In a city where diners avoid making reservations, jeans are considered fashionable for fine dining, and a table crumb sweeper is a rarity, it’s reassuring to encounter a restaurant that still treats dinner as an occasion.
A stately dining room with exposed brick and soaring windows, skilled servers who remember a martini order, and a kitchen that flame grills a perfect ribeye – downtown Tacoma’s Pacific Grill is at once swanky and approachable. As diners consider where to go for holiday celebrating and special occasions, Pacific Grill should be at the top of their lists.
If you ask executive chef-owner Gordon Naccarato to describe his food, he’ll stick with “unfussy” – it’s modern American with a West Coast approach. There’s nothing precious or elitist about his cuisine. While his food is modern, it's not modernist - no foams, spherifications or gelifications. Quite the opposite: Diners will find playful American food with equally playful descriptions, like “Stan-the-Man’s Killer Clam Linguini,” a nod to Naccarato’s famous Tacoma father, sports promoter Stan Naccarato, or “Meat Candy,” a cheeky name for a drool-worthy dish of roasted bacon-wrapped dates. Naccarato’s food sports a 1960s sensibility with a 21st century presentation.
The restaurant business distills from Naccarato’s paternal side. His grandparents ran cafes in Spanaway 50 years ago. But he didn’t aspire to cook. Naccarato left Tacoma as a cum-laude graduate of the University of Washington bound for law school in California and he wound up a chef – and a famous one at that. His résumé reads more pretentious than he is and is peppered with plenty of Hollywood elbow-rubbing. He cooked alongside celebrity chefs in Los Angeles, Miami and New York: Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile, Michael McCarty of Michael’s in Santa Monica, and Jonathan Waxman, whom Naccarato credits for teaching him to view food from a playful perch.
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In 1984, Naccarato opened his first solo restaurant, Gordon’s in Aspen, Colo., with backing from the late director-producer Bruce Paltrow, who today probably is more famous as father to Gwyneth. (Yes, Naccarato cooked for her, too.) While at Gordon’s, Naccarato earned a nod from Food and Wine Magazine, which named him one of the top 10 best new chefs in America the first year that the magazine bestowed the awards.
After two decades of cooking on both coasts, his brother Steve – who had worked with Naccarato at Gordon’s – prodded his brother to return to Tacoma. They opened The Beach House at Purdy in 2002, but they couldn’t make the waterfront restaurant a destination outside warmer months. In 2008, they closed that restaurant – a move Naccarato calls painful – to focus on Pacific Grill, which the brothers opened in 2005 with Joe Hardwick Jr. in the historic Waddell Building, which had a former life as a bank, saloon, hotel and ultimately a derelict building this newspaper once described as a lime-green eyesore. The restored Waddell Building appealed to Naccarato because it reminded him of the long, narrow dining rooms of his favorite Manhattan eateries.
The space is a beautiful blend of a Victorian style building fused with urban sophistication. An arched bar framed with pendant Edison bulbs dissects three distinct dining areas. A row of curved booths provides a luxurious experience with dappled faux ostrich fabric you’ll want to slide your hands over. A front dining room with linen-clad tables has soaring windows yielding an unfettered view down Pacific Avenue. The back dining room by day is washed with light from tiered windows that slope down the hillside of 15th Avenue. At night, glowing artwork and hoop lighting cast a moodier sheen. A subterranean back room doubles as a private eating space and wine cellar.
Five visits over five months proved Pacific Grill was consistently on point. Staffers carried the reassuring cadence of career servers, professionals who could prattle poetic on menu descriptions, waxed on about single malt scotches, discusses the merits of the by-the-glass wine menu and thankfully avoided interrupting conversations for the sake of a table check-in. Service was polished, yet it never felt stuffy. On one visit, a server provided a detailed description of a menu tasting the entire staff had just completed - skillfully providing tasting notes and recommendations for a menu that had not yet even debuted. That's the sort of food commentary diners want in a server.
The menu changes frequently, which is why some dishes mentioned here no longer are on the menu. Pacific Grill’s focus is classic surf and turf with sides and add-ins that reflect the seasons and Naccarato’s food mood of the moment. Naccarto is not one for keeping a menu stagnant. He dabbles in new concepts with separate sub-menus, such as the sushi bar he opened with the restaurant and the ramen noodle bar he ran much of 2010. Those concepts come and go, but the ideas may show up as stand-alone restaurants someday, Naccarato said. One such experiment has been running for nearly two years: An all-day discounted happy hour in the bar, one of the best deals in town. Order the "Meat Candy," roasted dates rolled up in bacon ($4), the cheeseburger sliders ($7.48) with shoestring garlic-herb fries, and the best ahi poke ($6) in town.
