Ballard, a neighborhood once populated by Scandinavian fishermen, has become the city's international culinary mecca, with a score of new restaurants and bars. Taste the best of Puerto Rico—smashed plantains, deep-fried catfish, coconut flan—at Sofrito Rico (2320 N.W. Market St.; 206/789-0516; dinner for two $25). · Striking black-and-white photographs of Mexico at La Carta de Oaxaca (5431 Ballard Ave. N.W.; 206/782-8722; dinner for two $30) set the mood for lamb birria. · Volterra (5411 Ballard Ave. N.W.; 206/789-5100; dinner for two $75) specializes in contemporary Tuscan cuisine (truffle bruschetta, homemade pasta in duck ragù). · Modeled after a Chinese apothecary, Fu Kun Wu (5410 Ballard Ave. N.W.; 206/706-7807), located at the back of the restaurant Thaiku, is known for its late-night potions like the Yohito—a mojito mixed with the bitter African herb (and aphrodisiac) yohimbe. · Old street signs and local artwork line the brick walls at Portalis (5310 Ballard Ave. N.W.; 206/783-2007), a wine bar and shop that serves 30 vintages by the glass. · The Hi-Life (5425 Russell Ave. N.W.; 206/784-7272; dinner for two $50) churns out regional dishes with a twist: wood ovenroasted oysters, applewood grilled salmon, and wild-mushroom pizza. · Formerly the private studio of celebrated chef-owner Bruce Naftaly and his wife, Sara, Sambar (425 N.W. Market St.; 206/781-4883) is an intimate lounge mixing up inventive cocktails. Who needs dessert when you can have the Barbapapa (Hangar One lime vodka, Cointreau, and lime juice with rhubarb sorbet)?—Julia gardner
Sambar is probably the smallest bar in Seattle (there are just four barstools and five tiny tables)—even when the backyard garden is open, 15 people can make the place feel as tight as a telephone booth. It shares a kitchen and at least one wall with upscale French restaurant Le Gourmand, but it’s an unlikely sibling. Ultramodern (think lots of white, black, and red; brushed zinc; and furniture that’s hard to negotiate after you’ve had a few) and often convivial bordering on giddy, it doesn’t add up to either “French” or “Seattle.” But that’s what brings in such an interesting cross-section of locals; the crowd varies from hour to hour, and the bartenders (they don’t call themselves mixologists here) pour some of the best cocktails in town. Try one of the fresh-fruit-infused martinis (pear and black currant are delish), or a classic drink like the French 75.
Part of the regional Chow Foods restaurant chain, the Hi-Life serves New American comfort foods in a former firehouse built in 1911. The red-brick exterior has a dramatic steeped roof and huge wooden doors, while the high-ceilinged dining room features original fire poles, contemporary paintings, and dark wood furniture. There’s also an exhibition kitchen with a wood-fired oven used to cook creative pizzas like the Butternut, topped with goat cheese and butternut squash. The Hi-Life is best known for its daily happy hour and its breakfast menu, which includes French toast with vanilla custard, espresso marscapone, and sugared hazelnuts.
Located in Ballard, Portalis Wine Shop and Bar is frequented by Seattle’s most discerning food and wine aficionados, especially right after the nearby open market closes at 3 p.m. on Sundays. Although most of the shop's space is devoted to rows of wine bottles (more than 500 varietals are available), Portalis does have a bar off to the side and its brick walls include for-sale works by local artists. Take a seat in one of the bar's dark-wood chairs, and enjoy the daily tasting of mostly Pacific Northwest and California varietals. A menu of small plates is available and includes traditional charcuterie and cheese spreads alongside to-be-shared short ribs, house-made pasta, Manila clams, and desserts.
Fu Kun Wu
Located upstairs from Ballard’s Thaiku, Fu Kun Wu is both secretive and sensual. Originally a Chinese apothecary upstairs with an opium den below, Fu Kun Wu's bar employs expert mixologists who create strong herb-infused cocktails such as the oolong tea martini and yohimbe mojito. Take a long look at museum-like space with wood carvings, Buddha statues and jars filled with mysterious bones. The value-conscious arrive during happy hour from 5-7 p.m. for half-priced food from Thaiku and drinks, while music lovers come for the live jazz on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
Inspired by (and named after) the Tuscan hilltop town in which chef-owner Don Curtiss and his wife Michelle Quisenberry were married, Volterra is a contemporary Italian eatery in the historic Ballard neighborhood. Surrounded by old brick buildings on a tree-lined street, the restaurant has a small seasonal terrace and an interior designed with bright red walls, contemporary paintings, dark wood furniture, and a variety of chandeliers and sconces carved by Volterran artisans. Chef Curtiss personally selects the fresh available ingredients to incorporate into house-made pastas and charcuterie as well as entrées like wild boar tenderloin with gorgonzola mustard sauce.
La Carta de Oaxaca
Behind a nondescript brick façade in Ballard, La Carta de Oaxaca is a small, lively restaurant adorned with light wood plank tables, sleek black banquettes, and framed black-and-white photographs of Mexico’s Oaxaca region. There’s also a bustling open kitchen and a small bar with two dozen tequilas and three Del Maguey mescals, poured in glazed ceramic shot glasses. The menu features authentic Oaxacan specialties such as mole negro (black mole) with chicken or pork, served with rice, homemade tortillas, and selections from the fresh salsa bar. La Carta does not accept reservations, so be prepared to wait for a table.