Fresh air on the menu: Secret gardens and other outdoor dining

In a part of the world infamous for meteorological mood swings, it's amazing how many restaurants offer outdoor dining: Decks are de rigueur on the waterfront; on city streets, sidewalk cafes are thick as blackberry brambles.

We went looking for those less obvious and discovered a beguiling Ballard garden, a Belltown courtyard, a Crown Hill front porch and more.

Secret gardens

Sambar, a high-styled urban cocktail lounge improbably attached to charmingly low-key Le Gourmand in Ballard, is a Gravity Bar for the new millennium. With four seats at the bar and half a dozen tables, expect extreme intimacy inside, but the claustrophobic can escape through French doors into a secluded garden.

Birds nest in the eaves and flowers border a white gravel path planted with a few small tables, a couple of space heaters and candle torches. Here you can get your fruits and veggies in a glass: cocktails include a fresh berry margarita; lime vodka and cointreau with a scoop of rhubarb sorbet; or a long, cool gin mixed with honey and cucumber.

Notable on the brief menu of small plates are burnished frites worthy of a Belgian street corner; phyllo-wrapped chicken pastillas with a cumin-spiked fruit compote; and a salad composed of lentils, Jerusalem artichokes, mâche and frisée, itself a miniature garden garnished with little bundles of leeks tied with chives and a tiny deviled quail's egg.

Forgo Alki for an evening on the patio at La Rustica in West Seattle, where Janie Pellegrini's lavish flower garden rivals the Puget Sound view and her husband, chef Giulio Pellegrini, serves up ricotta gnocchi, slow-braised lamb shank, pancetta-wrapped prawns and ravioli with Dungeness crab sauce. A group of six to eight can reserve the largest of the nine outdoor tables; the others are up for grabs.

Wild Mountain Cafe occupies a house nearly a century old with a front garden so picturesque passers-by regularly stop to capture it on film. That could be you waving in the background, sitting happily on the front porch with a plate of fried chicken, but only if Connie Stone and Roo McKenna, the owners who lovingly restored this quaint Crown Hill cafe, deem the weather worthy of dragging a few tables outside.

Hidden patios

Wonderful aromas seep through the dense shrubbery along East Boston Street around the corner from Serafina's Eastlake entrance. Follow the smell of sautéed pancetta up a short flight of steps, and you'll discover that the restaurant's vintage brick abode boasts a garden patio.

In this leafy enclave, at a table draped in sunny yellow, explore Chef John Neumark's flair for things Italian: umbricelli, perhaps, a curvy Umbrian pasta tossed with rapini and guancialle; or grilled fennel sausages with peppers and polenta.

La Fontana Siciliana is an anomaly in Belltown's hip restaurant corridor. This romantic slice of the Old World maintains a low profile. When the weather is warm, forsake the alluring antique-filled interior in favor of antipasti under the stars in the serene fountain courtyard. Proprietor Mario Fuenzalida presents a menu of Sicilian specialties including chicken marsala, pasta with sardines, and spaghetti a la Norma with eggplant, tomato and ricotta salata.

Elsewhere in the condominium canyons of Belltown is the plant-filled patio behind Marco's Supperclub, which is now open for lunch. Go and you'll discover that sunshine and fried sage leaves have a natural affinity for one another.

After 25 years in Madrona, the Hi-Spot's pleasant patio is no secret, but you might not know that dinner is once again being served here. Pasta, steak, carne asada and salmon are among the evening entrees, along with soups, salads and sandwiches.

Balcony seats

U2 can be like Bono, who held hands with his wife for hours over lunch last summer on the Post Alley patio of Vivanda, entranced by a cello player performing down below. The couple returned to their balcony seats the next evening with their entire entourage for more of chef Peter Levine's Mediterranean-accented fare.

Sauteéd calamari, house-cured salmon, crab salad and a lobster club with bacon, arugula and avocado are popular choices on Levine's seafood-centric menu. You don't need to be famous to snag one of the half dozen patio tables; it's first come, first served, unless you want to book the whole balcony for a private bash.

The art-filled dining rooms and fire-lit lounge of Ponti Seafood Grill are so inviting it's easy to forget that you can also dine alfresco on two large balcony patios overlooking the ship canal in Fremont. A lush garden and rockery runs along the bank where owner Richard Malia likes to putter, this year planting herbs.

Chef Joshua Green shops Pike Place Market each day in search of fresh ingredients for signature items like house-smoked black cod with lemon-caper risotto, seared sashimi-grade ahi tuna with cucumber wasabi aioli and grilled calamari tossed with herbs, tomatoes and briny picholine olives.

On-deck dining

Can't afford a weekend in Cabo? Console yourself with a bowl of hot spiced nuts and a margarita on the deck at El Camino where reservations are accepted as long as everyone in the party is over 21. There's a fresh new look inside this Fremont favorite and extra weatherproofing outside; the heated deck has glass panels for wind protection and a roll-back awning to deflect the rain.

On the summer menu, ceviche is back, as well as seared ahi in a lime-dressed salad of avocado, grilled corn and black beans, alongside familiar favorites like steak and fish tacos and enchiladas in pipian verde.

Dine surrounded by herbs, flowers and ornamentals on the deck at Carmelita, a setting well-suited to the creative vegetarian cuisine served at this Greenwood neighborhood favorite.

On the summer menu look for beets with braised fennel and marinated peaches in white balsamic-mint vinaigrette, or pan-seared corn cakes with tomato relish. The heated deck is partially covered and flannel blankets are on hand in case the night cools. Do call ahead: Reservations are accepted, but the deck is often booked for private parties.

Providence Cicero:

Apples hang in the garden at Sambar, a high-styled urban cocktail lounge attached to Ballard restaurant Le Gourmand. (HARLEY SOLTES / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Where to find restaurants listed in this article:

Carmelita, 7314 Greenwood Ave. N., Greenwood; 206-706-7703 or

El Camino, 607 N. 35th St., Fremont; 206-632-7303

Hi-Spot Caf, 1410 34th Ave. Madrona; 206-325-7905 or

La Fontana Siciliana, 120 Blanchard St., Belltown; 206-441-1045 or

La Rustica, 4100 Beach Dr. S.W., West Seattle; 206-932-3020

Marco's Supperclub, 2510 First Ave., Belltown; 206-441-7801 or

Ponti Seafood Grill, 3014 Third Ave. N., Fremont; 206-284-3000 or

Sambar, 425 NW Market St., Ballard; 206-781-4883

Serafina, 2043 Eastlake Ave. E., Eastlake; 206-323-0807 or

Vivanda, 95 Pine St., Pike Place Market; 206-442-1121 or

Wild Mountain Caf, 1408 NW 85th St., Crown Hill; 206-297-945 or