At lunch, I found a pleasant but more casually constructed menu heavy on sandwiches. Juny’s Cuban ($11.95) was a classic ham-pork-cheese panini, served with house-made sour zucchini pickles. A salmon burger ($15.95) on brioche was infused with a dill-cucumber yogurt sauce. Sandwiches came with crispy house-made potato chips fried and tossed with sauteed garlic and fresh herbs.
At dinner, starter salads were as thoughtfully composed as entrées - in plating and ingredients. The wedge ($8.50) embodied “crisp,” with crunchy iceberg and sweet cherry tomatoes under a cascade of veiny blue cheese and cubes of smoky bacon, kicky “sri rancha” dressing standing in for classic blue. The BLT ($8) showcased more of that cubed bacon, but this romaine salad wore a sharp mustard vinaigrette. A summertime watermelon arugula salad ($8) layered prosciutto and cotija against basil, mint and lemon. A summer steak salad ($19.95) mixed bitter salad greens with sliced hanger steak, and an astringent ginger-lime vinaigrette looped all the flavors. More ginger appeared as a topper for a carrot-coconut soup ($7.95) with kaffir lime, displaying Naccarato’s love for Southeast Asian flavors. He offers a killer Vietnamese banh mi on the lunch menu, $12. (Credit his love of Vietnamese cuisine to time spent cooking at Le Colonial, the high-end Vietnamese restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif.).
A starter of steamer clams ($13.95) was bathed in an herbed garlic broth. Potted salmon ($8.50) paired smoky fish - which Naccarato poaches in bacon fat - and smoked bacon with housemade caraway-flecked rye crackers. I was sorry to see fried cornmeal crab puppies ($12) leave the menu – they were like Northwest crab cakes that had vacationed in Louisiana and returned so much more tasty.
Readers sometimes ask where to find the best steak in town. I used to recommend Asado or El Gaucho, but Pacific Grill booted both those restaurants with its gorgeously marbled ribeye ($38) marked with a diamond grill pattern, the universal sign of a steak well-tended. It was paired classically with broccoli and roasted fingerlings with a créme fraîche flavored with horseradish and chives (it's no longer on the menu - but Naccarato has a habit of bringing items back seasonally). The surf side of the menu received equally loving treatment: A skin-on salmon filet ($27.95) was served over a fingerling potato hash threaded with bacon, arugula and an unctuous helping of lobster butter.
A classic white bean cassoulet ($24) held a cornucopia of meat: duck leg, roasted pork shoulder, duck-bacon sausage, pancetta and lamb shank. Pork tenderloin ($24) with Brussels sprouts and red potatoes carried a swipe of whole grain mustard sauce. An oven-fried chicken dinner ($22) tasted like it came from a fancy barbecue, with a side of smoked sweet potato salad, bacon-licked beans and corn on the cob.
Dessert was a treat, courtesy of pastry chef Erin Powell. A strawberry peach crisp ($8) and rhubarb crisp ($8) were summer standouts – both paired with a river of buttery caramel. There's another kitchen chef who should get a nod - Jessica Sewell.
What’s next for Naccarato? He’s seeing success with Pacific Grill’s companion business, Pacific Grill Events and Catering. Naccarato also has opened the casual eatery Classics at LeMay-America’s Car Museum. Look for another partnership late this year with brother Steve and artist Robert Stocker – they’re working on a classic burger restaurant in the Stadium neighborhood called Shake Shake Shake. It will be classic American burgers, but with playful twists, Naccarato style.
Pacific GrillWhere: 1502 Pacific Ave., TacomaServing: Lunch Mondays-Fridays, dinner Mondays-Saturdays, closed Sunday. For operating hours, click here. Reservations: Highly recommended Contact: 253-627-3535, pacificgrilltacoma.comWine: The list changes, but one visit found about 150 wines by the bottle ($35-$775), a dozen by the glass ($9-$25) and seven half bottles ($27-$41). From the by-the-bottle menu, about 40 white/sparkling wines were divided between Northwest, California and European bottles. About 110 reds leaned heavier on Washington and Oregon bottles – well-represented in Northwest cabernets and pinots – with about 35 California and 22 European reds. Servers had a firm grasp on the list. Spirits are top-shelf at a premium price.Noise level: Moderate, even at capacityVegetarians: Limited dinner selection, more robust at lunch and happy hour.Soundtrack: Sinatra and Brat Pack classics, jazzPricing: Entrees solidly more than $20 — this can be an expense account restaurantBargain hunters: Half off of the happy-hour bar menu during operating hours for the foreseeable future.
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.