With the excellent exception of Chinese food, family-style meals traditionally get a bad rap, thanks to those cheesy chain restaurants that dish out enormous platters of subpar pasta. But over the past two years, a host of Seattle restaurants, including some of our most acclaimed spots, have adopted this collegial, collective approach to dinner.
Unlike a prix fixe meal, where everyone at the table receives the same courses on individual plates, family-style meals mean helping yourself from large serving platters of main dishes and sides. ¶ Dining family style is an unfussy concept that works well in unfussy Seattle: Passing around a platter of fried chicken among family or friends is a less awkward version of the communal table—shared with strangers—that remains trendy in restaurants; something that many keep-to-ourselves Seattleites can’t quite embrace.
And while it’s fun to trade bites of various entrées, a meal is truly a communal experience when everyone has the same thing on the plate. Since chefs in our city tend to get giddy about sourcing good, seasonal produce, this format often lets those vegetable dishes shine rather than being relegated to a tiny portion alongside a meat or seafood main event. Put simply, family-style meals showcase some of the best elements of Seattle’s food scene. And quite often, the food is spectacular.
For restaurants, this format means easier service. For diners, the set menu is almost always a better value—and a great way to gather over the holidays.
The one irony of dining family style: Not every menu is designed with younger family members in mind; the food can be somewhat challenging to young palates. But thanks to the proliferation of family and off-menu meals, you can indulge every day of the week without keeping a single dish to yourself.
Behold, our recommended family-style weekly meal plan:
Fried chicken dinner at Brave Horse Tavern
South Lake Union, 310 Terry Ave. N; 206.971.0717; bravehorsetavern.com
>> At Tom Douglas’ casual, Western/industrial bar and restaurant (for ages 21 and older), comforting side dishes revolve around plates of chef Brian Walczyk’s chicken, with its crunchy crust, brined in juice from house-made pickles. Helpings get dished up in the kitchen (so, a variation on “family style”); each person’s plate costs $14 and comes heaped with chicken and seasonal sides, such as mashed potatoes or macaroni salad, and perhaps some braised greens and dinner rolls. This isn’t a fancy affair; games are usually playing on the large screens. Downstairs, sibling restaurant Cuoco creates family-style meals, slightly more upscale (think tagliatelle with seasonal vegetables, smoked pork shoulder and chocolate budino, aka pudding), on Sundays for $25 per person.
Taco night at Sitka & Spruce
Capitol Hill, Melrose Market, 1531 Melrose Ave., Suite 6; 206.324.0662; sitkaandspruce.com
>> On Monday nights, Matt Dillon’s oh-so-Northwest menu yields to plates of Mexico City–style tacos. A single order ($7–$10) contains a trio of dainty tacos; you can consume a plate yourself, but it’s far more satisfying to gather up a few people and share them, along with gooey queso fundido ($7.50/$13) and guacamole ($7.50). Taco nights come courtesy of Sitka staff member and Mexico native Alvaro Candela-Najera. The fillings vary, but don’t miss the al pastor (pork roasted with pineapple on a spit) and the suadero, a milk-soaked beef belly. Crowds of young, hip patrons find their way here largely through word of mouth, many of them restaurant-industry folks enjoying an off night and a few Rainiers. And while the leisurely dinners have an insider vibe, Candela-Najera’s food is guaranteed to please just about everyone.
The Coterie Room
Belltown, 2137 Second Ave.; 206.956.8000; thecoterieroom.com
>> The newest restaurant from chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough, of Spur and Tavern Law, opened in September with an entire section of the dinner menu dedicated to family-style dining. In addition to sharable cheese and charcuterie platters (both $24), the list includes some hearty entrées, such as a fork-tender wagyu beef brisket ($45) sliced atop braised carrots and fluffy potatoes whipped with ricotta. One plate could feed two hungry people, but this part of the menu is designed so that groups can order a few and pass them around, or add some marinated beets ($8) or heirloom baby carrots ($9) from the small-plate menu to make a sharable meal. The ornate dining room, with its large chandelier, has a refined feel. However, this is the chefs’ only restaurant that isn’t 21 and older, and well-behaved kids shouldn’t feel out of place.
Pantry at Delancey
Ballard, 1417 NW 70th St.; 206.321.5620; thepantryatdelancey.com
>> Each month, this community-minded offshoot of Delancey schedules a handful of relaxed family-style dinners that book up faster than tables at The French Laundry. Pastry chef Brandi Henderson and chef and longtime caterer Olaiya Land welcome as many as 24 people along the long walnut table that dominates the cozy kitchen secreted away behind the pizzeria. The white space feels like a lighter, more feminine counterpart to Delancey’s spare interior. While we weren’t fortunate enough to secure a seat at one of these dinners before press time, guests who have say these meals are about straightforward enjoyment of the seasons—and of dining companions. Since the Pantry opened in July, dinner themes have included Southern-style and Moroccan meals, and an apple harvest dinner with a menu of celeriac and apple soup, roasted pheasant and a savory apple tart. Dinners aren’t inexpensive ($65 a person and up, includes drink pairings, tip and tax) but the experience is comfortable, communal and low key. Not offered on all Wednesdays; call first to confirm.
Lunch at Salumi
Pioneer Square, 309 Third Ave. S; 206.223.0817; salumicuredmeats.com
>> Call two months ahead to book the small space in the back of this perpetually packed, tiny sandwich shop, available for lunches only. For $40 apiece (plus tax, tip and wine, or bring your own bottle for a $10 corkage fee), Salumi chef Bryan Davis and crew will regale a group of eight to 10 people with five family-style courses of whatever the kitchen feels like making. Obviously, Salumi’s gloriously prepared meats are the centerpiece; meals start with a platter of cured meat, and main courses include various plates, such as stuffed pork belly or perhaps a chicken in vermouth on pappardelle. The meal also includes several antipasti (think piquillo peppers stuffed with salami and goat cheese). These lunches, a four-year tradition, are offered only on Wednesdays and Thursdays, starting at noon and ending only when you’re full.
Fancy menu at Staple & Fancy
Ballard, 4739 Ballard Ave. NW; 206.789.1200; ethanstowellrestaurants.com/stapleandfancy
>> At Ethan Stowell’s newest restaurant on the southernmost end of Ballard Avenue, the chef, the staff and even the printed menus urge diners to go family style. The $45-per-person, four-course, family-style meal, available all the time, is certain to include pasta (often a riff on Stowell’s much-loved spaghetti with garlic, chiles and anchovies), as well as plates of crostini, meat and fish platters, desserts and whatever else the chef feels like making that day. Antipasti are usually parceled out across multiple plates, making the meal feel much more expensive.
Menu degustazione at Spinasse
Capitol Hill, 1531 14th Ave.; 206.251.7673; spinasse.com
>> Family style doesn’t get much more opulent than chef Jason Stratton’s $95-per-person, family-style tasting menu, which includes sharable portions of every antipasto, and primo and secondo piatto on the regular dinner menu (dessert is separate). This marathon experience and its price tag would be wasted on picky eaters. Stratton is known for doing wonderful things with tripe, and for rustic dishes like the polpette di coniglio—rabbit meatballs wrapped in caul fat. However, the real standout is his array of beautiful pastas, including the insanely delicate strands of hand-cut tajarin, which appeal to dining enthusiasts as well as more straightforward eaters.