Best new restaurant openings of 2020 in Tacoma & Pierce County – a year in review
Never have I been happier to see a calendar flip.
At the close of a year that proved brutal for local restaurants, I want to take a moment to celebrate new restaurants that expanded the local dining scene.
Especially because we might need to brace for impact in 2021.
The 2020 closures around Tacoma and Pierce County — institutions such as Pacific Grill, The Swiss, Louie G’s, Bonney Lake Tavern and CI Shenanigans, plus newer favorites such as El Borracho, Magnuson Kitchen + Brewery, Savor Creperie and Straight From Philly — could be a precursor to what might be a tough next year.
So let’s pause for a moment and make a 2021 resolution: If the money is in the dining budget, please consider weekly take-out from a favorite spot through this year.
Can we stop every closure? Likely not. But could we maybe delay a closure and help a restaurant worker or two keep their incomes? Certainly.
Let’s talk a little about 2020, which brought us a year of firsts.
First specialized Laotian restaurant in Tacoma.
First gin bar in Tacoma with a whopping 30+ gin libations on the menu.
First French bakery with pastries I’ve never seen in Tacoma.
And so much more.
I like to mark the end of every year with a recap of what I consider to be my favorite restaurant openings.
Let’s take a look back at my 10 favorite restaurant openings, plus a recap of other significant openings I covered.
I didn’t get to every restaurant opening this year, but these were my favorites. In all, I wrote about 35+ openings, which is pretty good considering the pandemic (for comparison, I wrote 69 restaurant openings in 2018 and 75 in 2017).
As I always write when I pen these year-end restaurant recaps, for a restaurant to make it onto my top 10 opening list, the eatery must nail its specialty, fill a niche needed in the Tacoma area or be an all-around excellent place to eat.
Here’s my top 10, plus a look back at all the openings I wrote about. These are all listed in chronological order. On the plus side, when restaurants reopen (soon, we all hope), use this list as your guide for what to check out when we can finally dine sans restrictions.
MY FAVORITE OPENINGS OF 2020
In chronological order:
Essence Lounge opened January 18 in Tacoma’s Sixth Ave neighborhood with a familiar chef. Natural Allah returned with his unusual blend of cuisine that is a mashup of Latin American eats and Southern-style soul food. He operates the restaurant with Christina Hernandez. Allah previously co-owned Soul and Vinum Wine Lounge before that (both are closed). The Essence Lounge menu is a love letter to the food Allah grew up eating in the Bronx: a little bit Cuban, Puerto Rican, soul food and more. Hernandez, who is Puerto Rican, brings her own spin to the menu. Just going to point out here that this is the only restaurant in Pierce County with a chopped cheese sandwich.
Location: 3829 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-503-0276; essenceloungetacoma.com
Read the whole story here: https://dinepiercecounty.com/2020/01/25/essence-lounge-now-open-in-tacomas-6th-avenue-neighborhood/
LOS AMIGOS TAQUERIA
An unusual inclusion in my “new openings” list, but I added this restaurant because it is the little taqueria that could, considering the hurdles faced by these longtime food truck owners.
This South Hill taqueria opened in July in its first brick-and-mortar Pierce County location after operating as a taco bus on South Hill for a decade.
Antonio Ruiz and Enedina Martinez run the restaurant with their children. The family spent a year overhauling the 5,000-square-feet space that previously housed a Chinese buffet. They also upgraded the fire suppression system, grease interceptor and electrical system at great expense.
The opening brought with it the familiar eats for which the taco bus was well known: excellent tacos, burritos, enchiladas, combo platters and all the usual taqueria favorites at more-than-affordable prices. It’s home to my favorite carnitas burrito in Pierce County.
Location: 4215 S. Meridian, Puyallup; 253-848-0176; https://www.facebook.com/losmigostaqueria/
Read the whole story here: https://dinepiercecounty.com/2020/07/17/los-amigos-taqueria-finally-opens-in-puyallup/
The summer opening of Saigon House added one more excellent upscale Vietnamese restaurant – joining the ranks of Sixth Avenue’s La Ca Bar and the local trio of Le-Le restaurants for a more stylized dining experience.
Nestled between check cashing businesses and nail salons, good bites are in abundant supply in our local strip malls. You wouldn’t know it from the looks of that lovely dining room, but Saigon House is a strip-mall gem squished between a Big Five and T-Mobile store on 38th Avenue South near Tacoma Mall.
