TNT Diner

Here are the best Tacoma-area restaurant openings of 2017

A rib steak on the grill at the Zodiac Supper Club in Tacoma.
A rib steak on the grill at the Zodiac Supper Club in Tacoma. toverman@theolympian.com

This was my busiest year so far with restaurant openings in the Tacoma area.

I covered 76 restaurant openings.

That beats my 2016 record of about 50.

I’m getting my stretchy pants ready for a busy 2018.

At the close of every year, I like to recognize the significant openings that fill a void in our dining landscape. These are restaurants that fit a neighborhood need, excel at their specialty or are just all-around great places to dine.

As a bonus, eaters who’ve yet to discover these restaurants can treat this article as a where-to-dine list.

Here are the year’s best restaurant openings, in the chronological order of their debut.

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A sausage platter from Rhein Haus, which opened a Tacoma outpost this year. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

RHEIN HAUS TACOMA

Where: 649 Division Ave., Tacoma; 253-572-4700; rheinhaustacoma.com or facebook.com/rheinhaustacoma.

Continuing a trend from 2016, Seattle continued its expansion to Tacoma’s restaurant scene.

Seattle-based Rhein Haus opened a Tacoma outpost of its Bavarian-themed beer hall in February. Rhein Haus Tacoma’s Stadium neighborhood space holds bocce ball courts and seating for 250.

The in-house charcuterie program is the only one of its kind in Tacoma with Executive Chef Kelly Wilson and crew producing at least a half dozen sausages, including one for vegans, on the daily menu.

Think of Rhein Haus Tacoma more of an entertainment destination with German-American fusion pub food.

German favorites, such as schnitzel and spaetzle, get modern makeovers and chef spins.

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Carne Asada with garlic and roasted red pepper quinoa and grilled Mexican squash at Carne Aqui in Parkland. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

CARNE AQUI

14506 Pacific Ave S., Tacoma; 253-535-6328; facebook.com/CarneAqui.

This was not just an opening, but also a re-branding and a pivot.

The Parkland restaurant RoastHouse originally opened in October 2016 and closed a month later after its founder Ben Herreid ran into financial trouble.

Enter Tim Hall, of longtime HG Bistro in Puyallup. He took over the restaurant, hired chef Nathan Hawes, and together they changed the menu from roasted meats and rustic sides to steaks, chops, torta sandwiches and tacos with flavor inspiration from Argentina and Mexico. It reopened in March.

They flipped the name to Carne Aqui and focused on creating a casual, come-as-you-are neighborhood space with approachable food at an attractive price point. Most entrees are under $20 and assembling a meal for $10 is easy here.

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Robert DeLaura runs Gertie and the Giant Octopus in Gig Harbor. Joshua Bessex jbessex@gateline.com

GERTIE AND THE GIANT OCTOPUS

4747 Point Fosdick Dr. N.W., Gig Harbor; 253-649-0921; facebook.com/RobertMarioDeLaura.

The Gig Harbor restaurant quietly opened in March, a small 24-seat restaurant with a Mediterranean menu brushed broadly with Northwest flavors.

It’s an absolutely unexpected find next door to the movie theater at Uptown Gig Harbor. Chef Robert Mario DeLaura named his restaurant with a nod to the sunken lore of Gig Harbor and a lifelong fascination with the octopus.

DeLaura’s succinct menu covers broad Mediterranean territory with nods to Italy, France and Spain. The wine list skews to smaller, family-owned wineries, and staffers demonstrated the best table-side wine prattle I experienced in 2017.

Fun mismatched plates lend a casual air, and I found the restaurant suitable for celebrations but also for a quick bite and glass of wine before a movie.

EN RAMA

1102 A St., Suite 220, Tacoma; facebook.com/enramatacoma. 21 and older only.

Chris Keil is the city’s best cocktail shaker along with Jason Alexander at Tacoma Cabana (who has a new project, Devil’s Reef, that will debut in 2018).

I’m declaring Keil’s En Rama my favorite opening of 2017. It’s an intimate 25-seat cocktail lounge behind a door marked simply 220, just beyond the A Street entrance of Court House Square (formerly the Old Post Office building). It opened in April.

Keil is the former barkeep and co-owner of Hilltop Kitchen. He creates cocktails that blur the lines between kitchen and bar. His house-made tinctures, tonics, drinking vinegars and botanical syrups lend depth to his complicated drinks. One (of many) focuses at En Rama is sherry. The restaurant’s name borrows a sherry term.

