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Seattle State of Mind

Discovery Park, Seattle, Ian Allen

Photos by Ian Allen

Sunset at Discovery Park.

I'm driving north on Seattle’s Interstate 5, gripping the wheel of a white Mitsubishi rental that looks like a cross between a golf cart and a moon boot. In the rearview mirror looms Mount Rainier, the tallest peak in the Cascade Range, while prehistoric-sized fir trees bend in the wind along the highway. I switch on legendary indie music station KEXP and am greeted by a Jamaican groove that’s well suited to the sunny spring morning. The singer repeats the word irie over and over, an optimistic mantra. Yes, Rasta man, everything does feel irie.

The positive vibrations continue as the Seattle skyline comes into view, bookended to the south by Smith Tower, once the tallest office building this side of the Mississippi. Today, it’s a neoclassical relic known for its 35th-floor public observation deck. Not as well known is the two-story penthouse inside the tower’s pyramid-shaped peak—the only private residence in the building.

       
Mark di Suvero's Schubert Sonata at Olympic Sculpture Park.        

I lived in Seattle a decade ago and my own residence, a one-bedroom apartment, wasn’t nearly as fantastical. It’s my first trip back in years, and I’m curious to see if the place that Forbes recently named the fifth-fastest-growing city in America looks anything like the one I left.

Upon arriving downtown, I make my way to nearby Belltown, a walkable, densely populated neighborhood known for its nightlife and proximity to some of the city’s greatest hits: Puget Sound, Pike Place Market, Olympic Sculpture Park, the Seattle Great Wheel.

I check into the Palladian Hotel, which opened in Belltown in January. The Kimpton property bills itself as “boutique” and as such is ready for its Instagram close-ups. Contemporary décor with a vintage spin? Check. Cocktail lounge with its own “drinks program”? Yes. Spacious rooms with those half-wall shower screens that are all the rage? Right, again. I’m instantly fond of the place.

A half-hour later, I’m ambling through the city’s urban core and it feels a little strange, like visiting the house you grew up in: The walls might be a different color, but it’s familiar all the same. The city is still plagued by the problem of homelessness. And it’s still staggeringly beautiful. Panoramic mountain and water views are the main event, but I’ve always been drawn to the details—the moss that clings to walls and rooftops like a second skin and the historic indigenous art on display across the city, a reminder of Seattle’s complicated past (the Pioneer Square Totem Pole, a gift from the region’s Tlingit people in the late 1930s, is a must-see).

After lunch at Green Leaf Belltown, a Vietnamese joint known for shrimp-stuffed fried pancakes, I head to the city’s folksy, freewheeling heart: Pike Place Market. On this warm, cloudless Saturday, it’s swarming with sightseers, buskers and neohippies taking advantage of Seattle’s lax recreational marijuana laws. A woman hawking prints of the Space Needle informs me that it’s the first day of cruise season, with ships in from Alaska, Hawaii and the Panama Canal. Pike Place has always been touristy—home to those fishmongers that fling salmon like Frisbees—but authentically so. Picture flower and produce stalls, trinket stands and restaurants that have been doing the farm-to-table thing since before it was cool (props to Matt’s in the Market).

       
A sampling at Britt's Pickles.

       

I start at the north end and stroll the cobblestone street that divides the market into two multilevel complexes. At the world’s first Starbucks, opened in 1971, there’s a line out the door. Four gospel singers harmonize a hopeful tune in front of ye olde coffee shop, as if to tell the queue, Hold on, be strong, you will get your historic venti latte.

In the mazelike interior of the Corner Market building, cases overflow with cheese and oysters and slabs of beef. Tucked in the back is Britt’s Pickles, staffed by one Andrew Berg, a friend of my brother’s whom I’ve known for years. “Pickle man,” I say, and he gives me a vinegar-scented hug. I sample spicy pickles and some seriously dank kimchi made with black garlic, an Andrew original. A heavyset man in an LA Dodgers hat stops by the counter, grabs a jigger and fills it from a glass dispenser. “Free brine shots,” says Andrew.

I glance at my phone and realize I’m late to meet another friend, Al, at the marina below the market. I jog down multiple flights of stairs to the boardwalk on the always-busy Pier 66, where someone in a horse mask is going full Keith Moon on an assortment of overturned 5-gallon buckets. At Bell Harbor Marina, Al and his girlfriend, Maggie, arrive in a beat-up Boston Whaler that Al borrowed from a friend.

Elliott Bay is choppy, but the scenery from the water is unreal. Every direction boasts a blockbuster view: the Space Needle to the north, Rainier to the south, downtown and the Ferris wheel to the east and Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Mountains to the west. As the sun drops in the sky, Al turns the Whaler toward the marina, where I spot the horse drummer still going strong on the boardwalk. From a distance, resplendent in the last light of day, he looks like a wild, mythical creature. A crowd has gathered around; a few onlookers pull out selfie sticks and raise them to the heavens.
 

       
Bitterroot BBQ.        

The next morning calls for coffee at the reliably great Caffe Ladro and a trip to Upper Queen Anne, the prototypical Seattle hilltop neighborhood where $800,000 will get you a four-bedroom craftsman. On West Highland Drive, past the Kerry Park overlook, the size and price of the homes begin to climb. In spots the street feels like an architectural survey—on one corner a stately Spanish Colonial sits across from a severe contemporary box.

