From the Foss Waterway to Ruston, from Titlow Beach to Chambers Bay, South Sound’s waterways are dotted with restaurants boasting this-is-why-we-live-here views.
In the final installment of my Tourist Tacoma series, I’m suggesting where to take out-of-town diners to impress upon them that our water views are better than, well, anything they might have back home. (So there.)
I’m recommending restaurants that have proved their prowess for consistent dining — no matter the price tag. I cover broad territory here with everything from cheap fish and chips to surf and turf that’s best enjoyed with an expense account.
My centerpiece review is of Boathouse 19, a restaurant that celebrates its first anniversary this summer. Read on.
Destination: Narrows Marina
9001 S. 19th St., Tacoma; 253-565-1919, boathouse19restaurant.com
It’s not exceptionally fancy, nor is it expensive, but Boathouse 19 is an outstanding destination for waterfront dining because of its all-purpose appeal. The vantage views of the Narrows Marina and Narrows bridges probably could fetch a menu price beyond the $10-$15 per entree that Boathouse 19 charges, but the concept is decidedly focused on comfortable food at a fair price. I can’t find fault with that.
The restaurant celebrated its first anniversary last month at Narrows Marina, a sleepy destination before Boathouse 19 opened last July, followed by Narrows Brewing last month (tip: prettiest tap room in the South Sound).
Boathouse 19 owner Denny Driscoll is a man known for his waterfront restaurants. He also owns Lobster Shop restaurants in Dash Point and on Ruston Way. In the kitchen is executive chef Gil Turturici, who has cooked his way from California to Alaska.
The dining room is enveloped in wood, from the solid booths to the gorgeous tables made from reclaimed Nalley pickle factory wood. Distressed wood floors add to a rustic boathouse charm. The cavernous dining room can sound occasionally loud, although baffling installed in the dining room shortly after the opening has reduced the clamor. Those seeking quieter dining should eat outside on the deck.
Servers are young here, but they are efficient and seem experienced beyond their age. Occasionally, hosts and hostesses seem distracted and slow to greet diners, perhaps a consequence of the restaurant not taking reservations (which can mean long waits at peak times).
Think of Boathouse 19’s menu as dressed-up American barbecue party food. You’ll find ribs and baked beans, pulled pork sandwiches, burgers, corn on the cob, and three-bean salads; desserts and drinks are served in jars.
House pickles taste straight out of grandma’s refrigerator and are a must order ($3). Its salads are some of my favorite in Tacoma. A three-bean salad with kidney, garbanzo and edamame beans ($5) was dressed to impress with a peppery honey mustard vinaigrette over romaine. Soft butter lettuce laid the foundation of a BLT salad ($6), with crisscrossed slices of smoky bacon, grape tomatoes and a healthy pile of blue cheese. Not every salad impressed, however. The kitchen forgot to put the green in the green goddess dressing on an anemic shrimp salad ($11) that was utterly flavorless. Soups occasionally faltered — cioppino ($4 cup) on separate visits tasted too sweet and too boozy, and its chewy seafood tasted like yesterday’s catch.
For entrees, look to the specials sheet for the offering of the moment. Barbecue ribs ($16) on a summer visit yielded a St. Louis rack that almost fell from the bone, the ribs tickled with a sweet-smoky chipotle sauce. A rare fail on the sides: The house slaw and potato salads were excellent, but chewy corn was awful.
Value seekers should steer toward sandwiches and burgers. Pulled pork ($10) and build-your-own burgers (starting at $10) are easy pleasers and po’ boys with oyster ($14) or shrimp ($12) offer a taste of New Orleans not often found here: fried seafood tucked into crusty rolls simply dressed with remoulade and a Cajun slaw. Fried fish also was nicely executed in a combo with cod, oysters and shrimp ($15), served with Cajun-dusted fries.
Splurge diners should look for the warm Dungeness crab legs served with clarified butter, fries and the tasty house slaw. My impressive half-pound order ($24) looked closer to a pound, which made me wonder just how much crab comes with the $34 pound order?
Desserts continued the value trend. Don’t miss the triple chocolate brownie sundae ($5), enough for two or three. Shakes are a must order, especially the brown cow ($6) with house-made root beer and ice cream. Don’t forget to ask for two spoons. You’ll need ’em.
Social Bar and Grill
1715 Dock St., Tacoma; 253-301-3835, thesocialbarandgrill.com
The patio of Social Bar and Grill on the Foss Waterway perfectly intersects Tacoma’s industry with the prized possessions in its municipal toy box. On display steps from Social is the Museum of Glass, with views of LeMay-America’s Car Museum and the Tacoma Dome, too. Distant views display our backyard gem, Mount Rainier, and sweeping glances of Tacoma’s working Foss Waterway. And did I mention the fancy dog breeds paraded along the Foss by all those waterfront condo dwellers?