Then there’s the food. Don’t miss the handmade pasta in delicate swirls or the wooden board laden with a slick of polenta and tasty accompaniments.

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A flaky pie and accompaniments from Tibbitts@FernHill. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

TIBBITTS@FERNHILL

8237 S. Park Ave., Tacoma; 253-327-1334; facebook.com/TibbittsatFernHill.

Chef-owner Shawn Tibbitts created a fun, charming, 24-seat restaurant, carved into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it neighborhood just off 84th and South Park Avenue.

The restaurant is a return to his roots. The Fern Hill neighborhood is where Tibbitts attended school.

Tibbitts@FernHill opened in February. The longtime Tacoma cook had little money in his pocket, but big ambition.

The year brought success. He expanded from a lunch-only cafe to breakfast and dinner on select days.

The menu is an assortment of American classics re-imagined by a chef confined to a kitchen that’s barely bigger than a closet. Vegetables get star treatment here. There is no deep fryer in the restaurant. Soups, glazes, dressings are handmade by Tibbitts.

In March, I considered it a fine ladies-who-lunch destination, but it’s more than that. It’s a neighborhood treasure.

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Filthy Pork Fries featuring handcut fries, pulled pork made from Kurobuta pork, beer cheese, fried Kurobuta pork belly and topped with a fried egg. Served at the Mill Restaurant and Sports Bar in Milton. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

THE MILL RESTAURANT AND SPORTS BAR

900 Meridian E., Milton; 253-831-4936; facebook.com/themillofmilton or themillofmilton.com

The June opening of The Mill Restaurant and Sports Bar filled a void for upscale-leaning food in Milton.

The former A’s Sports Pub and Grill was made over into a comfortable dining room and adjoining bar.

The restaurant is from longtime restaurant owner Kate Lowry, who grew up in Milton and now lives in Edgewood. She and brother Dustin Lowry operate the restaurant.

Chef Alex Anton gives 21st-century updates to classic 20th-century dishes. Find chef touches added to diner sandwiches, grilled meats and pasta dishes. Ingredients also tend to be premium — with higher price tags to match — such as duck, prime rib and Wagyu-style beef.

Local sourcing is key here, and the names of local farms and food purveyors appear throughout the menu.

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A rib steak on the grill at the Zodiac Supper Club in Tacoma. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

ZODIAC SUPPER CLUB

1116 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Tacoma; zodiacsupperclub.com, facebook.com/zodiacsupperclub. 21 and older only.

It’s a cocktail bar with a menu straight out of grandma’s holiday party. It a DIY restaurant where diners cook their own steaks.

It has more vintage lamps and black-velvet paintings than any bar I’ve visited in Tacoma.

The fun-and-funky Zodiac Supper Club opened in September, but it was actually a reopening. The steakhouse and cocktail lounge opened in 2015 in the St. Helens neighborhood, but co-owners Dana Claar Verellen, husband Dave and business partner Suzanne Ramon had to move a year later after a pipe burst and flooded the location.

The dinner-only menu is the same as the former location: Steaks cooked by diners at a communal grill.

The rest of the menu reads like your grandma’s pinochle gathering: onion dip, pimento dip, potato salad. The cocktails come with a tinge of tiki culture with shareable punch bowls and mai tais.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

End-of-year newcomers: Mediterranean Gyro Grill opened in University Place with a broad Mediterranean menu and a restaurant equally safe for fun date nights or dining with kids (3555 Market Place W, University Place; 253-314-5122).

La Cà Bar brought its Vietnamese street cuisine to the Sixth Avenue neighborhood. The comfortable environment invites lounging. Diners will find unusual Vietnamese finds on the menu (606 S. Junett St., Tacoma; 253-267-5540).

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Tacos are a specialty at El Borracho in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

Seattle invasion continues: On the 2016 heels of Chow Foods opening Cooks Tavern and Brewers Row in Tacoma, Rhein Haus also expanded to Tacoma. And then El Borracho branched out here, too. The taqueria with a menu of casual Mexican food comes with a secondary focus on vegan eats and deserves a nod for its $4 anytime El Cheapo margaritas (2717 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-314-5286).

Also opening in 2017 were two Top Pot locations from co-owner brothers who grew up in Lakewood.

