Columbia City isn’t a real city, but it used to be. It officially became a part of Seattle in 1907, but frankly, there are so many restaurants and bars in this neighborhood on the south end, it needs its own mayor. We volunteer.
Our guide has all of the intel you need to navigate the area, whether you live here or feel like spending a few hours on Rainier Ave S. From fantastic Kenyan food to the best BBQ in town, there are a ton of great places to check out. We also included our favorite spots in Hillman City (which also used to be a real city) at the end of this guide since the two neighborhoods are so close together.
Backyard is a fun bar that has every activity imaginable - there’s pool, ping pong, a jukebox, darts, trivia, and karaoke. But don’t forget about the best activity of all, which is eating terrific BBQ. Their menu has everything from brisket sandwiches to poutine, and we’re also big fans of the baked mac and cheese. If you’re looking for a chill night out in Columbia City with friends who constantly need to be entertained, this is the place.
Super Six serves the best brunch in Columbia City. This renovated auto shop is the sister restaurant to Marination Ma Kai, and they serve a great Hawaiian/Korean menu of dishes like pancakes with toasted macadamia nut butter and coconut syrup, french fries topped with kalua pork and gravy, and eggs benedict with kimchi hollandaise. Plus, frozen mai tais and $15 bottomless mimosas. If you show up for dinner, you’ll see some of the same things you love from Marination, like kimchi fried rice and pork katsu sandwiches.
Bananas Grill is a Middle Eastern restaurant located right near the Columbia City light rail station, which makes it a great spot to grab a quick weeknight dinner or pick something up on your way home. We love their chicken shawarma, falafel, and excellent beef/lamb gyro sandwiches with very flavorful meat and tzatziki that has a spicy kick to it. We recommend dining in, since sometimes the owner gives out complimentary chai lattes.
El Sombrero is one of our favorite Mexican restaurants in Seattle. The best things on the menu are the sizzling fajitas, red enchiladas, chile rellenos, and goblet-sized frozen margaritas. Come here the next time you need a skillet steam facial and a chalice of tequila before catching a movie at Ark Lodge Cinemas.
La Medusa is the best spot in the neighborhood for a date over a couple of glasses of wine and bowls of pasta. It’s a dimly-lit, romantic Italian restaurant that specializes in dishes from Sicily, like fried risotto balls, garlicky kale and raisins sauteed in olive oil with anchovy, and a bunch of handmade pastas that rotate on the menu often. One of the best we’ve had was mezzi rigatoni with lamb sausage in a parmesan broth, but you also can’t go wrong with their spaghetti marinara and a meatball (which is always on the menu).
Safari, a West African spot, is located in the middle of a strip mall on Rainier. You might have driven past it before, not realizing that you’re actively missing out on fantastic Kenyan food. The food here ranges from an entire fried tilapia with coconut curry to flavorful kuku chicken thighs. No matter what, make sure you order plenty of crispy beef samosas and pilau (incredible spiced basmati rice) for the table.
The pad kee mao at Bua 9 is some of the best we’ve had in Seattle. These drunken noodles have a nice kick from the chili jam, little charred bits on the egg and noodle edges, and crisp vegetables. You also shouldn’t miss Bua 9’s kickass curries - come with a friend and split one of each.
If you’re in the mood for pizza in Columbia City, you have two choices: go to Pagliacci and be sad, or go to Tutta Bella and not be sad. Tutta Bella is a mini-chain of Neapolitan restaurants certified by an official pizza committee in Naples to make blistery pies in a huge fiery oven. Their Columbia City location is the original, and it’s one of the best sit-down spots for a meal in the neighborhood. It works well for a reliable group dinner involving some margheritas and big arugula salads with oranges and olives.
Wabi-Sabi is the only sushi restaurant in the entire neighborhood. In fact, it’s the only sushi spot within a 2.5-mile radius. But they serve some especially great nigiri - we’d happily come to the counter for a casual weeknight dinner to eat the excellent blow-torched salmon belly. They also have a great Happy Hour with discounted sushi and $4 sake pours.