Chef-owner Dung Tran has created a sit-and-sip respite with Vietnamese brushes on everything – from the giant photo of Hanoi spanning the back wall to the cocktails infused with Southeastern Asia flavors to the Obama noodles from the famous episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
“We’ve got food from the south, food from the north and food from the east,” explained manager and cocktail slinger Dan Chau this summer. “It’s food from every part of the country. And one that’s larger in scope with food that is beyond like a mom-and-pop type of restaurant.”
When you go, be sure to order his tamarind whiskey sour and those famous Obama noodles.
Location: 2505 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-503-3010; https://www.saigonhouse.us/
Read the whole story here: https://dinepiercecounty.com/2020/10/24/saigon-house-now-open-in-tacoma-and-is-date-night-ready/
COOPER’S FOOD & DRINK
Cooper’s Food & Drink’s debut in Westgate brought a comfortable enclave with a distinct neighborhood vibe, a focus on family dining and an outdoor-dining space built for socially distant dining, which the restaurant has since expanded.
The July opening culminated three years of work by the Troger family, who flipped the restaurant space from the dated Westgate Bar & Grill (old timers still call it Barb’s) to its current life as a friendly neighborhood gathering spot with great cocktails.
Co-owners Greg and Tanya Troger also are behind The Forum restaurants in Puyallup and Tacoma. Their children help run the restaurants.
The menu at Cooper’s is playful enough to interest seasoned restaurant warriors and familiar enough to appeal to everyone else. Finely composed sandwiches, outstanding soups, burgers, pizzas and an appetizer list built for cocktailing accentuate a very comfortable space.
The restaurant also is home to a Beef on Weck, a sublime roast beef sandwich imported from Greg Troger’s native New York. The revered East Coast sandwich comes with a massive pile of thinly-shaved roast beef, roasted in house of course, dunked in a salty au jus and served on a substantial salty roll. It’s simple and satisfying and everyone should try it.
Location: 5928 N. 26th St., Tacoma; 253-503-0329; https://cooperstacoma.com/
Read the whole story here: https://dinepiercecounty.com/2020/07/21/coopers-food-drink-in-tacoma-finally-opens-heres-a-first-look/
Stadium neighborhood’s Gilman House should be famous for two things: its deep library of gin cocktails from Jason Alexander and the outstanding brunch program from Robyn Alexander. The husband-wife duo opened Gilman House in August as a companion to their nautical-themed Devil’s Reef in Tacoma’s Opera Alley. Both restaurants are loosely themed around an H.P. Lovecraft story called “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Find reminders of Cthulhu tucked into every corner of the Gilman House space designed to look like a hotel lobby in a New England port town.
The restaurant’s brunch program is on pause for now (a casualty of current restaurant restrictions), but when it restarts, prioritize Robyn Alexanders brunch biscuits, which break apart effortlessly into delicious buttery layers with the gentlest of nudges. If you’re doing it right, you’ll slather each layer with butter and jam like a biscuit hasselback.
The drinks are Jason Alexander’s unique creations. Like the cocktails at Devil’s Reef, Alexander’s Gilman House cocktails feature hand-mixed syrups and house-steeped liqueurs heavy on aromatics and citrus.
Devil’s Reef covers the gamut of rum, but at Gilman House, it’s all about gin, citrus, botanicals and elixirs that taste like they were made by a cocktail scientist. You’ll find Navy-strength gin, barrel-aged gin and gunpowder Irish gin. The gin specialty menu is a collection of 25 cocktails that change frequently and cover the usual gin suspects: a sling, gimlet, negroni, a Collins, fruit cup, rickey, Corpse Reviver, French 75 and so much more.
The Alexanders are on a short vacation this week, but expect their take-out cocktail and eats game to resume in early January.
Location: 12 N Tacoma Ave, Tacoma; https://gilman-house.square.site/s/order
September brought the opening of another strip-mall gem, Miyamoto. If you’re an experienced sushi eater in Tacoma with a penchant for traditional Japanese restaurants such as Sixth Avenue’s Sushi Tama, you’ll appreciate the simple aesthetic at this new Japanese restaurant near Tacoma Mall.
