Hanging on the corner of East Pike Street and 12th Avenue, the Chao Bistro logo resembles an abstract interpretation of a Chinese name stamp. However, despite the aesthetic similarities, Chao Bistro is anything but Chinese.
Having been home to two defunct restaurants, most notably 1200 Bistro and the short-lived Pike’s Bar & Grill, Chao Bistro stands out in an area known for Café Vita, Neumos and Via Tribunali. Proud of their Capitol Hill location, owners David Tran (who also owns Venom and Cowgirl’s Inc.), Tony Kang, Wade Peterson and Brian Ellis opened Chao Bistro in late September 2009. Aside from Peterson, the co-owners were high school friends and graduates of Shorewood High School.
Co-owner Tony Kang is no stranger to the restaurant business. Kang previously owned a sushi restaurant in North Seattle called Yamashiro. The restaurant gave way to a new opportunity when Pike’s Bar & Grill closed and the space went for sale. According to Kang, all four owners collaborated on Chao Bistro’s theme, décor and menu.
Despite careful thought into the planning of Chao Bistro, Kang said one of the major setbacks was relating to the Capitol Hill community. “They’re not used to this kind of food here,” Kang said, dressed in a salmon-colored button-up. “Everyone thought we were a Chinese restaurant.”
According to Kang, communicating a genuine, welcoming atmosphere is a vital part of the Chao Bistro environment. Patrons are greeted with friendly staff and warm-toned décor. Rounded, modern furniture conveys an easy-going sense of comfort and hospitality.
Keeping with the contemporary yet leisurely ambiance, the menu is a mix of Asian flavors and comfort foods, eschewing high prices typically associated with pan-Asian cuisine.
Most items on the dinner menu are shared plates under $10 and include fresh sushi rolls, flavorful Wok-Seared Edamame, tasty Kalua Pork Quesadillas, meaty Capitol Hill Calamari and Island Style Fried Rice. The brunch menu is just as eclectic and features Biscuits and Gravy, Chao Breakfast (eggs, Spam or bacon and hash browns or toast) and Loco Moco (grilled hamburger patty over steamed rice, topped with a fried egg and gravy). To add to the restaurant’s already reasonably priced menu, Chao Bistro offers daily happy hour with items starting at $3.
According to Kang, the recipes stay true to authenticity and are pooled from the owners’ mothers. The Kalbi Steak Tacos are taken from a Korean kalbi steak recipe made by Kang’s mother and the Imperial Pork Chops uses a Vietnamese recipe from Tran’s mother. General Manager Paula Miyashiro also contributed to a large portion of the menu with Hawaiian-inspired favorites such as Chocolate Haupia Pie and Loco Moco.
“It’s not fancy. We’re not trying to be upscale. We’re very comfortable,” Kang said. “We want to make sure people on the Hill are comfortable so that everyone’s comfortable with us.”
Despite earlier setbacks, Kang said he can’t complain about business at Chao Bistro and that outreach initiatives to better connect with patrons are in progress.
On a recent evening, an ethnically diverse array of diners filled the main booths. In the back, a private area opens to more seating. Three large flat-screen TVs display a slideshow of urban graffiti art.
Tim McCarthy went to Chao Bistro with friends and raved about the happy hour menu. “It’s great happy hour. The food is good and people here are friendly,” McCarthy said, also noting that he is a regular.
Another diner came in with a friend and said it was his first time eating at Chao Bistro. When asked what brought him in, Jeff Lang said he was in the area. “We were actually looking for a Chinese restaurant,” Lang said, laughing.