SEATTLE, Wash. - The Steelhead Diner

After having it on our "must try" list for literally years, we finally made it to the Steelhead Diner on a recent Saturday afternoon. What we found was really good food but lackluster service.

Tequila-lime marinated mussels
When we arrived, between 1:30 and 2 p.m., it appeared that the lunch rush was over. While guests were seated at several tables, the place wasn't overly busy. And yet, the staff seemed to take forever to get a table cleared so we could be seated.

At first, the greeter said a server was "just about done" clearing a table so we could be seated, but ultimately the greeter had to go clear one herself. Poor communication among staff members, who seemed to be going hither and yon without any particular purpose or urgency.

I've worked in the industry and can tell when a staff is rocking and rolling, and when they're adrift. This crew was definitely in the latter category.

Once we were seated, our server came right over with water, and bread and butter soon followed. He took our beverage and food orders promptly and brought our wine, but the food seemed to take far longer than it should have.

When it came, it was very good. We had decided to make a lunch of two appetizers and a salad and ordered the crispy chicken spring rolls, the steamed tequila-lime marinated mussels, and the watercress and golden beet salad.

The mussels were the star of the show. Floating in an ancho chile broth with bits of chorizo and sun-dried tomato, they were plump and delicious! We had to ask for a second basket of bread so we could dip it in the broth and not let it go to waste.

Spring rolls and salad
The watercress and golden beets in the salad were accompanied by toasted walnuts and feta cheese, and the salad was very lightly dressed. Not overdone by any means, and plenty to share.

The crispy chicken spring rolls were tasty, topped with sesame seeds and a ginger vinaigrette dressing, but the strips of chicken were all that were crispy; the rest was like a Vietnamese fresh roll. Good, but our least favorite of the three apps.

Steelhead Diner offers some unique condiments, including alder smoked sea salt, which is very smoky indeed and adds a great extra layer of flavor, especially to delicate white fish.

Now, about the service...

Once our waiter took our order, he barely checked back to see if we needed more wine, water, whatever. He did come by to reassure us that our food, which we'd ordered eons ago, was indeed on the way. After the food arrived, we barely saw him until it was time to get the bill.

Alderwood smoked sea salt
Frankly, I blame the restaurant's practice of adding an automatic service charge instead of leaving the tip to the discretion of the guest.

Seattle has instituted a minimum wage of $15 an hour for many businesses, and restaurants have responded in a variety of ways as they try to cope with the added labor costs, Many have moved to a more-or-less fixed service charge, which I detail in a fairly extensive article that you can read here.

At Steelhead Diner, a 20 percent service charge is added to guest checks. But before you say, "Hey, a guaranteed 20 percent tip is pretty sweet," understand that the service charge is split between your server, those who work the "back of house" and the restaurant itself.

The notice on the menu says servers will get "at least 60 percent of the service charge," but 60 percent of 20 percent is just 12 percent, which is pretty low for a fine-dining restaurant. So, to my original point, if servers are guaranteed a certain percentage, there's little incentive to deliver excellent service. And it wasn't.

But the food was very good and worth a visit. Just be sure you don't have anywhere else you need to be.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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