Did I mention that I spotted a familiar chef behind the sushi counter? Takashi Sasaki, the owner of the now-closed excellent Kanpai in Puyallup, came out of retirement to lead the sushi counter at Miyamoto. Like Kanpai, Miyamoto rolls are tightly wound, simple and beautiful. There are no supersized rolls with an array of colorful sauces or flaming ingredients. This is a restaurant that pays homage to the simple aesthetic of Japanese cuisine. The menu is well rounded with a wide selection of bento boxes, Japanese curries, udon soups, donburi bowls, a terrific list of appetizers and, of course, a selection of nigiri and maki.
Location: 2919 S 38th St., Tacoma; 253-302-4445; https://www.instagram.com/miyamoto_tacoma/
COSTELLA’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT AND MARKET
The opening of this South Hill Italian restaurant and deli market continued a 2020 trend that had Puyallup diners rejoicing: a deluge of locally-grown restaurants. Taqueria El Rinconsito, Los Amigos Taqueria and Fiesta Taqueria are a worthy trio of restaurants that opened from March to July with Costella’s Italian Restaurant and Market following in September. Did I mention that Red Wagon burgers opened in November? Dining is really looking up in South Hill.
Costella’s is a concept that was missing from the entire region, not just South Hill. Consider it a cross between Europa Bistro in Proctor and Viafore’s, the Italian deli in Fircrest that closed permanently earlier this year (but was replaced this month by sausage maker and sandwich maker, Verone’s Italian Kitchen).
Much of the menu is hand crafted – an unusual find in South Hill – from the pomodoro to the pasta. The opening menu had handmade fettuccini, hand-stuffed ravioli, two versions of house-made gnocchi, three styles of risotto, plenty of other Italian-American menu classics and a kid-friendly atmosphere.
While getting a take-out order of the fantastic spaghetti, be sure to take a moment to peruse the Italian market and deli that’s just beyond the restaurant’s entrance.
Location: 214 39th Ave SW, Puyallup; 253-466-3964; https://costellas.net/
Read the whole story here: https://dinepiercecounty.com/2020/09/18/costellas-italian-restaurant-and-market-is-now-open/
Cuerno Bravo in Tacoma’s St. Helens neighborhood quietly reopened in September, six months after a tentative start that came crashing to a halt due to pandemic restrictions. This is the splurge restaurant to have on your to-dine list because it’s a level of restaurant we don’t see opening here often.
It has the longest and most thorough list of premium beef in the city (the excellent Asado and El Gaucho both included). It’s a beautiful restaurant with kitchen equipment rivaling the finest steakhouses. Cuerno Bravo also comes with some financial flexibility where a diner can drop $200 on apps, premium cocktails and Japanese A5 beef or shell out $25 for a platter of Wagyu carne asada built for sharing.
Owner David Orozco is the Northwest’s champion of boutique beef. Food publications have lauded his focus on prime beef, Wagyu and A5 meat at his five-year-old Kent strip-mall restaurant Asadero Prime, which he expanded to Ballard in 2016.
The restaurant currently is doing take-out, but be sure to make this a priority when it reopens whether you go for the affordable happy hour or a splurge dinner with refreshing mezcal-based cocktails.
Location: 616 St Helens Ave, Tacoma; 253-328-6688; https://www.cuernobravo.com/
Sweet Rice’s name nods to sweet sticky rice, a staple of Laotian cuisine. “In Thailand, the Thai eat a lot of their dishes with jasmine rice, but with us in Laos, our primary rice is sweet rice, the sticky rice you mold in your hand,” explained Sweet Rice co-owner Robert Saysana when he and his family opened their second location of Sweet Rice in October.
He and his sister, who grew up in Northeast Tacoma and are Stadium High School graduates, also operate a Sweet Rice in Auburn. His extended family also operates Sweet Rice restaurants in Texas.
The food is an homage to the Laoatian cuisine the Saysanas and extended family grew up eating.
Never had Laotian cuisine? Not surprising around here where there are few restaurants of this kind, “We eat that with finger food, a lot of crispy fried, grilled foods that you can eat with the rice,” explained Saysana when the restaurant was preparing to open. “We like dipping a lot. We like the sweet rice and we get a protein and then we dip it,” he said.
“Most of our food consists of a lot of mixtures, a lot of herbs and a lot of flavors,” he said. Laotian food is similar to Thai cuisine in that the harmony of Laotian cuisine borrows from the same symphony that comprises the Southeast Asia palate: sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter.
On a first visit try the nam khao crispy lettuce wraps or the mix plate, which provides an overview of Laotian fried finger foods and the jeo sauces that are a signature of Lao cuisine.
