non-summer months, you can only dine on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at the Inn at Langley, so be sure to plan ahead for this artful and delicious meal.
7. The Herbfarm, Woodinville Dining at The Herbfarm is not a sprint — it’s a culinary marathon. The nine-course wine-paired meal is at least a four hour experience. The dishes are masterfully crafted by chef Chris Weber (who happens to be the youngest chef running a five-diamond restaurant in the U.S.) and his team. Dinner services are separated into different themes that complement the season, and change about every 10 days throughout the year. This winter’s will include Uber Tuber (with emphasis on potatoes), Harvest Table (feast and be thankful) and The Holly and the Ivy (holiday themed). Expect impeccable, personalized service from owners Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck.
8. Skycity Restaurant, Seattle Skycity is revolutionary dining at its finest. The restaurant that sits atop the symbol of Seattle rotates a full 360 degrees so diners can take in the full panorama of the city below. Chef Jeff Maxfield, who was invited to cook at the James Beard house this fall in New York City, serves contemporary Northwest cuisine with flavors befitting a priceless view of Seattle.
9. Canlis, Seattle Canlis is considered by many to be the pinnacle of fine dining in Seattle. The 62-year-old restaurant is run by brothers Mark and Brian Canlis with multiple James Beard Award-nominated chef Jason Franey heading the kitchen. Canlis exudes plenty of Sinatra-era class, and Franey adds a modern touch to the incredible menu. Make your meal with classics like The Canlis salad, Muscovy duck for two and the Canlis souflee, or order a tasting menu that celebrates the freshest of the season.
10. Il Corvo Pasta, Seattle Chef Mike Easton’s Il Corvo Pasta is must-try for anyone who loves traditional handmade pasta. The cozy restaurant on the outskirts of Pioneer Square is open for lunch on weekdays, so you have a small window to try Eastson’s delicious dishes. The menu is in constant rotation, but you’ll find all sorts of variety, including items like pappardelle alla bolognese or squid ink linguine. Easton recently announced a new venture in Pioneer Square, a Roman street pizza concept called Pizzeria Gabbiano.
11. Marrow, Tacoma There are several restaurants worth visiting in the South Sound, but few take the kinds of risks you see on the menu at Marrow in Tacoma. The menu actually caters to two very different customers — the “Marrow” side to meat-eaters and the “Arrow” side to vegetarians. Find items like bone marrow (obviously), baby octopus, curried goat risotto, geoduck and corn fritters and more on the meat menu. The vegetarian side is thoughtful in its flavors, featuring hearty dishes not often seen in such a meat-centric restaurant. If you’re tired of gut-bomb (yet delicious) burgers at South Sound establishments like Frisko Freeze or Pick Quick, Marrow offers a ridiculous $17 burger that features Wagyu beef, Iberico ham and a duck egg. Not bad, Tacoma.
12. La Petite Maison, Olympia La Petite Maison translates to “The Small House,” in French, well, because this restaurant is literally in a small house in West Olympia. It’s one of the few restaurants in the South Sound that serves authentic French food. The owners are husband-and-wife team Justin (chef) and Zoe Wells, both Olympia natives. The menu changes often, but you can expect French classics such as rillettes, bouillabaisse and more.
13. La Tarasca, Centralia If you’re making the drive down to Portland, a stop at La Tarasca in Centralia is a must. This unassuming restaurant is a favorite of local chefs and foodies alike. You will not want for authentic flavors or portion size at La Tarasca. Fresh, piping hot, house-made tortillas are the perfect vessel for everything tasty that comes out of this kitchen. Don’t miss the mole.
14. Beast, Portland Naomi Pomeroy, who runs Beast, is another all-star chef who’s garnered accolades such as a James Beard award nomination and a finalist spot in “Top Chef Masters.” The name “Beast” doesn’t reflect the size or scope of her restaurant space at all (it’s tiny), but rather it honors her devotion to the careful butchering of whole animals to be served throughout the week. The menu here changes weekly, and only two seatings are served at Beast per night.
15. Ox, Portland Succulent empanadas, smoked beef tongue, cocoa-braised lamb shoulder and house-made chorizo are a sampling of some of the bold flavors you’ll find at Ox. Chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton present Argentine-inspired cuisine with twists and turns through Spain, France, and Italy. Ox was named The Oregonian’s 2013 Restaurant of the Year this summer. That’s quite an honor in a city with so much competition.
16. Le Pigeon, Portland The flavors that come from chef Gabriel Rucker’s open kitchen at Le Pigeon are full of passion and refinement. Like many on this list, freshness and pureness of ingredients are at the forefront, and the menu changes weekly. Make reservations for one of the communal tables well in advance, or take a risk and show up early to try to grab one of the 10 seats around the chef’s counter that are reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis. They are the best seats in the house.
17. Pok Pok, Portland chef Andy Ricker’s Thai street food haven, opened in 2005. Highlights include kai yaang (rotisserie game hen) and papaya pok pok (a very spicy green papaya salad). But don’t miss Ike’s Vietnamese wings, which is Pok Pok’s signature dish. They’re marinated in fish sauce and sugar, then deep fried. I have to admit that I’ve driven down to Portland for the evening just to satiate a craving for these wings. To be fair, I had friends in town who I hadn’t seen in months. But it was worth it.
Photo courtesy Joern Rohde/joernrohde.com; Ron Zimmerman/The Herbfarm; Jeff Hobson; Beast.