There’s no recipe for a “gastro-guide” like Bryce Lathrop.
He’s one part restaurant critic, the type that only steers you to the good stuff. He’s a customer who can always get a table at the most crowded place. He’s driver, raconteur and entrepreneur, mixing them all together to create his White Moustache eating tours of Seattle.
The highly personalized tours, where Lathrop transports customers around town and arranges for choice eats to fit their tastes, are now a full-time success for Lathrop. It’s the latest venture in a résumé that spans a long list of so-called “stupid ideas,” including a trucking business involving plastic fencing, along with very good ideas, like a chain of cybercafes. (The cafes were the source of the original White Moustache name, which describes the foam a latte leaves on the face.) Even the trucking business may not have been such a bad idea in retrospect; that’s where the Northwest native, broken down in Alabama one day, met a “super hospitable and generous” local who made him feel like he was part of their tiny town. The encounter made him think he could start a food tour here imparting some of that same spirit.
After being named Seattle’s best food attraction by the editors of Forbes Travel, beating out the Theo Chocolate factory tour and Pike Place Market, he recently opened a Vancouver, B.C., branch of White Moustache and is also set to open soon in Portland.
Lathrop gained his foundation of Seattle restaurant knowledge by diagramming the city and eating his way through each grid, returning multiple times to his favorites before counting them as a reliable tour stop.
“What are you most proud of? What do you do better than anybody else?” he asks before his first order.
He pays for the food his tour customers eat and tips the servers — refusing kickbacks means escaping any temptation to steer customers to what’s free rather than what’s good, he said. He calls ahead to each stop to let the restaurateurs know when to start cooking and to hold a table. To Lathrop’s surprise, the majority of his Seattle customers turned out to be locals, looking to celebrate an occasion or take in a bunch of new or new-to-them restaurants. But we thought that now, the height of tourist season, might be the best time to check in on some of his favorite places. He’s got about 60 core restaurants on his list, with extra variations for repeat customers or those going for themed tours like pork or spots that have been featured on national TV. “I would get so bored if we had a default tour,” he said.
Ready to take notes?
Super-popular stops — almost guaranteed pleasers on his $100/person two-hour tours, he said — include Revel in Fremont, Skillet Diner on Capitol Hill and the Marination Mobile food truck. He stops in for the charcuterie plate at Dot’s Deli in Fremont and appreciates Eastlake’s tiny Blind Pig Bistro. Lark in the Pike/Pine corridor is a prime pick, as is Bottlehouse in Madrona. Down in White Center, choices range from tamales to the ice cream at the flagship Full Tilt shop to breakfast at nearby Meander’s Kitchen. Georgetown’s got Katsu Burger. For those sticking near downtown and Belltown, he often takes them through Matt’s in the Market, Lecosho and The Coterie Room. Coffee geeks might go to Tougo in the Central District or Fremont’s Milstead & Co.
One of his favorite finds? Chili’s Deli and Mart in the University District (5002 University Way N.E.), with a look “like it should be condemned by the health department” but delightful service and spectacular Indian dosas.
With a tight timeline and a North-End starting point, here were the five stops he chose to show off Seattle. They’d be great picks for a well-fed summer houseguest:
1. Fresh Fish Company (2364 N.W. 80th St.): We knew they were good for crabcakes and fresh fish, but what’s this in the case? Cioppino, served at sit-down tables by the cup or sold to-go by the quart, made the old-fashioned way with substantial chunks of the day’s fresh catch. After a few bites, we officially added to our list of go-to takeout dinners.
2. Take 5 Urban Market (6757 Eighth Ave N.W.): Last time we stopped at this shop on a small Ballard arterial, it was a sparsely stocked specialty store. That was a few years back. As Lathrop discovered, it’s now got a full kitchen serving lunch and dinner, starring a killer seared meatloaf sandwich made with fresh-ground beef and piled with grilled red onions and all the other fixings on a sturdy Grand Central bun. “This guy used to work at The Four Seasons,” Lathrop said, introducing executive chef Bryan Vietmeier, who does indeed have a résumé to match the best. It’s still sort of a corner grocery, but the food’s entirely worthy of calling the guy who cooks it the executive chef.
3. Cantinetta (3650 Wallingford Ave.): You’d think everyone knows about this neighborhood gem — but Lathrop says he’s had Wallingford clients who’ve never dined there. This stop we chatted with chef de cuisine Gabriel Chavez, whose skills and background convinced Lathrop to set up a White Mustache Mexican pop-up dinner where Chavez dispensed with Cantinetta’s usual Italian fare and cooked favorites from his childhood in Mexico, from ceviche to carnitas and flan. On this stop, Chavez sticks to classic Cantinetta, preparing an elegant plate of fresh tortellini pasta with truffle pecorino, fava beans and toasted pancetta.
4. Grub (7 Boston St.): Heading for the semi-secret parking spot he often slips into on busy Queen Anne, Lathrop is thwarted. The spot is filled. But he doesn’t resent it once he recognizes the car: “That’s Sharon’s mother,” he said. Sharon is owner Sharon Fillingim, the woman behind several classic Seattle eateries, now earning raves at what she says is her last restaurant. She prepares a rich stew of clams and house-made chorizo, plus what’s becoming a trademark salad of roasted kale, cauliflower and chickpeas. (Lathrop usually likes to pair it with Proletariat’s 2011 Rose). Despite the calories already consumed, it’s impossible to leave any clams behind.
5. A la mode Pies (5821 Phinney Ave. N.): It’s been a few years since we’d tried the pies at this shop, and that was back when they were a delivery-only business. On this stop, Lathrop chatted with the counter staff (some of them work at one of his other regular stops, Hot Cakes in Ballard) and brings over owner Chris Porter to talk sweets. We try the Blue Hawaiian pie, blueberries with pineapple and coconut, one that I remembered sampling when the business first opened. It was pretty good then; it was better this time.