The return of Nick Novello

There was a time, dear readers, not that many years ago, when a scrappy young chef named Josh Henderson was opening restaurants faster than you could imagine. Skillet Diner was the flagship, a burger slathered with bacon jam was its signature dish, and a polished restaurant pro named Nick Novello was in charge of the kitchen.

Henderson went on to other projects (too many, it turned out) and Novello, too, moved on (to a position with Lancer Hospitality, a multi-state catering company).

Meantime, the restaurants down on the Seattle waterfront (Ivar’s, Elliott’s, etc.) were preparing for the dawn of a new age: once the viaduct comes down, once the seawall is complete, once the new Elliott Bay esplanade is finished, a steady stream of new visitors is expected to stream along the new Alaskan Way.

While vehicles will roar through the new, two-mile tunnel under downtown, walkers, strollers, joggers, gawkers, and stragglers will proceed past the piers, from 52 (Colman Dock ferry terminal) to 70 (Aqua by El Gaucho). For the past couple of years, they’ve been getting ready, these vendors of chowder, chips, dogs and pizza.

One of the secret spots on the waterfront has surely been the one called, simply, the Fisherman’s Restaurant, at the far end of Pier 57. That’s the multi-story monolith called Miners Landing. Out front, Pirate’s Plunder (souvenirs) and the Crab Pot (everybody eats with their hands; kids love it). In between, a sourdough bakery, a food court, an ice-cream stand, a carousel, and assorted “chainsaw” sculptures (lots of selfies). Also a new ride called Wings Over Washington.

And, at the very end of the pier, our very own Great Wheel, 175 feet tall with 41 8-passenger gondolas (plus a 4-seat VIP cabin). The ride (3 revolutions, 12 minutes) costs $14.

The trick is to snag one of the tables between the restaurant and the water. Now you’ve got the Olympics and Mt. Rainier in the background, the wheel turning above you, the downtown skyline behind you, and, coming out of the kitchen, a broad selection of apps, chowders, oysters, salads, grilled fish, fresh crab, burgers, steaks, pastas, and cocktails.

Running the kitchen is our old friend Nick Novello, who has returned from his slog in corporate catering to take charge of Pier 57’s food service. Miners Landing has been owned by Hal Griffith and his family since 1980 but the family operated most of the businesses at the pier since 1960. Coincidentally, Novello and the Griffith sons (Kyle and Troy) grew up together in Southern California; Novello’s dad was director of operations for the Griffith family enterprises, as it happens an almost identical Fisherman’s and Crab Pot in San Clemente.

“It felt like coming home,” Novello told me at a media preview of his new menu.

At any rate, Novello is now in command of the Miners Landing kitchens, where he turns out a $19 crab toast (crab cake atop homemade sourdough in a dijon mornay) that reminded me of his Serious Toast (brioche soaked in custard)at Skillet. The fresh fish dishes, simply grilled and served with lemon, will satisfy local purists, as will the shrimp “brodo” with ricotta dumplings and the lamb ragù with fresh pappardelle. Visitors can gorge themselves on clams, mussels, and steamed Dungeness crab or a dry-aged New York steak with a side of “butter crab.”

The Griffiths, father and sons, built the Great Wheel on their own property after the city kept stalling the permit process for a more public setting. Foresight, it turns out. But they’re not infallible; at one point they also had a plan to run gondolas from the waterfront to downtown.