The grand finale for my best friend’s birthday tour around Seattle was me treating her to a late lunch at Ivar’s Salmon House.
When I was at North Passage Point Park for a preview last year I couldn’t help but notice the nearby Salmon House, a Seattle institution since 1970. It stuck in my head ever since that I’d really like to eat there sometime, but I needed a good excuse. So when my friend said she wanted to do Seattle stuff for her birthday I thought, aha!
We left the Sky View Observatory and drove north through downtown on 4th Avenue, then took Westlake to Fremont and Northlake to the restaurant. Taking that longer, slower route through the city instead of using the freeway nicely completed the urban requirement of our outing. Plus, it was fun to pass through Fremont, the center of the universe.
As it turned out, we didn’t even need our reservation to secure a good table. On a not-so-pretty Saturday in late September the restaurant was almost empty when we arrived at 2:30. Which explains why we found a parking spot on the street right in front of the restaurant.
At Ivar’s Salmon House part of what you’re paying for with your meal check is location and a beautiful, purely Pacific Northwest setting.
The restaurant is on the north shore of Lake Union (they have their own dock in case you wish to arrive by boat) with a view across the lake of the Space Needle. You can also see the Ship Canal Bridge, which is almost directly overhead.
The restaurant architecture is based on a cedar longhouse, which is what many of the Puget Sound area indigenous people lived in before Europeans came along and booted them out. The exterior and interior are covered in primarily Northwest Coast Art, much of it created by Native American artists. Many of the authentic pieces are quite valuable and are displayed up high so they can’t be harmed.
It’s worth noting that Northwest Coast Art is a style originating with cultures native to British Columbia and Alaska, such as Haida and Tlingit. The Coast Salish people native to our Puget Sound region developed a different style that arguably isn’t as distinctive or visually striking. The Coast Salish did carve house posts and sculptures, but they did not create totem poles. Local tribes did not start incorporating the artistic style of their northern neighbors until after the arrival of Europeans.
I love the whole concept and design of Ivar’s Salmon House. Some might think it tourist kitsch, or feel it’s an example of inappropriate cultural appropriation. But ever since I was a kid I’ve always loved the way Native American art and language have been woven into our modern Pacific Northwest cultural identity. When the Seahawks logo was first revealed I was ecstatic because it was so clearly influenced by indigenous art and was a perfect representation of Seattle.
The restaurant is fairly large, with tables lining a long expanse of view windows and tucked into many nooks and crannies. We did get our requested window table directly overlooking the lake.
Ivar’s open air dining deck is very popular in warmer weather and you definitely get a better view out there. But my friend pointed out that it would be pretty noisy due to the roar of I-5 traffic on the Ship Canal Bridge. I was perfectly content to be inside in much more peaceful surroundings.
Ivar’s Salmon House isn’t a cheap place to eat, but lunch prices are reasonable. My friend and I had salmon (sockeye for me, coho for her), and the meals were both $19. Each entrée has two sides and you get a bread basket for the table.
Ivar’s has implemented inclusive pricing. The prices shown on the menu include the tip for your wait staff. (Factoring that in, you can see why the $19 lunch price for a salmon dinner is very acceptable.) My friend and I both liked that very much, and I hope more restaurants will adopt it.
Ivar’s salmon is alder-smoked in an open-pit barbeque. It’s not quite the same as eating fresh salmon that was filleted and skewered on wood frames in the traditional native manner to cook over an alder fire on a beach, but it’s as close to the real thing you’ll get in a restaurant.
The same meals at dinner prices are at least $10 more. The dinner menu has more offerings than the lunch menu, and I can see the appeal of dining there in the evening with a view of city lights. But I’ll just stick with going earlier when it’s more affordable and uncrowded.
If you want to experience the Salmon House, but would like to save money, happy hour in the bar is from 3 pm until closing. In addition to lower prices on drinks, the prices on the bar menu (already cheaper than the restaurant) are also reduced. The drawback is the bar menu is quite limited compared to the restaurant menus.
Another money-saving option is the Ivar’s Fish Bar. Located outside the main restaurant, this is a fish and chips stand. You won’t get the benefit of dining inside the wonderful restaurant, but you can use the lakeside deck to eat your takeout. And don’t forget that the North Passage Point Park, with benches and picnic tables, is practically next door if you want to get away from people.
After being seated at a great view table, things took a rough turn when it came time to order. None of the salmon dinner combinations were exactly what I wanted. I wanted the sockeye, but it came with a berry salsa topping, and I wanted the tomato basil butter that was listed for the king salmon. I also wanted the garlic mashed potatoes that came with the coho instead of the sockeye’s cornbread pudding or the king’s fingerling potatoes.
I asked the waiter if that was possible. While perhaps coming across as unnecessarily persnickety, it wasn’t a difficult (or weird) request. So I was astonished when, rather than just telling me yes or no, the waiter became contentious.
He spent five minutes arguing with me, trying to get me to select a different salmon, even though I kept pointing out that none of the three listed combinations were the right combination, regardless of salmon species. It shouldn’t have been a sisyphean task just to get him to ask if I could do that. Finally he wrote down my requested order and departed with a brusk, “It will be up to the kitchen.”
I didn’t believe my experience was Ivar’s customary level of service, so I called the restaurant later on and spoke to a manager named Jake. He was very pleasant, said it sounded strange to him also, and that he would look into it. He said they accommodate substitutions of that sort all the time (except for the happy hour menu), and that they empower their wait staff to make those kinds of adjustments. My best guess is the waiter was new to Ivar’s, though he dodged answering that question when I asked him while having trouble ordering.
I am happy to report that the kitchen prepared my order as requested and it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve had in a long time. It was worth every minute spent haggling with the waiter. It was heaven on my tongue. I even ate most of my vegetables, and I am generally unfond of vegetables. My friend said her meal was equally impeccable and delicious.
Other than the ordering, my friend and I completely enjoyed our leisurely and scrumptious dining experience in a thoroughly unique restaurant. The warm tones of the cedar beams and walls created the perfect cozy atmosphere to accompany the tasty food. Good companionship made it all the better, and it was a delightful way to cap off our Seattle urban tour.
I will definitely be going back to Ivar’s Salmon House when an opportunity presents itself in the future.
Sidenote: For those not native to the greater Seattle area or who are too young to remember, Ivar Haglund was one of Seattle’s great town characters. He was a folk singer, radio personality, and entrepreneur. He loved practical jokes, zany publicity stunts, and puns. His signature saying was “keep clam.” For many years he hosted 4th of July fireworks shows and he also owned Smith Tower for a time. His TV ads were popular (similar to Rainier Beer ads of the same era) and reflected his sense of humor. He passed away in 1985.
Jake told me that Ben, one of their bartenders, has worked at the Salmon House since it opened in 1970. So if you want to know about the history of the restaurant or hear tales about Ivar, he’s the man to see when there.
If you’d like to read more about Ivar Haglund see this HistoryLink page. For TV ad examples see this YouTube playlist. (He was sued by the Dances With Wolves film studio for the Dances With Clams ad, which is silly.)