No Clash With Cafeteria Culture

September 1, 2009

Ben Nivison, editor

Seattle is well known for its restaurants.  Many of these are high profile and easy to find.  But there are other places to eat when time or expense is the driving factor; places where anyone can go when it is not an expense-account lunch.

A number of office buildings and employers provide cafeterias to keep the workers in the building and provide a value for lunch.  Many of these are open to the public view.

We set out to find and evaluate some of the cafeterias hidden in any of the downtown office buildings.  Many of the larger law firms provide cafeterias for their employees, but those are not generally open to the public.  Though not as numerous in times past, there are still quite a few public cafeterias to choose from.  This article is nothing near an exhaustive list.  But we hope we have found some that may offer you a surprise combination of convenience, speed and economy.

Old Standards

Once you are through the metal detectors, the cafeteria on the second floor of the Henry “Scoop” Jackson Federal Building (915 Second Ave) offers a wide variety of food throughout much of the day.  The cafeteria is open to the public, building tenants and visitors alike, from 6:30 a.m. through 2 p.m., and serves breakfast and lunch.  At lunch, offerings include sandwiches from the deli, pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs from the grill, or the salad bar.  The cafeteria is clean and spacious, and a flat-screen TV in the dining area lets viewers catch up on cable news while eating.

Those who worked downtown in the ‘80s and ‘90s may recall popular bank cafeterias open to the public in the Rainier Bank and First Interstate towers.  Sadly, it appears that there are no longer public cafeterias operating in these locations.

U.S. Bank (1420 Fifth Ave) has a cafeteria on the 13th floor that is open to anyone who can figure out how to get there.  Once you get there, you’ll find that it is quiet, spacious and acceptable quality for a quick bite at a very reasonable price (daily specials example: ham-and-cheese sandwich with chips, a drink and a cookie for $4.95).  They also have soups and pre-made salads.

Bon Appétit runs two cafeterias (e.g., The Dish in the 1700 Seventh Building), one in each of Nordstrom’s two office towers.  These serve the building occupants from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a selection of four daily specials, an appealing salad bar and a make-your-own-sandwich line.  You’ll find the food is tasty and quite reasonably priced, if you can find your way into the building.

Hidden From View

One of the challenges and charms of exploring for cafeterias is that you often will have no clue they exist in a building.  For example, if you don’t already know it’s there, you are unlikely to happen across the Market Fresh Café on the third floor of Seattle’s Medical Dental Building near Olive and Fifth Avenue.  But, if you are hungry and happen to find yourself at the final stop of Seattle’s South Lake Union Streetcar, you might try out this spot.

The café offers a surprisingly wide variety of choices for what initially appears to be just another espresso bar.  On the menu is a variety of burgers, including beef, turkey, salmon and buffalo; teriyaki and yakisoba entrees; several different sandwiches; and protein smoothies.  The place may not impress a client, but it is clean, quiet and quite good.  You can call ahead to 382-8128 to give the cook a heads-up to start prepping your meal.

Likewise, if you find yourself on the waterfront, it may be worth a quick visit to an unassuming little cafeteria at the Port of Seattle office on Pier 69.  Entering the Portside Café near the Victoria Clipper terminal, one is reminded of the cafeterias from the days of old – the plastic chairs, the linoleum floor, the long, silver food bar.  The stacked brown trays all have water on them from what can only be an industrial dishwasher without a dryer.

The food is cheap and the cafeteria is open to the public – not just the Port of Seattle employees.  But the real value is the view.  The cafeteria faces south near the end of the pier, providing a breathtaking view of Puget Sound.  The cafeterias of the days of yore never had views like this, making the Portside Café, perhaps, the best view in Seattle where you can eat for less than $5.

Although you get to experience waterfront dining at a bargain price, the adage still applies to some extent: You get what you pay for.  Don’t expect a marvelous culinary experience, as the Portside’s fare is unremarkable in every way.  Nothing we tried was actually bad though, and it is hard to go wrong with some of the café’s simple offerings, like a turkey-bagel sandwich or grilled cheese.  Add some packaged potato chips or a fair salad bar, and a decent cheap lunch is yours.

Depending on the day, the more adventurous might even find a gem in one of the daily entrée specials or soups.  Be wary of the cream-based soups after the lunch rush, however, unless you really enjoyed eating paste as a child.

A Surprising Find

The Courthouse Café opened up on the outside of the new federal courthouse nearly five years ago, but maintains a very low profile and it is seldom, if ever, crowded.

Bright, cheery orange walls, blue hanging pendant lights, black-and-white checkerboard accent walls and many, many windows – the Courthouse Café, on the ground floor of the U.S. Courthouse on the corner of Seventh and Virginia is casual and welcoming.  While not hidden, it is easy to overlook.  A flat-screen TV tuned to a ubiquitous cable station was available and the volume set discreetly so as to not be intrusive.  There also are stations with outlets for working on laptops during lunch.

This café is several pleasant cuts above the windowless, drab, utilitarian description usually associated with “cafeteria.”  The food we tried was hearty and freshly made, if basic and uninspired.  The bread on the tuna melt was nicely browned and toasted, not greasy.  The sandwich had perhaps a touch too much cheese.  Fries were hot, crisp and fresh.

The menu offers a variety of daily specials and hot sandwiches, including a natural Angus burger for $2.49, as well as a salad bar, soups and sandwiches to order.  The food quality for the price is a draw, as is the friendly and accommodating staff.

The café serves breakfast, opens at 6:30 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m., with some catering options.  Check out the website as well as the associated blog at

Contact Ben Nivison with comments or for more information at

Originally published in the September 2009 issue of the King County Bar Bulletin. Reprinted with permission of the King County Bar Association.

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