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Salads are a specialty at Garden’s Gourmet Salads in Tacoma. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

Micro businesses: I fell in love with two tiny businesses specializing in quick and delicious eats.

Garden’s Gourmet Salads (formerly Garden Bar) opened in east Tacoma with a menu of well-priced salads catering to diners in search of healthy lunches or dinners on-the-go. (1623 E. 72nd St., Tacoma; 253-433-3736).

Lasagna Store, Pasta & More opened with just a handful of seats and a focus on take-out lasagna and pasta. Family-sized meals ready in as little as 15 minutes (4312-A Sixth Ave, Tacoma; 253-292-1483, 253-302-3659).

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Gelato is on the menu at Alegre in the Proctor neighborhood. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

On the sweeter side: Scratch-made pastries and handmade gelato are the specialties at Alegre Bakery and Gelato, which opened in the Proctor neighborhood (3820 N. 27th St., Tacoma).

In the Lincoln District, a dessert cafe called Bambu with a focus on the layered Vietnamese dessert, called che, opened with a secondary focus on teas, smoothies and other dessert beverages (773 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-212-3882).

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The Klimt features a sprig of thyme and an edible gold dust rim at The Blue Octopus. Joshua Bessex jbessex@gateline.com

Booze: Acme Tavern was replaced with the fun-and-wacky The Camp Bar from former Seattle cocktail slinger, Patrick Haight (1310 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma; 253-503-6712).

The Blue Octopus Art Gallery and Champagne Bar moved from Ruston to Point Ruston and expanded its offering of champagne and champagne cocktails. (5111 Grand Loop,Tacoma; 253-301-0877).

Another Ruston entity, Coles Bar and Grill, opened with a terrific menu of affordable bar eats and plenty of screens to catch the game.

The year closed with the long-anticipated opening of Fish Brewing Pub & Eatery, a supersized outpost of the Olympia pub and brewery. (5811 N 51st St, Ruston; 253-267-1914).

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Find poke plates at Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max in downtown Tacoma. The mobile and brick-and-mortar restaurants serve a menu of poke and Hawaiian favorites. Staff file, 2017 Sue Kidd

Poke: Consider 2017 the year of the raw fish dish called poke. Three new poke restaurants opened.

Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max, from Seattle restaurant owner Max Heigh (1716 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-627-4099).

Also opening in 2017 was Poke Pop (formerly Aloha Poke) in Fircrest (2013 Mildred St. W., Fircrest; 253-565-2393), and Lakewood scored IC Poke (10417 Gravelly Lake Drive, Lakewood; 253-584-8111).

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Half-moon pies are a specialty at Samoan bakeries. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

Samoan bakeries: There were something I didn’t even know we needed until I bit into my first half-moon pie. Check out three Samoan/Polynesian eateries that debuted this year — Polynesian Favorites (918 E. 72nd St., Tacoma; 253-301-0832), Lilly’s Bakery and Deli (5604 Portland Ave. E., Tacoma; 253-267-0391) and Taste of Samoa Manapua Bakery (13817 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma; 253-348-4989).

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A rib meal includes two sides at Rib Ticklers in Gig Harbor. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Ribs!: The year also brought the expansions/relocations of two rib joints that are worth a visit. Rib Ticklers opened a new stand-alone restaurant in Gig Harbor (5315 Point Fosdick Drive; 253-858-7427) and Smokin Zee’s BBQ expanded from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar location in Lakewood (8813 Edgewater Drive SW, Lakewood; 253-432-4374).

COMING IN 2018

There’s so much on the horizon that it’s tough to capture it all, but here are the ones I’m most looking forward to.

Devil’s Reef will be a second tiki-focused cocktail outpost from Robyn Murphy and Jason Alexander in downtown Tacoma.

Moshi Moshi Bar + Ramen is coming from the co-owners of Indo Asian Street Eatery with a partnership with chef Aaron Grissom. The menu will focus on ramen with house-made accompaniments unlike anything we have here.

Waffle Stop will bring its waffles-for-everyone concept to the Proctor neighborhood.

Sapporo Japanese Steakhouse will take over the former Jade Palace location in University Place.

Fish Fish Fish is underway, really, and hopes to open its fish-and-chips restaurant and adjoining cocktail lounge this year in the Sixth Avenue neighborhood.

Trapper’s Sushi is expanding its mini restaurant empire with an outpost that will focus on burgers in Bonney Lake. It’s called Burche.

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