Another standout is Tilth, an organic restaurant in a two-story Craftsman house in the Wallingford neighborhood just west of the University of Washington. The tiny woman with the yard-long dark braid down her back is chef-owner Maria Hines, formerly chef at Earth & Ocean in Seattle's W Hotel, who has returned to her roots at Tilth.
Hines has a subtle touch in dishes such as a salad of pale quartered beets with emerald arugula and blue cheese or dark, velvety, house-cured prosciutto with a salad of miner's lettuce and foraged wood violet leaves. A baked Granny Smith apple stuffed with fresh Dungeness crab meat is bound with a little crème fraîche to delicious effect. I can order normal or tasting portions, so I can try more dishes, such as the earthy beef tongue ragù with heirloom beans, horseradish and shallots.
To finish, we order several cheeses, including hoja santa from Texas (soft goat cheese wrapped in hoja santa leaves). Dessert is a sublime heirloom apple galette with cinnamon ice cream laced with bits of candied bacon and a pine nut tart with fromage blanc, caramel and thyme. As we walk out the door at 9:30 p.m., people are still coming in to eat. Small wonder.
Pair is a sweet little restaurant in a simple clapboard building in the Ravenna area of northeastern Seattle. Chef-owner Felix Penn and his wife, Sarah, live upstairs. Out front are a couple of wooden benches and flowers spilling from galvanized tin pots. The dining room has a raffish, hand-hewn charm with its deep pumpkin-colored ceiling, pierced tin lanterns and gingham curtains.
The menu is small-plates Mediterranean -- house-made rabbit rillette with red wine prunes, steamed asparagus with blood orange beurre blanc, and cinnamon roasted lamb with preserved lemon, potato purée and minted Moroccan olives. I know some people who come just for the beef brisket with fresh horseradish cream and chives, others for the duck confit with creamy polenta, braised red cabbage and cherry ginger sauce, all under $20.
The dishes aren't highly original, but they're cooked with care and respect, including a magnificent Yukon Gold potato and cauliflower gratin topped with Gruyère and panko breadcrumbs.
MATT'S IN THE MARKET
When I visit Seattle, my friend Roberta usually picks me up at the airport, and we head straight to lunch at Matt's in the Market on a second-story perch overlooking the Pike Place Market sign. Matt's serves terrific soups, sandwiches and seafood based on ingredients from the market. It started out as a tiny counter, but after a lengthy remodel, it has reopened and has nearly quadrupled in size.
Owners Matt Janke and chef Eric Cannella didn't take Matt's upscale when they expanded. They're still turning out the same all-American fare that has made Matt's a hometown favorite. That means three hearty soups every day, a butter lettuce wedge salad with avocado, bacon and cava vinaigrette, big bowls of steamed clams and Penn Cove mussels with fennel and a touch of cream. Fried catfish or oyster sandwiches come with a spicy mayonnaise on bread from Seattle's beloved Macrina Bakery.
For dessert, the rich bread pudding with caramel sauce is irresistible.
If you want a table, reservations are essential; walk-ins, though, can usually find a spot at one of the two counters. Seattle knows how to do lunch.
WORLD SPICE MERCHANTS, SPANISH TABLE
After a stroll through the market to marvel at all the Northwestern seafood, we head down three or four flights of stairs to the street below to World Spice Merchants (1509 Western Ave;  682-7274, www.worldspice.com), where you're enveloped by the heady scent of curry and spices. The tiny shop carries some unusual stuff -- black lemon from the Middle East, ajwain and amchoor ghost chile from India, plus its own curry blends for Sri Lankan, Caribbean and Singaporean cooking. Across the street is the Spanish Table (1426 Western Ave.;  682.2827; www.spanishtable.com) with paella pans in every size imaginable, Bomba rice from Valencia, high-quality saffron, books on regional Spanish cuisine, cookware and a good selection of Spanish wines.
Steelhead Diner on Pine Street around the corner from the market is a sprawling space decorated with hand-tied fishing lures. Light bouncing off nearby Elliott Bay floods the room. Chef-owner Kevin Davis, a New Orleans native who used to cook at Sazerac and the Oceanaire here, turns out updated diner fare with a local bent.
Brutus salad features crisp Romaine strewed with toasted pine nuts and Parmesan in a juicy citrus vinaigrette. A single giant crab cake arrives like Clarabell the Clown, wearing a frizzle of deep-fried beet threads. Underneath, it's all Dungeness lump crab meat sparked with habanero chile and sauce Louis.
Clams are steamed to order for the Manila clam chowder, which is laced with Yukon Gold potatoes, apple-smoked bacon, shiitake mushrooms and fresh peas.
Andouille sausage gumbo is loaded with chicken and sausage, but almost too rich and concentrated. When I add a spoonful of water, the gumbo backs off and the flavors purr. Dessert is an apple pandowdy, basically a pie crust filled with diced apples, dried cherries and raisins in a caramel sauce. But the clincher is the cinnamon-laced ice cream melting into the apples.