Part of being a restaurateur/bar owner is “listening to your neighborhood,” Anu Elford says. She knows a thing or two about Belltown. She and husband Chris own three bars in the neighborhood: Navy Strength, No Anchor and Rob Roy (plus the charming pint-size barware shop and bartending community space Bar Bazaar in Pike Place Market). When their coffee-and-juice shop (which opened next to Navy Strength in July 2017) failed at the end of 2018, Elford says they returned to what they do best: booze.
In June, they reopened the small, 30-seat, all-ages spot as Vinnie’s Raw Bar — named for Elford’s mom, Rajani Vinaya “Vinnie” Apte. Décor has been infused with a maritime theme, but the overhaul was focused more on the menu than on the vibe. Now, guests stop in for glasses of natural wine and plentiful seafood. “We both really love wine as well as cocktails, beer and spirits, and hadn’t executed a wine-focused project yet,” she says. “As soon as we realized we needed to reimagine the coffee shop, it truly was the first thing to come to mind.”
Vinnie’s shares a kitchen with Navy Strength, and both menus are designed and carried out by chef Alexus Williams, previously of Spur and Mbar, who has been in charge of Navy Strength’s menu since November of last year. When the owners are bartenders, as the Elfords are, beverages come first. You’ll see that priority play out here in a small, deliberate selection of primarily European natural wines, many of which are available by the glass ($11–$16).
But Williams has created a clever selection of raw seafood to go with the “raw” wine (meaning minimal human intervention in its making) — a smart choice based on both concept and the practicality of serving two menus out of a very small kitchen. Small bites, from raw oysters — try the Fjordlux variety, grown in the north end of Hood Canal by a couple of former marine scientists ($3.50 each) — to prawn cocktail ($13), are light snacks perfect for happy hour. But you can easily build an entire dinner out of plates like roasted broccoli with bagna càuda ($11) and delicate, luscious butterfish steamed with dashi broth, sumac, shiitake and bonito ($22).
If you’ve got an amenable dining partner, go all in with the seafood tower ($98): an actual bilevel tower overflowing with a little bit of everything, such as raw oysters and chilled spot prawns; sweet, buttery scallops; selections from the “seacuterie” menu, like salmon pastrami with crème fraîche, and octopus terrine; and excellent clam and geoduck ceviche. The clam chowder ($10), based on a recipe Williams grew up making with her dad, is thin but crowded with well-cooked strips of clam.
“[Our] philosophy is just to take delicious local seafood and not mess with it too much — just let the ingredients shine,” Elford says. “I know that may read as cliché, but look at the bounty of insane seafood we have in this part of the world.” She’s right — and this is a good way to show it off.
Must Order: If you’re going to choose just one bite from the menu, make sure it’s the clam and geoduck ceviche ($18), which is a wonder of texture and flavor.