Seattle, old and new
I grew up in Seattle, but moved away nearly a decade ago. Still, I return frequently to see friends and family. On practically every visit, I meet a Seattleite who asks where I live now, then promptly declares, “Oh, Portland! Don’t you love it there? I hear it’s just like Seattle used to be.”
Well, yes and no. For more than a century — starting with the boom of the Yukon gold rush and, two decades later, the founding of a little airplane manufacturer called Boeing — Seattle has been a place that fuels international phenomena: the coffee culture of Starbucks, the personal-computer revolution of Microsoft, even the brief mushrooming that was grunge. The city is still a place young people move to (it’s nearly twice as popular as Portland) from around the country, drawn by a vague agglomeration of outdoorsy vibe, techie cool and West Coast edginess.
But once here, Seattleites both old and new generally succumb to what I call the Emmett Watson phenomenon, a local variety of nostalgia that places a perfect Seattle somewhere in the past. A Seattle newspaper columnist for half a century, Watson specialized in a style best described as Affable Curmudgeon. When I hear people sigh, “Seattle is just too much of a big city for me now,” that’s the voice of Emmett Watson talking from beyond his grave.
It’s a nostalgia inspired by the rapid pace of change in this Pacific Rim city. Seattle has always been a place people move to, not from. When I drive around it now, the city feels more vertical and dense than it did 10 years ago; despite the recession, entire neighborhoods (notably the South Lake Union area) are being transformed. The sidewalks feel more crowded, and the traffic is certainly worse. But I don’t find myself grumping, like Watson, about the presumably better old days. Change is unavoidable, and while I’m sometimes disoriented now in the city of my childhood, I like watching it evolve.
So here’s a list: Old Seattle versus New Seattle. A selection of Oldies But Goodies, paired with matching New Kids on the Block. Watson might not agree, but my old Seattleite heart finds them all worthwhile.
Old: Founded in 1995, it’s 24 years younger than hometown rival Starbucks, but Caffé Vita (www.caffevita.com) has been around long enough to establish some serious roasting cred. Its Capitol Hill location (1005 E. Pike St.; 206-709-4440) used to be known as the Café Paradiso, and Vita’s takeover did little to change the original’s dark, grottoesque feel. Climb the stairs to the second floor on a rainy evening and you can almost taste the bad poetry of high schoolers once forced (as I was, alas) to read their assignments aloud here on open-mike night.
New: On a busy summer day, its proximity to the popular Pike Place Market can make Seattle Coffee Works (www.seattlecoffeeworks.com; 107 Pike St.; 206-340-8867) feel overwhelmingly touristy. Ignore the out-of-towners and sidle over to the Slow Bar, where you can prop yourself on a stool and sample coffees from around the world, prepared in a variety of ways (pressed, siphoned, etc.).
Old: They may be small, but when they’re fresh out of the fryer, the miniature doughnuts at Pike Place Market standby The Daily Dozen (93 Pike St.; 206-467-7769) taste big. Soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, the doughnuts come in four varieties: subtly sweet plain, sweeter cinnamon, even sweeter powdered sugar and death-by-sugar “fancy,” aka chocolate frosted with rainbow sprinkles.
New: People come to Top Pot (www.toppotdoughnuts.com) for many reasons: the excellent espresso, the skinny-jeans-clad hipsters and the walls lined with old hardback books at the local chain’s original Capitol Hill location (609 Summit Ave. E.; 206-323-7841). But the rich, sticky doughnuts are the name draw; they come in more than 40 flavors, including maple-glazed chocolate and lemon old-fashioned.
Old: Once upon a time, finding a place to eat in Seattle after 9 p.m. was near impossible. Thankfully, the International District, with its Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants, stepped up to the late-night supper plate, providing musicians, chefs and students with decent grub in the wee hours. When I stopped by the Honey Court Seafood Restaurant (516 Maynard Ave. S.; 206-292-8828) last winter for lunch, I expected the midnight routine of crab in black bean sauce and fresh fish still flopping from the tank. Silly me; daylight hours here mean dim sum, that equally delicious parade of dumplings on steam carts.
New: Seattle has plenty of east Asian and Southeast Asian eateries. But south Asian? Not so much — especially not the Indian small-plates dining tradition known as thali. Combine thali with the whole locally sourced seasonal Northwest ingredients thing, and you’ve got Poppy (www.poppyseattle.com; 622 Broadway Ave. E.; 206-324-1108), a restaurant that blurs a lot of boundaries: casual and elegant, local and global, traditional and edgy.
Old: If you come from old Seattle money, chances are you live in Madison Park. If you’re just a grandparent itching to scratch open your wallet for the grandkids, this neighborhood’s tree-lined business district is family heaven. Grandmas coo over the pretty, pretty dresses at The Original Children’s Shop (www.theoriginalchildrensshop.com; 4216 E. Madison St.; 206-328-7121), while granddads test out the toys at Red Wagon (www.redwagonmadisonpark.com; 4218B E. Madison St.; 206-453-5306). The kids, of course, can’t wait to wrap their mitts around cupcakes (half cake, half frosting) at the venerable Madison Park Bakery (www.madisonparkbakery.com; 4214 E. Madison St.; 206-322-3238) before heading to the recently redesigned playground at Madison Park (East Madison and Howe streets). My own daughter’s first salon haircut? At Choppers (4212 E. Madison St.; 206-322-0771), which hasn’t changed in 30 years.
New: Two decades ago, the local comedy TV show “Almost Live!” routinely ran skits mocking the daffy Scandinavian denizens of Ballard, then a working-class neighborhood founded on fishing and milling. Redhook Brewery began here in the 1980s; its original signature beer, Ballard Bitter (reissued, in updated form, this past spring), came labeled with the pseudo-Nordic tagline “Ya Sure Ya Betcha!” But hardscrabble Ballard ain’t what it used to be. As a good friend noted recently over e-mail: “Imagine if you had gone to Ballard in 1990 and someone said to you, ‘In that location, you will one day be able to buy a $20 plate of pasta, and over there will be a shoe store where you can spend more than $400 on a pair of shoes.’” The mind boggles — especially in the Ballard Avenue Historic District, where once-derelict storefronts now offer those aforesaid shoes (at least five stores, including Re-Soul, www.resoul.com, 5319 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-789-7312), clothing (at least twice as many shops, including Horseshoe, www.horseshoeseattle.com, 5344 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-547-9639) and furnishings (including Camelion Design, www.cameliondesign.com, 5330 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-783-7125). Sundays year-round, the street is closed off for a massive midday farmers market (www.fremontmarket.com; Ballard Avenue Northwest at 22nd Avenue).
Old: With its enormous old trees, gently sloping lawns, glass conservatory and art museum, Volunteer Park (www.cityofseattle.net; 1247 15th Ave. E.) is about as elegantly old-school as Seattle parks get. It’s also home to an open reservoir, a popular wading pool and a brick water tower with a killer 360-degree view of the city.
New: When the Olympic Sculpture Park (www.seattleartmuseum.org; 2901 Western Ave.) opened in 2007, its giant red Alexander Calder sculpture, “Eagle,” quickly became the new symbol of the downtown waterfront. Like the metal Calder, the park itself takes long, geometric strides, zigzagging downward across a busy street and railroad tracks to Elliott Bay. The switchbacks offer constantly changing views of the cityscape, the water and the Olympic Mountains; the scenery, in fact, is more spectacular than much of the sculpture, which often lurks unobtrusively in the park’s native plantings.