Ethan Stowell grew up in Seattle and is a self-taught chef nominated for multiple James Beard Awards. He opened his first restaurant, Union, in 2003, and now has numerous restaurants around the city.
His newest venture, Goldfinch Tavern, marks his return to downtown. The gorgeous restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel serves simple, Northwest fare. Where sat down with Stowell in Belltown at his Italian eatery, Tavolàta, to chat about Seattle restaurants, current trends and some of his picks for a bite to eat.
What drew you to food?
I grew up in a household where food was a big part of the family. A lot of dinners were around the table together. I have two older brothers, and my dad’s hobby was cooking. We did a lot of home-cooked meals at home, a lot of gathering around a table. All family communication was around a meal. We had dinner together every night of the week.
You have a variety of restaurants around town—what is the common thread throughout your establishments?
The common thread through our restaurants are the people that work in them. All nice, young, energetic, talented people. Our goal is to be spread around neighborhoods, and connect to those neighborhoods where we are, whether it’s getting involved in farmers markets or getting involved in some of the schools, or some of the nonprofits in the community. Our goal is just to be a good member of the community where we put our restaurant, so I think that works out well for us.
What makes the Seattle restaurant scene unique?
I think the energy around it. I think the energy is great. I think it’s a fun dining town, I think there’s a lot of different options for people. I think we’re really good combination of good food, interesting offerings and quality product. I think we really care about where our stuff comes from—I think we care about the quality of it, I think that’s the main thing that kind of makes us unique. We’re a very educated, conscientious city that says hey, we’ll pay an extra buck or two for the correct fish. We’ll pay a few more bucks for a higher quality, healthier piece of chicken.
Do you see any trends moving through the city?
Certainly [I’ve seen] a big focus on vegetables lately. Produce is a big factor of what we grow here, it’s a big piece of the puzzle. Wild mushrooms or … tomatoes east of the mountains or wild greens along Lake Washington, whatever it may be, there’s a lot of vegetables out there. As far as other trends, I think the trend, the one I keep seeing, which I think honestly is going to keep continuing, is that people are going out to eat more frequently and smaller restaurants [keep] popping up—more one-off-type places that are just trying to do good product and call it a day.
What do we do best?
I think we just offer a good product. And I’ll say or we offer a lot of variety, a lot of places for people to dine and I think we offer a good experience. I guess more than anything, we have a very educated customer base, and it makes all the restaurants have to step up their game a little bit. We have a really good dining community. It’s very full circle. The restaurants are really involved and invested in the community and the customers are really involved and invested in their restaurants. …
The Seattle community is really good about giving back. They get involved in a lot of charities and they do a lot of nonprofit work, they do a lot of helping out others. We’re talking about having a nice diner and a pleasant experience, but if you can make your dollars go a little bit further, might as well. And I think Seattle’s really good about that. I think the majority of restaurants out there are super great about giving back to the community.
What should visitors seek out while they’re here?
I would say they should check out some of the famers markets, I’d say Ballard’s, for sure, is awesome. Those places are great. Check out some of the oyster shops, get some oysters while you’re here. Ballard is a great neighborhood. Spend the day and check it out. Go to the Locks, to Golden Gardens and hang out there, and then come back in to Ballard and eat at a bunch of restaurants. I think that’s a great day trip for people. If you’re here in the summertime in particular, going to the [Woodland Park] Zoo is awesome. They’ve got a lot of stuff geared towards kids, so that’s a great place to go.
Places like Green Lake are awesome, walking around Seattle Center, things like that are great. And if you’re going to go out to day trip, Whidbey Island or Vashon or Bainbridge [islands], those are fun, so I like exploring the community. A day trip to Bainbridge is great. Go out there for lunch at Hitchcock Deli and come back downtown and have something to eat. Really, the main thing is checking out the neighborhoods.
What are some of your favorite spots for a casual dinner?
I would go to Westward and hang out on the patio in the summertime and drink rosé, I think that’s casual, that’s fun. Westward is great. Tilth’s got a great patio in the summertime, so that’s awesome. That’s not super casual. Went to a place last night called Le Caviste, it’s a cute wine bar downtown, it was good, it was fun.
Mamnoon up on Capitol Hill I think is pretty causal. Stateside’s awesome. The Terra Platta patio is awesome. Oliver’s Twist I go to a lot because they’re in my neighborhood. Revel’s got a really good patio, hang out in the sun and get some drinks—their other restaurant, Joule, has a really good patio. Those are some good neighborhood spots. I go meet buddies at Prost every once in awhile. RockCreek’s pretty good. Those are kind of my spots.
Seattle has such a variety of international cuisines available. Any favorite international spots?
I think about international stuff and I think it’s based upon being authentic. The things I think [are] authentic: Revel for a Korean spot; Le Pichet is very much like a French bistro you’d find in Paris. Fonda La Catrina, the Mexican restaurant down in Georgetown. It’s good, its really good. La Carte De Oaxaca same thing, really good.
Green Leaf I think is really good, Pho Cyclo I probably go to twice a week. Via Tribunali I would consider international. It’s a very good, true interpretation of the place it was based upon, which is the Naples-style pizza joint that was originally, supposedly the first place to ever serve pizza. I’ve been to Via Tribunali and I’ve been to that place in Napels and honestly, its pretty damn close.