Location: 8425 S. Hosmer St., Tacoma; 253-507-5618; https://www.sweetricewa.com/location/tacoma/
Read the whole story here: https://dinepiercecounty.com/2020/11/07/sweet-rice-tacomas-first-laotian-restaurant-now-open/
A TRIO OF EXCELLENT BAKERIES
I couldn’t settle on my favorite bakery opening of the year, so I’ll list three because this was a significant year for bakeries in the Tacoma area. In order of opening are Delish Bakery in Steilacoom, Cat & Rabbitt Cakeshop in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood and Unique Bakery in downtown Tacoma. Here’s a bit about each:
From her first day of business in September, Lisa Holmgren was inundated with customers at her Steilacoom bakery featuring everything from homespun cookies to fudgy brownies, delicate macarons and, most recently, hot cocoa bombs. Delish Bakery is a second career for Holmgren, who lost her job during the pandemic and pivoted to pastry. On a first visit, do not miss the brownie.
Location: 1603 Lafayette St., Steilacoom; 253-325-9822; https://delish-bakery.com/
Read the whole story here: https://dinepiercecounty.com/2020/09/14/delish-bakery-is-now-open-and-you-have-got-to-try-the-brownie/
CAT & RABBITT CAKESHOP
Naturally a business plan that’s hatched during a pandemic will be molded by that pandemic. Enter the cake window, Cat & Rabbitt Cakeshop, which debuted in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood in November.
“We want people to be able to walk up to a window and get a big, giant slab of the best cake they’ve ever had,” said co-owner Julia Brown back in October when I first spoke with her and co-owner Terryn Abbitt about their venture. Before Cat & Rabbitt, they were the pastry super duo behind X Group Catering, the companion business to the Pine Room, Asado, Engine House No. 9 and E9 Brewing.
What beautiful cakes they produce. Surprise flavor boosters tweak the taste and texture of the cakes to a degree I’ve never tasted in Tacoma. The menu focuses on cake-by-the-slice, but they bake other occasional pastry offerings. The bakery’s four-layer berry lime cake was the best slice of cake I ate in 2020 (or maybe my whole life). It tasted substantially luscious with a lime soak and a subtly tart cream cheese buttercream. Each layer hid a swipe of lush lime curd and a channel of berry jam swooped down the center. If you see a line outside the cake window on berry-lime cake day, you might get to meet me. The menu changes frequently.
Location: 2811 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; https://www.thecatandrabbitt.com/
Read the whole story here: https://dinepiercecounty.com/2020/12/12/just-what-tacoma-needed-a-wiener-and-a-cake-window-on-6th-ave/
The December opening of downtown Tacoma’s Unique Bakery brought with it a deep selection of French pastries, something tough to find under one bakery roof in Tacoma. Local carb lovers will adore the croissants, cream puffs, pain au chocolat, pain au raisins, eclairs, fruit tarts, a wide selection of macarons and Danish pastries with myriad fruit fillings.
And, for the first time that I’ve seen in Tacoma, kouign-amann is offered at a local bakery.
The pastry wizards behind the bakery are Roger Martinho and Mirtha Sanchez, previous owners of La Waffletz & Macaron Station in Freighthouse Square, which closed in 2019 following serious heart surgery for Martinho. Martinho grew up in France, but comes from a Porgugeuse family. He worked his way through Europe and previously operated a bakery in Liege, Belgium before meeting Sanchez while both were working as bakers at a pastry corporation. Martinho has since recovered and is back in action at Unique Bakery. Put it in your must-visit list. Now.
MORE TERRIFIC OPENINGS
Here’s a chronological listing of restaurant openings I covered this year:
Cafe Azure opened a lovely cafe with bountiful breakfast burritos, simple cafe fare and coffee in February inside a building built on top of Tacoma’s first indoor pool. Read about it here.
Amitie Wine Company debuted in March, the project of Tacoma’s wine dame Kris Blondin and business partner Jack Noble. Longtime Tacomans will know them as the original owners of the excellent Stink Cheese + Meat. They have all your wine needs covered at Amitie, plus they’re next door to Fujiya for excellent sushi access. Read more here.
Perry’s Cocktail Bar in downtown Puyallup is another restaurant that opened at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s closed during this current era of dining restrictions, but when it does reopen, be sure to put the New American cuisine and excellent cocktails on your try list. Read more here.