If you’re looking for some of the best soul food in Seattle, go to Lil Red. This takeout counter serves BBQ dishes like smoked brisket, pork ribs, jerk chicken, and escovitch fish (pan-seared snapper topped with peppers and onions), and it’s all phenomenal. Give us a plate of tender meat, spiced mac and cheese, a cornbread muffin, and a side of hands-down the best mashed potatoes in Seattle. There aren’t many better experiences in this town than eating burnt ends and listening to the gospel music pumping out of Lil Red’s speakers.
We could write sonnets about Kezira Cafe’s atkilt (slow-cooked potatoes with carrots and cabbage). But we could also write some romantic stanzas about the yellow split-peas too. And the garlicky green beans. OK, every vegetable in this fantastic Ethiopian restaurant is getting a love note. Kezira is a great place to scoop lentils up with injera, and while there’s a ton of meat options, this is the best place in the neighborhood for vegetarians. Especially considering they have a $12 meatless lunch special with an assortment of lentils, potatoes, and greens.
Empire seems like it’s just a coffee shop inside of a narrow renovated garage. But it’s actually much more than that - they serve some excellent food that’s way better than refrigerated breakfast burritos and sad muesli bowls. We’d be happy coming in every morning for their powdered sugar and lime-topped Belgian waffles, and the plant-based focaccia breakfast panini with Field Roast sausage, spicy cayenne “cheese,” and basil pesto. As far as coffee goes, spend the extra buck for their creamy homemade cashew milk.
Archipelago is the best restaurant in the south end. This eight-seat billboard for the Pacific Northwest is a tasting menu spot, made up of 10 courses inspired by the owners’ Filipino heritage. Every incredible plate of food involves ingredients exclusively sourced from the PNW, from with the cracked wheat pandesal roll with truffle butter you’ll have at the beginning to the sweet cedar plank suman (rice cake) with hazelnut pumpkin ice cream that’ll cap things off. You’ll walk away from Archipelago feeling like there’s nowhere else in the world you could have a meal like this.
At Delish, an Ethiopian restaurant in Hillman city, they serve large quantities of excellent lentils, tibs, fresh cheese, and spongy injera. If you’re with another person and can’t make a decision, stick with the Delish combo for $32, which has fluffy yellow rice and five different types of stewed beef. Plus, Delish doesn’t close until 2AM on the weekends, so it gets a little crowded (but fun) around 9pm.
Slow Boat is one of our favorite beer bars in town. It’s dog-friendly, the tables are made from repurposed arcade games, and there’s a neon “f*ck Yelp” sign that tints the whole bar dark pink. Their beer list is super diverse - you can get a can of Rainier, something from a local Seattle brewery, or a beer from a relatively popular international brewery, like Mikkeller, too. Slow Boat is even pretty calm on a weekend, so it’s great to pop in for a conversation over a pint and a handful (or seven) of peanuts.
The raw marinated fish at Sam Choy’s is delicious, whether you order it in a furikake-topped rice bowl alongside sesame seaweed salad or delicious poke tacos filled with edamame hummus and spicy mayo. There are a ton of sauce options like classic shoyu, sriracha, and wasabi aioli, so there are many different ways to customize your salmon or ahi tuna. Add some crunchy spam fries and you have an incredibly satisfying lunch (or a refreshing summer dinner).
When the weather’s warm, grab some poke to-go from Sam Choy’s, and then stroll across the street (after looking both ways) to Hill City Tap House. This bar has 24 taps showcasing a nice variety from hazy IPAs to framboise goses, hosts Tuesday trivia nights, and allows dogs. Plus, they have arts and crafts events for kids if every sitter on your list is unavailable.
Twilight On Rainier is a cozy dive bar that serves a menu full of excellent fried food. Their breading makes everything they deep fry taste fantastic, from cubes of mozzarella to button mushrooms. This is also just a cool place to hang out with some friends and a round of beers even if you aren’t hungry - there’s always a decent crowd, good things on tap, and music loud enough to enjoy but quiet enough to have a real conversation.