The menu at Social is kissed by the Mediterranean, dips into island flavors, stops in European ports, and flirts with South America — all with rustic Northwest presentations and a comfortable price tag in the $10-$15 range (although there are a few splurge items). The menu is designed by executive chef and co-owner Rodel Borromeo. The other two owners are Philip Panagos and Jason Bailey. The trio recently opened a new wood-fired pizza restaurant called Paesan on the other side of the same building.
If you try a single thing on the menu, make it something with braised or roasted duck, a house specialty.
Do note that the interior dining-room noise is a big, fat problem. Expansive windows, concrete floors and a sophisticated urban decor with a floor-to-ceiling view of the kitchen are all lovely, but those hard surfaces and the open kitchen bounce the din.
Destination: Ruston Waterfront
4015 Ruston Way, Tacoma; 253-759-2165, wp.lobstershop.com
The Lobster Shop was desperation-level predictable — until executive chef Tom Small took over the cooking helm for all of Denny Driscoll’s restaurants in 2011. (Driscoll had opened Ruston’s Lobster Shop in 1981 and Dash Point’s Lobster Shop in 1977.) Small’s contributions from 2011 to 2013 infused contemporary fare into a menu long needing a makeover. Although Small left the company this spring to work for Seattle’s Restaurants Unlimited, his touch lives on in the more modern menu.
New executive chef Juan Olivares has further evolved the menu by melding Northwest seafood with world accents. Try the mussel appetizer with house-made green curry ($11) and a king salmon entree ($28) paired with a ginger-soy glaze.
Crab legs, crab cakes, lobster and steak? Oh, yes, you’ll still find those at the Lobster Shop, but you’ll pay a premium. Expect those entrees to run around $26-$42. Seafood and steak lovers should try a steak ($26-$36) paired with a lobster Oscar béarnaise ($11 surcharge), served in a pour-it-yourself boat to add as much or little of the decadent buttery herb sauce as you prefer.
What’s always solid at the Lobster Shop is the elegant atmosphere with little fussiness. A tiered dining room is outfitted with a warm Northwest motif. The deck is a majestic way to spend a summer evening soaking up the waterway views.
Destination: Chambers Bay
Chambers Bay Grill
6320 Grandview Drive W., University Place; 253-460-4653, ext. 112, chambersbaygolf.com
Don’t think of Chambers Bay as just a Pierce County-owned golf course that will be home to the 2015 U.S. Open. (It’s a big deal, in case you hadn’t heard.)
Think of Chambers Bay as a destination for one of the most stunning South Sound view restaurants you might never have heard of. Chambers Bay Grill sits atop a bluff yielding awe-inspiring views of McNeil, Anderson and Fox islands. The menu is purely Northwest spun, with an impressive selection of seafood at dinner. It also serves breakfast and lunch, so it is a destination by day or night.
No matter when you dine at Chambers Bay, make it on that breathtaking patio. The inside dining room? Skip it. The drab space is outfitted with chairs that seem better suited for a conference center.
A new chef joined the staff this year. Joshua Corcoran most recently worked at Copperleaf Restaurant at Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac. Since joining Chambers Bay, he’s made tweaks to the dinner menu that’s more surf than turf, with prices $13-$34. The lunch menu of sandwiches is priced $10-$17.
The restaurant is known for its focus on Northwest ingredients, using meat from Painted Hills, Draper Valley and Carlton farms. If you want to impress your guests, then get the plump, caramelized diver scallops ($29) with a sweet corn relish threaded with lardons and English peas.
Fish and chips on the water
What’s purely Northwest? Well-priced fish and chips with chowder and a water view, of course. Give these affordable view restaurants a try:
Steamers at Titlow Beach (8802 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-565-4532, steamersseafoodcafe. com) serves fried cod ($8-$10) with a crunchy breading. Fries at Steamers are average frozen taters, but fried to the right shade of golden brown. Order a cup of chowder and they’ll bring it to you in a mug. The view is purely Tacoma with the Narrows Bridge on display and an occasional train rattling by. This cafe is adjacent to Titlow Beach, so you can take your order to go for beach dining if you like, or sit in the comfortable dining room with plenty of seating for parties big or small.
Northern Fish/Fish Tale Bistro (2201 Ruston Way, Tacoma, 253-272-4104, northernfish.com) is the Ruston waterfront’s most affordable “restaurant,” and it also doubles as a fresh-fish market. You’ll find fresh crab, salmon or halibut this time of year. Order fish and chips — made with cod or halibut — at the cafe counter and you’ll be rewarded with fish with a puffy coating and golden-brown fries ($7.95-$9.95). There’s not much in the form of seating, but fish and chips on the Ruston waterfront are best enjoyed while strolling to the recently reopened Old Town Dock, a short walk away.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.