Southport’s Outdoor Dining

For all of Seattle’s love affair with the water, you have to wonder: why are there so few actual waterfront restaurants? I can list them on one-and-a-half hands, in fact. Okay, downtown waterfront is expensive, but only one spot in West Seattle (Salty’s) with a skyline view? And a disappointing record for the Ship Canal (Ivar’s Salmon House is fine, but Hiram’s closed years ago). The situation is even worse for restaurants along the shores of Lake Washington. West side of the lake, north of the Ship Canal, nothing. South? Leschi offers Daniel’s Broiler and Meet the Moon. On the eastside, there’s the Beach House and Le Grand Bistro in Kirkland. I get it, you’re supposed to order takeout and eat on your yacht. Not.

Change of perspective. A Renton bureaucrat named George Coulon, who ran the city’s parks department for several decades in the mid-20th century, had a vision. He found an abandoned and littered tract of railroad property close to the Boeing plant at the south end of Lake Washington, 23 acres in all, and determined to make it into something. A swimming hole, sure, but more than that: a sanctuary for the folks who worked and lived at the south end of the lake. Coulon died in 1978 after a 30-year career with the City of Renton, but his dream of a great park was just getting started. First, funds were found to buy another 32 acres. Then, a bond issue raised nearly $10 million to get the park fully designed and landscaped. The Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park was dedicated in 1982, and what a spot it is.

Inside the park itself, an Ivar’s and a Kidd Valley. Outside, it’s big time: first of all, the Peyrassol cafe, owned by Sachia Tinsley and Scott Cory. (Tinsley’s sister Sabrina and her husband Pietro Borghesi own La Spiga on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.) More recently, Seco Development. has built a $325 million project for Hyatt Regency (350 rooms), 400 new housing units, 700,000 square feet of office space on the adjacent Lake Washington frontage, which is named Southport.

The idea is to lure corporate offices away from Bellevue and Seattle with rental rates that are 50 percent lower and amenities (like a boat dock) you can’t find atop the Columbia Center or the Paccar Tower. Plus, the restaurants. The Hyatt has a “Marketplace” for basic groceries, a bar & grill at water level, and a fine-dining spot, Water’s Table, overlooking the dock. Bellevue’s high-rise office towers are on the horizon, silhouetted in the setting sun.

Ryan Olivas (formerly of the downtown Hyatt Regency) along with chef de cuisine Thomas Sheehan have taken over the kitchen at this spot, now three years old, and have a new menu; it’s a simple, straightforward set of standard appetizers and entrées, all very well-executed.

Crab cakes, $18, could have used a sharper aioli, but the oysters, $36 for six kushis, came with a splendid mignonette. The cedar-planked salmon, $32, (wild, brought in from New Zealand, consistently high quality, reliable year-round supply) was quite flavorful. The steak-frites, $34, was a hefty slab of teres major, a shoulder cut similar in tenderness to a petite tenderloin that’s become a go-to cut for bistro chefs. More-than-decent potatoes. A lovely apple crumble, $9, topped with vanilla gelato, for dessert. A by-the-glass wine list that offers satisfaction, from an unpretentious sparkler to a hefty red. (But why was there no orange peel in the Negroni?)

A side note regarding the salmon because it’s the one surprise on the menu. Not for quality but for provenance. We’ve become so accustomed to “wild Alaska salmon” on local restaurant menuus that we cringe when the source of our fish is anything other than US waters. Granted, Cordova, Alaska, is some 1,300 miles from Seattle, and New Zealand is over 7,000 miles. That said, Ora salmon couldn’t be better, in terms of low-impact and high quality.

It probably doesn’t matter much that Boeing’s 737 factory, the sprawling industrial development that anchors Renton, is ailing. Water’s Table starts serving socially distanced lunch this week, which is all the more reason to meander down the shores of Lake Washington.

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