However, some restaurants have managed to find their place in this ever-changing city, gaining a foothold in their neighborhood, and building a community around them. Whether it’s the oldest Chinese restaurant in Seattle where Bruce Lee had dinner or the famous lunch counter at Sleepless in Seattle’s Athenian Inn – these legendary places define the city’s food culture.
Scroll down to see our list and click through the slideshow above to see past and current photos of some of the Emerald City’s most popular local institutions.
RELATED: 21 Iconic Seattle Restaurants That Don’t Exist
1. Lockspot Cafe: The Lockspot Cafe has been open for over 90 years, remains true to its no-frills roots and represents the character of the “old” Ballard in the rapidly growing neighborhood. Through numerous world wars, market crashes and natural disasters, crispy fish and chips were distributed. “When you walk into the Lockspot Cafe, it’s like coming home. This is a place of the generation,” said owner Pam Hanson, who started as a bartender at the cafe in 1996.
2. Mecca Cafe: This Lower Queen Anne establishment was opened in 1930 by C. Preston Smith and his wife Frances, who had opened 5 Point Cafe a year earlier. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the two historic connections were Seattle’s first legal bars. The Mecca remained in the possession of the Smith family until it was sold in 2001. The nightspot still exists today and serves burgers, benedicts, and sandwiches at reasonable prices.
3. Dealer café: Claiming the title “Seattle’s Oldest Restaurant”, Merchant’s Cafe has been on the corner of James and Yesler since 1890. The restaurant’s long and sometimes spooky history makes it a popular destination for those interested in the haunted, ghostly, and paranormal.
4th Rays boathouse: In 1939, founder Ray Lichtenberger relocated his growing boat rental and bait house to its current location and opened a coffee house in 1945. In the 1960s, it acted as a fish-and-chip shop, known for its iconic neon signs. Ray’s boathouse caught fire on May 26, 1987 due to a wiring problem. Some of the boats kept on the pier were damaged, and when the fire was finally put out, only Ray’s shield remained. No one was injured and the restaurant reopened on April 9, 1988.
5. Ivars: Popular local showman Ivar Haglund (1905-1985) built Seattle’s first aquarium at Pier 54 and opened a fish and chip stand in 1938 that grew into a restaurant empire. In 1946, Mr. Haglund opened the renowned “Acres of Clams” restaurant, one of 25 fish bars still operating in the region.
RELATED: Funny, Funky, Historic Places In Seattle That We Miss And The Memories We Have Of Them
6. Canlis Restaurant: Canlis opened in 1950 and is still relevant after more than 70 years. The building is at the south end of the Aurora Bridge and was designed by Roland Terry. It offers a wonderful view to the north and east. Still the traditional luxury eatery in Seattle, it made a name for itself as one of the best restaurants in town with the James Beard Award in 2019.
7th 5-point café: Opened in 1929 by C. Preston Smith and his wife Frances who also opened the Mecca Cafe. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the two historical connections were the first two legal bars in Seattle. When the restaurant opened, coffee, two eggs, a ham steak, hash browns and four pieces of bread and butter with jelly were only 40 cents. Prices are much higher now, but the legendary pub maintains its unpretentious demeanor.
8th. The Athenian: The Athenian has been serving seafood in Pike Place Market since 1909. In 1933 it was one of the first restaurants in Seattle to receive a beer license. It became a tourist hotspot after it was used as a colorful backdrop for Tom Hanks and Rob Reiner to talk about tiramisu and the 1993 “Sleepless in Seattle” fears of dating. You can still get burgers, salads and seafood from the bustling restaurant today and impress your parents who love the movie.
9. Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar: Watson was a longtime columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who opened the city’s first oyster bar in Pike Place with friend Sam Bryant on February 18, 1979. Watson’s journalistic work hit the national radar in 1961, with the exclusive reference to Ernest Hemingway’s true cause of death – suicide. Watson died in 2001, but the oyster bar mentioned in his memory remains and is run by Bryant’s son Thurman.
10. Tai Tung: This historic Chinatown International restaurant opened in 1935, making it the oldest remaining Chinese restaurant in the city. Bruce Lee was often at the restaurant, ordering her chow mein and fried rice. The third generation owner, Henry Chan, has been with Tai Tung since 1968 and can point out Lee’s favorite table.
RELATED: Seattle’s Oldest Restaurants Reveal Their Recipes for Success
11. Ballard Smoke Shop: Once a meeting place for fishermen, the Smoke Shop opened in 1971 and is now in a neighborhood with new condominiums. You can’t smoke there anymore but the drinks are still strong and the longtime waiters will remember you. Rumor has it that the cast of “The Deadliest Catch” can often be found here grabbing a beer.
12. Maneki: The Japanese restaurant Maneki has been around for over 100 years. They serve traditional delicious family dishes in a warm, rustic atmosphere. Maneki was originally built at 212 Sixth Ave South in 1904 and had to be relocated after the restaurant was raided when Japanese citizens were sent to internment camps during World War II. After being rebuilt, this Japanese classic has delighted customers for over a century and maybe for the next 100 years.
13. Central salon: Opened in 1892, this Pioneer Square bar is considered one of the oldest in Seattle. In the late 1980s there were bands like Nirvana who spawned the city’s grunge scene. There are good places to drink now, but this place – once a brothel and card room during the gold rush – is full of history.
14th Dick’s drive-in: The famous Dick’s Drive-In was opened on January 28, 1954 by Portland-born Dick Spady. The first location was on the 45th in Wallingford, where to this day the famous luxury burgers, fries and milkshakes are served with a friendly smile and fast service. Members of the Spady family continue to operate the franchise. The popular chain has opened a total of 8 locations in Puget Sound (Bellevue closed in 1974) and has become a symbol of the city.
15th The Virginia Inn: This Belltown restaurant and bar has been around since 1903 and appeared in the movie “Sleepless in Seattle”. Almost three decades after its Hollywood debut, the menu has gotten fancier and the crowd is more touristy, but the vibe is still relaxed. The building itself is one of the oldest on Pike Place Market that is still standing.
16. Lowell’s: Before fish and chips and clam chowder were served, the room was a coffee roaster, peanut roaster, and cafeteria combination in Pike Place Market called Manning’s Cafeteria. In 1957 it officially became Lowell’s. The three-story restaurant with fantastic views of Puget Sound has become a tourist destination.