Thomas J. Story

Washington's best wine and oysters might be the draw at chef Renee Erickson's Seattle bungalow. But what makes for an unforgettable celebration among friends and family? The singular hospitality that put her restaurants on the culinary map.

By Chris Hughes

Like any child of the '70s, Renee Erickson can recall plenty of nights eating tuna noodle casserole. But more pervasive are the memories of her mother's Woodinville, Washington, garden—teeming with plump watermelons, green beans, and dewy strawberries savored straight from the vine—and summers on the Tulalip Indian Reservation 45 minutes north of Seattle, where Erickson and her brother, Ryan, would spend mornings clamming and crabbing. Occasionally, a Tulalip fisherman gifted them a king salmon as unwieldy as a wriggling infant.

"In hindsight, it was just epic," she says. "I had this rare opportunity to eat seafood that not many people get to. Not even people who grew up here."

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A college study-abroad program took Erickson further afield, to Rome, where between art classes she indulged in tinned seafood and chilled glasses of Trebbiano at corner cafés, and watched mushroom foragers and pasta makers hawking their wares.

"It was all just so alive and interesting," recalls Erickson. "That trip really made me think about food and cooking in a way I never thought possible."

That Thanksgiving, she also learned her love of feeding people, cooking a turkey in a nearby pizzeria (her oven was far too small) and lugging it across the Campo de' Fiori to serve dozens of fellow homesick students.

Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

From then on, Erickson's artistic focus shifted from canvas to plate. Her materials, the spoils of the Pacific Northwest; her muse, the European travels inspired by that initial Roman excursion. Today, her Seattle restaurant empire comprises six diverse concepts. But customers aren't just lining up for her Puget Sound oysters, Whidbey Island–raised beef, and brioche doughnuts; they're here for Erickson's trademark warmth and generosity, a commitment to hospitality she's been perfecting ever since that distant holiday.

It's a philosophy that extends to Erickson's home, where its yellow door is perpetually open to family—who, she says, are more than happy to volunteer her Craftsman-style bungalow for birthdays and dinner parties—as well as her staff, especially on holidays.

Thomas J. Story

Mingling with her big brother or husband, Dan, you'll often find chefs who've worked beside Erickson for years. On a holiday as nostalgic as Thanksgiving, she treats them to the classics, albeit with a Pacific Northwest twist. Buttery stuffing is spangled with bacon and Washington State Hama Hama oysters. Root vegetables come in the guise of turnips and daikon tossed in a poppy seed–buttermilk dressing. And the centerpiece? An almost astonishingly simple duo of Pekin ducks, crosshatched and burnished, their juices seasoning a crispy bed of fingerling potatoes.

Outside, the horizon hints at some predictable late-fall drizzle, but inside is all warmth. The choreographed chaos of restaurants has been replaced by friends crowding into the bistro-inspired kitchen for Smoked Salmon Rillettes and crab gratin. Guests pitch in to shuck oysters as Erickson puts the final touches on dessert, flipping her Dried Plum Upside-Down Cake onto a marble stand. At this Thanksgiving feast, nobody feels homesick. In Erickson's world, everyone feels right at home.

Related: How to Shuck an Oyster

Take a Seat

Join the happy crowds at any (or all!) of Erickson's welcoming Seattle restaurants.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
The influential oyster bar has become as much of a tourist destination as the Seattle Space Needle and Pike Place Market. 4743 Ballard Ave. NW; thewalrusbar.com

The Whale Wins
At this converted warehouse space, choose from flame-cooked, veggie-forward dishes with Italian, Spanish, and Middle Eastern ingredients. 3506 Stone Way N.; thewhalewins.com

Bar Melusine
The maritime vibe (a marble oyster bar and a mermaid-like mascot) is a nod to Renee's favorite spots in Normandy and Brittany. 4743 Ballard Ave. NW; barmelusine.com

Bateau
Erickson's anti-steakhouse steakhouse features French heritage cattle butchered in-house, pan-seared with butter, and served by the ounce. 1040 E. Union St.; restaurantbateau.com

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Barnacle
This 13-seat aperitivo bar (above) specializes in salty bites of the canned and cured variety. 1060 E. Union St.; thebarnaclebar.com

General Porpoise
Airy, yeasted doughnuts (inspired by those at St. John's in London) are filled with seasonal jams and house-made custards. 1020 E. Union St.; gpdoughnuts.com

A Pacific Northwest Thanksgiving

Greg DuPree
Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Dungeness Crab Gratin
With sweet Dungeness crab meat tucked beneath layers of crème fraiche and bubbling white cheddar, don’t expect this dip to last long at the app table. Serve in a casserole dish for easy sharing or scoop into individual au gratin dishes so everyone gets their own hearty portion.

Greg DuPree
Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Baked Oysters with Horseradish Butter
Counter the slight sweetness of the Pacific oysters with a piquant punch of homemade horseradish butter (opt for fresh horseradish, if you can find it). Then do as chef Renee Erickson does and serve with your favorite bottle of bubbly.

Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Smoked Salmon Rillettes
At Renee Erickson’s mini empire of Seattle restaurants, saltines are a secret weapon as an edible vehicle for both fresh and tinned seafood. Here, she bakes them with butter and shichimi togarashi (a Japanese spice blend) and serves with pickled shallots and her creamy smoked salmon rillettes.

Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Roast Duck with Duck Fat Potatoes, Capers, and Parsley
In this show-stopping centerpiece, the fatty nature of Pekin duck plays to your advantage. Just cut a crosshatch pattern which helps to release the fat while cooking—simultaneously crisping the skin and seasoning the bed of fingerling potatoes underneath.

Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Creamed Kale
Everyone’s favorite power vegetable takes a turn for the rich and creamy. But unlike its steakhouse predecessor (i.e. spinach), Erickson’s version retains some crunch courtesy of chopped kale stems, not to mention added umami from high-quality anchovy fillets packed in oil.  

Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Shaved Apple, Daikon, and Turnip Salad
A refreshing fall kaleidoscope of root vegetables and apples—sliced paper-thin on a mandolin—puts a pop of color in your holiday menu. Drizzle some poppy seed-buttermilk vinaigrette on top for a touch of unexpected tang and creaminess. 

Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Northwest Oyster & Bacon Stuffing
Stuffing this scrumptious—a “just right” balance of crispy exterior and custardy middle—will make you forsake any store-bought mix. Add a Northwest spin with freshly shucked oysters (such as Hama Hama or Kumamoto) and thick-cut bacon for a standout side you’ll want to eat year-round.

Photo: Greg Dupree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Dried Plum Upside-Down Cake with Crème Fraîche Ice Cream
French Pruneaux d’Agen dried plums get the candied treatment as you whisk them with brown sugar, butter, and apple liqueur for the top of Renee Erickson’s ridiculously moist upside-down cake. A dollop of crème fraîche ice cream turns it into a holiday dessert to remember.