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Bar Vacilando

A Belltown gastropub expands to Capitol Hill

By Ronald Holden

Bar Vacilando, on Capitol Hill's spine (15th Avenue E), is the latest quirky spot from the enterprising restaurateurs behind Belltown's Black Bottle and Innkeeper. The name and logo suggest a wanderer ("going somewhere but not greatly caring about arrival"), and yet, 11 years after setting out, here they are.

'Twas a warm summer day on First Avenue in 2005 when the door opened to a space that had been under rehab for months. The ghastly Two Dagos tavern had been transformed, one square inch at a time, into Black Bottle, 2600 1st Avenue. They called it a gastro-tavern, an izakaya. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing back then. Pubs served beer and stale sandwiches, we thought. And here were dinner-size plates of "unfussy, rustic" food for under ten bucks. A wall of hearty, "hard-working" wines for six or seven dollars a glass? Wow! The creators were hands-on owner Chris Linker, chef Brian Durbin, and designer Judy Boardman. After their initial success, they kept at it, first by expanding Black Bottle into the adjacent space, then by taking over Marco's Supper Club, down the street, and renaming it The Innkeeper. Eventually leaping across the Lake to open a clone, Black Bottle Poster, in Bellevue. None of this Wallace-Huxley frenzy for this trio (Did you realize, parenthetically, that Josh Henderson now has something like 17 restaurants to his name?); they take their time, as much as they need.

Bar Vacilando interior

Two years ago, the cafe called 22 Doors, 405 15th Ave. E shut all of its doors (City Light having some time earlier turned out the lights) and Capworks LLC (the Black Bottle crew) took over the space. It was, once again, a meticulous rehab. Then the lights came back on. Fortunately, Durbin was ready with an inventive menu, and I'm happy to say most of the dishes work well. Half a dozen each meat, seafood, veggies, plus three flatbreads and three desserts.

My favorite so far is a "sisig-style" (Philippino sizzling pork) taco made with slow-cooked pork cheek and smoothed out with (yes!) chicken livers. Second fave (so far) is a tie between the Serrano ham and béchamel flatbread, and a deviled egg topped with flying fish roe that tastes like sushi. (Eggs seem to be making a comeback as a happy hour feature in more than one bar.) What all the best plates have in common is a successful combination of deep flavors and unpredictable texture.

I'm going back for pork jowl with turnips, the beef and pork meatballs, and the duck breast with a cranberry compote. Would I order it again? The Spanish Cold Cuts, probably not. The Grilled Romaine Caesar, probably not. Mushrooms with Ancho Vinaigrette, maybe, although the $13 price is a bit of a drawback.

On the other hand, the cumin lamb may have had too much salt and not enough cumin, and the asparagus "Cacio e Pepe" might have been better with actual pasta, but you've got to give the crew credit: they're not sitting on their laurels. I found the salt cod croquettes a bit bland, but the green bean fries were, as the server said, "killer:" crunchy, salty, a snack you keep eating hoping they will last forever. As for the desserts, the white chocolate passion fruit cheesecake was a dream, but the rum-soaked ginger canelé left me cold.

But it almost doesn't matter if you like it or not; only a couple of items are more than ten bucks. And if you're looking for bargains, go for the "crusts" (flatbreads). An order of three is normally $9, but they're $3 apiece during happy hour.

And I would be remiss not to mention the beverage menu. The cocktails are a bit fussy for my taste (I'm a loyal Negroni drinker) but the wines include a bright Pinot Grigio from Slovenia, a Grenache from Sardinia, and a declassified Beaujolais (why? Because it's made with pinot noir, not gamay.) Furthermore, one of the taps dispenses a "nitro" stout from Oregon.

Prices across the board are a steal by Seattle standards, and you have to ask yourself how they do it. The answer is a savvy director of operations (Hannah Talbot) and an accounting platform that integrates with the point-of-sale system, inventory, and payroll. Helps that the company's back-of-house chef, Ezra Schwepker, is also a numbers guy.

The space is gorgeous, high-ceilinged, light and airy, with an indoor patio that makes you think you're at a secret garden in Paris. As for the menu, there's little that mimics other restaurants. Don't vacillate, just go!

* * *

I understand the notion of omikase at sushi bars; you put yourself into the able hands of the sushi chef. We're also familiar with the "chef's table" concept, and on the practice of serving "tasting menus" that showcase the talents of a chef. But increasingly restaurant menus are describing the tasting menus as "trust me." Staple & Fancy, Tarsan i Jane, Vendemmia, Bateau (four-course steak dinner), Seven Beef (multi-course traditional beef-themed Thai menu), even Canlis (three- and four-course menus).


Bar Vacilando
405 15th Ave E
Seattle, WA 98112

Photos by Ronald Holden


July 2016

Ronald Holden's new book, "Forking Seattle," with more tales about local food & drink, comes out this summer.

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