Berliner Beerhall finally debuted, after seven years (SEVEN YEARS!!!) of construction in downtown Tacoma. The restaurant and beer hall opened in March, just ahead of the pandemic and shut down almost immediately, but intends to reopen when current restrictions are lifted. Diners will find a huge list of German brews, outstanding schnitzel, pretzels as big as your head. Read more here.
Hong’s Restaurant in Lakewood also opened during the pandemic in March. This scrappy restaurant is a conglomeration of all kinds of Asian cuisine and has a menu deep on Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine. Read more here.
Cravin’ Crawfish was the first of two seafood boil restaurants that opened in 2020 (including Captain Crab in Lakewood, mentioned below). The Tacoma Mall-area boil restaurant opened in May. Owner Vu Nguyen’s love for lobster, crab and crawfish is translated into bowls brimming with flavorful sauces. Read more here.
Odin Brewing Company and Pint & Pie opened in June in Tacoma’s Saint Helens neighborhood just after restaurant restrictions were lifted after the year’s first round of dining closures. Odin Brewing Company is the sister brewery to the Tukwila-based restaurant with a tap list deep on Odin finds and a pub menu brushed with chef touches (the pimento cheese is outstanding; as are the shrimp and grits with a kick of heat). Pint & Pie is an outpost of local brewery Northwest Brewing and serves a menu of savory and sweet pies.
Mogoso Noodles is currently on hiatus, but co-owners June Yoon and Sun Lee plan for a more permanent home for their noodle and dumpling stand they debuted this summer at local farmers markets. Read more here.
Cider + Cedar is a cider taproom that opened in the summer with a concept that combines the loves of its owners – cider and woodworking. Read more here.
Dock Street Deli debuted on the Foss waterway in June, the project of a third-generation Tacoma restaurant owner and a terrific spot for sandwiches piled high with delicious deli meats. Read more here.
Grit City Ciderworks opened in July in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood with a taplist featuring the fun and fizzy creations of Kelsey and David Horne. Read more here.
Toast Mi’s summer opening brought Tacoma’s Proctor neighborhood its first banh mi sandwich shop. The lovely restaurant features a build-to-your-specs sandwich menu paired with delightful teas and other drinks. Read more here.
The Main Ingredient Pizzeria opened in August in the former Stonegate space on South Tacoma Way. Consider the crust a hybrid between Neapolitan and New York, with a menu of beer-friendly appetizers. Read more here.
Little Radio opened in July in downtown Tacoma, bringing a menu of outstanding burgers and sandwiches (get the smash burger), fun cocktails and a tap list highlighting its sister business, Wingman Brewers in Tacoma’s brewery district. Read more here.
BB.Q Olive Chicken is a chain restaurant with locations from Seoul to Seattle, but worth mentioning because of its outstanding Korean fried chicken. Read more here.
BBQ Pete’s opened its Lakewood location in September, marking the longtime regional barbecue restaurant’s return to a brick-and-mortar smokehouse in Pierce County. Read more here.
Fierce County Cider opened its first tasting room this year with a location in South Hill. Read more here.
Pour Me Bistro added a much needed date-night spot to the Graham-Puyallup dining scene. Find great sandwiches and solid cocktails at this spot that opened in September. Read more here.
Captain Crab opened in Lakewood in September with a broad, and economically priced, seafood boil menu. It’s a sibling business to the buffet next door. Read more here.
Wienerschnitzel returned to the South Sound in September with a first location in Pierce County for the national hot dog company. Read more here.
Spice Lab’s opening in October brought the return of Chef Blake Lord-Wittig, formerly chef-owner of Steilacoom’s De La Terre. This restaurant delves deep into spices with an aromatic spin on New American cuisine. It operates as a pop-up inside Harmon Brewing in downtown Tacoma. Read more here.
Old Town Wine Skins is a delightful wine bar and neighborhood destination in Tacoma’s Old Town, opened by PLU business professor Cosette Pfaff and her husband John, who is a longtime self-taught chef. Read more here.
Home Turf Taproom opened next door to PLU in September with a taplist featuring brews from sister business, Gig Harbor Brewing. Read more here.
Verone’s Italian Kitchen & Sausage Company moved into the former Viafore’s space this month, marking the first time the local food business has had a retail location for about 30 years. Read more here.
Manic Meatballs debuted this month with a menu featuring something we’re short on here: Swedish meatballs. The Lakewood eatery is a first-time restaurant project for Carrie Stalder. Read more here.