If I had to choose a single word to describe Hilltop Ale House, perched atop Queen Anne Hill a couple doors down from Queen Anne Café and across the street from Firefly (or is it Lumette? Lumette Firefly? Firefly Lumette? eh, whatever), that word would be “cozy.” A small establishment, the Ale House exudes friendliness and delicious smells from its small kitchen. It could almost be a bricks-and-mortar manifestation of anyone’s best comfort-food memory: Warm, a bit gooey, probably slightly more than you need but well worth it when the weather’s kinda nasty and you want easy unobtrusive service in a clean and bright environment.
My next descriptive choice would be “selection”—close to 20 beers on draught, mainly from Puget Sound-area breweries—and after that would be “fascinating menu,” thus breaking the single-word-descriptor mold and freeing me to wax babbly.
The Ale House is a narrow but deep establishment with a dozen or more 4-person tables up front and another (apparently less well-known) six or so tables with a fireplace in the rear past the kitchen. The entire place is a monument to efficient use of space; even the restrooms get into the act, with the tiny spaces laid out to make the best use of the walls and the angles and so on. It makes for a tight squeeze in some places—don’t try navigating the corridor from front to back when anyone’s going into or out of the kitchen with a tray. I imagine it must get pretty dicey for the servers when the place is packed to the rafters with imbibers catching a basketball game or seeking shelter from the rain.
I visited Hilltop Ale House with my friend Julie Anne by way of her thanks for my picking her up at the airport Sunday afternoon. Unusual for the times I’ve patronized any businesses along Queen Anne Ave at the top of Queen Anne, we found a parking space with almost no difficulty, albeit a block away—itself no problem, really, because the blocks atop Queen Anne are smaller and easily navigated. Our dash through the rain left us a bit drenched on top, all the more reason to seek out a table by the fireplace—we didn’t even hesitate as we marched through the main seating area in front, the bartender and the couple of servers we passed bidding us welcome.
Our server, whose name I did not catch, immediately brought us menus along with flatware and napkins. She asked if we knew what we’d like to drink but we hadn’t even opened the menus yet, so she said she’d check again in a few minutes. We glanced over the list of draught beers, there must have been 19 or 20 on there, and then started talking about other things, so the server had to check back with us probably four more times before we finally made a choice.
Hilltop doesn’t brew its own beers; it serves beers brewed mainly by regional microbrewers, with selections rotated occasionally. Yesterday the list ran the gamut of styles: Ambers, porters, a Bavarian-style wheat, a few IPAs, a couple ESBs, some cask-conditioned and nitro choices. We both chose Hale’s Ales’ Cream Ale, which Hilltop served on a nitro draft in an Imperial pint glass for an absurdly smooth head and easy drinkability.
Strangely, I wasn’t in much of a beer mood yesterday, so I had just the one pint and ended up nursing it a bit. My beer lasted longer than our server, in fact; we were there through a shift change and our order was taken and served by a new efficient, friendly, and unobtrusive server whose name I also did not catch.
We were there about two and a half hours and were never rushed at all; in fact, every time our server checked on us or refilled our water glasses, she made a point of reminding us to take our time. So I heard the story of Julie Anne’s trip to Utah over the weekend and the silliness of Utah drivers who deal with snow every year but are completely befuddled by it not just every year but every time it snows, which made getting around to various client appointments a bit irritating. Through all the chatter and whatnot, we didn’t place a food order until we’d been there about 90 minutes, but our food arrived no more than ten minutes after the order went in.
Julie Anne selected the Southwestern Steak Sandwich, flatiron steak seasoned with chili powder, garlic, black pepper, and salt and grilled and served on a sliced baguette with mayo, Jack cheese, lettuce, and Hilltop’s house-made pico de gallo. She had chosen the tabbouleh as an accompaniment, thinking it would be a smallish side serving, but she received rather a large mound of it and left about half on the plate at the end.
I chose the Chicken Breast Sandwich: Lightly breaded chicken with mozzarella served on rye with a little cream cheese, some mayo, sliced tomato and red onion, and lettuce. Seattle Weekly apparently dubs this “The best chicken sandwich in Seattle!” and I’ll say it definitely ranks high among the chicken sandwiches I’ve had.
I had Hilltop’s house-made potato chips with my sandwich, mainly because I’ve never been a fan of tabbouleh (reminds me too much of couscous, which I despise utterly), and I was pleasantly surprised. Most restaurants’ house-made chips are thick enough and are cooked to such absurd crispness that they taste burned and too salty to me, with the crunching effort annoyingly loud in my ears—difficult to hear one’s tablemates when one has the sound of gravel under tires playing at 130 decibels in one’s brain. Hilltop’s chips, however, were just thick enough, and were smaller overall, with the exact right level of crunch and salt for the best flavor, and they complemented the sandwich quite well.
Julie Anne quite liked her sandwich and the bite I sampled was very tasty. The steak tasted just shy of medium rare and the spice was the right level, not overpowering the meat flavor nor too strong initially; it built up a bit as I continued to chew and lingered briefly but pleasantly as I swallowed the bite.
Our server checked a couple of times to see how our meals were, if we needed anything else, and she kept our water glasses full with nearly appalling skill. No attempt to rush us out the door, either, though most of the other tables in the back area weren’t occupied the entire time we were there.
The place has television screens mounted in several places around the seating areas so it would be a good place to catch a game. In fact, as we were leaving, the front area was crowded with spectators for the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team’s eventual loss to the Stanford Cardinal, and no matter which directions the patrons were seated, there was a TV screen in view.
All in all, very relaxing with a nice friendly local flavor among the pubs I’ve tried.