Gawking at multimillion-dollar homes makes me hungry, so I order hash and eggs at a favorite Queen Anne café, The 5 Spot. Next, I drive north to Discovery Park, a 534-acre expanse that encompasses a historic army fort, a Native American cultural center, forests, bluff-top prairies and rocky shoreline. I do a 3-mile loop, trying and failing to keep up with the hard-core hikers.

Sufficiently beat, I cruise over to Ballard, a former fishing village that in recent years has become Seattle’s answer to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Its most celebrated commercial drag, Ballard Avenue, has a small-town main street vibe, but the shops and restaurants are big-city cool—from stalwarts such as alt-country bar The Tractor to new spots such as the perhaps-too-precious oyster bar The Walrus and the Carpenter.

The farmers market is in full swing the day I visit, the avenue teeming with pretty young people in sundresses and selvedge denim. Even the dogs and kids are stylish, but I can only handle so many babies in Chuck Taylors, so I grab some brisket at Bitterroot BBQ and speed away in the moon boot. From Ballard, I pop in and out of neighborhoods that are in the middle of various costume changes: Fremont (from counterculture haven to conventionally trendy ’hood); Capitol Hill (once an edgy artists’ quarter and now a young-professional playground with buzzy restaurants and cafés such as French/Vietnamese hot spot Stateside and cookie heaven Hello Robin); and South Lake Union (from outdoorsy paradise to lively tech hub). It’s not the Seattle I remember, but there’s something exciting about that. For the first time during the entire trip, I feel like a tourist.
 

       
Staple And Fancy near Ballard Market.

       

Putting down my phone, I turn to a wiry bartender with a samurai ponytail. “I better not be in any of those,” he says, glowering. “Same for my customers. I’ve seen guns pulled on people doing that here.” I assure him I simply wanted to capture my old haunt for posterity—no humans were photographed today. He looks at me hard and then smiles. “What can I get you?”

Welcome to the Mecca Café & Bar, a Lower Queen Anne dive as narrow as a galley kitchen and just the right amount of dangerous (its tagline: “Alcoholics serving alcoholics since 1929”). It’s late afternoon and I’m sitting with my friend Jordan, a professional musician who lives across the Duwamish River in laid-back West Seattle with his wife and young daughter. It feels good to be somewhat off-grid, hiding out in a place that perfectly captures the grumpy, insular weirdness of old Seattle.

The wall behind the bar is covered in coasters and signs that say things like, “Every time I get plastered, my wife gets pregnant!” Opposite the bar, separated by a dividing wall, is the café half of the operation, which slings a fine cheesesteak.

The bartender seems to have cooled off. I tell him the Mecca was a favorite of mine when I lived up the hill a decade ago. “City looks a little different now,” he says, sliding me a whiskey-ginger. “Mostly condos.” Like a lot of lifers around here, he blames technology for transforming Seattle from grungy port town to nouveau riche playground.

From afar, this sentiment is about as interesting as pining for the old, gritty Times Square of the 1970s and ’80s. Gentrification isn’t easily parsed with platitudes. But get up close and personal with any fast-changing city and the tension between old and new is undeniably fascinating. In the case of Seattle, this began nearly 100 years ago when Boeing set up shop. More visionaries followed: Starbucks, Costco, Nintendo of America, Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, not to mention satellite campuses for Google and Facebook and countless start-ups.

These companies brought high-paying jobs and spurred developments that reshaped entire neighborhoods. Seattle doesn’t flaunt its wealth like Los Angeles or New York, but it’s certainly on display—at the ever-expanding Amazon campus in the South Lake Union, at the condo towers in downtown, and at the restaurants of Renee Erickson (The Whale Wins) and Rachel Yang (Joule, Trove), two of the visionary chefs who are reshaping local dining.

       
A plate of sushi at Mashiko.        

Of course, the dark side of the gentrification occurring in so many U.S. cities is that the poor and middle class are often left behind. Seattle’s economy and population are booming, yet it also faces an affordable housing shortage and, if you ask Mecca’s bartender and his ilk, something of an identity crisis. But I’m in no position to analyze socioeconomic nuances, so I sip my drink and plot the night with Jordan.

We end up at a sustainable sushi restaurant in West Seattle called Mashiko, where the chef creates each plate using ethically sourced seafood—transcendent bites of albacore tataki, black cod and whatever else is fresh. High on raw fish, we drop by Jordan’s house to say hi to his wife and their rambunctious 2-year-old daughter. The house sits up on a hill and, yes, you can see the mountains and water from here. No big deal.

We end the evening at his neighborhood haunt, drinking many strong microbrews, rehashing old capers and pretending to be interested in the sad, bearded barfly who claims he was once a professional golfer.

Before heading to the airport the next morning, I walk to the beach at nearby Lincoln Park, where a ferry boat has just pulled up to a dock. It drops off a few passengers, picks a few up and then plods back to Vashon Island—as it’s done over and over for decades. I pick up a piece of rose-colored shell whose jagged edges have been smoothed by the sea, and that’s when it clicks: Seattle may be a young, forward-looking city, but it has an ancient soul.

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