I love restaurant stories because they’re a lot like travel stories. They fulfill a similar basic need, and as such they seem to tug at many of the same basic levers in the brain.
One of my favorite restaurants in the whole world is the 13 Coins in Seatac, Washington. There’s a downtown location as well but I’ll explain more about that in a moment.
I vividly remember the first time I ever ate at the 13 Coins, it was at the Seatac location, just across International Blvd from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I don’t recall the exact trip to Seattle (we lived in Anchorage at the time) but it was either Labor Day Weekend 1992 when we flew Markair’s new flights south, using some free passes I’d been given by the CEO during a personal tour of their headquarters he took me on in response to some fan mail I sent him. Yes, you heard that correctly; when I was in fourth grade I sent airline CEOs fan mail.
If it wasn’t that time, it was March of 1995 when we stopped in Seattle for a swim meet (I swam) on a return trip from Palm Springs for Spring Break.
In either case, it was a late luncheon, and much of the conversation revolved around the fact that there used to be a 13 Coins Restaurant in Anchorage many years early (from the 70s onward into the mid-80s) across the street from the Westward Hotel (formerly a Western International Hotel, the brand that became Westin, although the hotel has been flagged as a Hilton for decades now) that was a popular fine dining spot and watering hole to which my parents had been to for several dates. The location was similar to the two remaining in Seattle today, that vaguely nautical 70s decor with dark woods and fabrics, tufted burgundy leather and naugahyde booths that go up to the ceiling, and 13 coins of various provenance shellacked right into to the custom made tables. And, they’re 24 hours, which was popular in both Anchorage (for some reason Alaskans stay up late, even in the winter) and to this day in Seattle, where if you absolutely must have a char grilled t-bone or a veal piccata or Alaskan king crab at 3 in the morning, you can have it.
I don’t remember that first meal, but I do remember metal antipasti boats that are faithfully proffered at the beginning of every service.
After that, I was hooked. Not just because I’ve always liked that sort of retro decor, not just because they serve a nice little bit of salad and salami before the meal, not just because they’ve got killer sourdough bread, but all those things conspire, along with a style of cooking that hardly exists anymore, to make this otherwise unassuming restaurant on the ground floor of an office tower something special.
For solo diners, there are similarly tall-as-the-booths swivel bucket chairs at the bar, which looks right onto the exhibition grill, years before the exhibition grill became a thing. You can watch cooks banter with each other and sling hash, either in your own solace or with a wingman.
And I kept going back over the years. Sometimes on overnight layovers near the airport I’d head in for a nibble. Other times I wouldn’t even be staying in Seattle but if I had a few hours to kill a trip there was worth heading outside of security and across the street, as I once did with time to kill between connecting United flights inbound from Anchorage and out to Chicago between 4:30 to 9 in the morning.
The menu is an anachronism in a world of fusion everything. Steaks are grilled in classic styles and often served with a side of au jus and plain garlic spaghetti with an obscene amount of parmesan. Sandwiches are oversized, often toasted, and I prefer to get them with the places heavenly perfected hash browns (crispy brown on the outside, mealy on the inside) instead of the rather forgettable fries. There are egg dishes like Joe’s Special throughout the day and night and plenty of fine steakhouse of yesteryear standbys like escargots chablisienne, veal, and liver-and-onions, plus a killer selection of Northwest seafood (oh, the clams!) and fine cocktails.
Anachronism aside, there’s still a clear demand for this type of food. The only time I haven’t had difficulty getting a table at the Seatac location is at four in the morning. For years, I’d also gone to the downtown location on Boren Ave, but it doesn’t have the same cachet as the Seatac location for some reason. The food just wasn’t quite as consistently good, the place not quite as sordidly dark–something just wasn’t quite right. After several visits downtown, thinking the quality had declined, I returned to the airport location to find everything was just as it always had been for years, and I later found the internet (and the crowds) seemed to agree. I’ve heard rumors of another location in Bellevue, but I’ve yet to see it.
I love plenty of restaurants in this world, but there are only a few that you’d find etched into my being if you cracked me open. 13 Coins is just such a place.