Seattle's Wonk Concierge

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2001

One thing that hasn't bothered Michael Kinsley since he relocated from East Coast Washington to West Coast Washington is loneliness. When the former New Republic editor and resident liberal on CNN's "Crossfire" decamped to Seattle five years ago to run Slate magazine, he may have been forced to substitute latte buzz for political buzz, the salmon at Etta's for the filet at Morton's, and the drizzle of spring for the heat of August. But he didn't have to do without Washingtonians -- they came to him. As reliable as the cloud cover, travelers from Washington, D.C., drop in on Kinsley and ask him to act as a guide to -- or rather interpreter of -- the "other" Washington.

"I guess I have become one of the stations of the cross here," says Kinsley, who agreed to take us on the tour he has loosely established for visiting East Coasters. "My routine is simple. I just take them all to Etta's, my favorite restaurant in the world and the only place I know."

No, no. What he has in store for us is a couple of stunning meals, some high art, a little outdoor-gear shopping and -- weather permitting, ha ha ha -- a backpacking trip. Kinsley clearly has become well-versed in Seattle's inside-and-out offerings, from nouvelle seafood to muddy hiking along the Olympic Peninsula. To many who have called on him as the Host of Seattle -- including his old "Crossfire" foil Pat Buchanan -- Kinsley has gone native.

"It's a better fit for him than me," laughs Buchanan, who had what he describes as "quite a bibulous dinner" with Kinsley (at Etta's, of course) during one of his campaign stops. "Seattle is as close to Washington, D.C., as you can get up there in the upper Northwest, and Michael seems quite at ease."

He's not quite at ease right now. In fact, he's a little bit lost. We're driving through Seattle's Chinatown, a k a the International District, and Kinsley is feeling his way through streets that still sometimes confuse him.

"I'm looking for Denny," he says. "It's one of those streets like Rock Creek Parkway that live a sort of secret life. They pop up every now and then, but you can't find them when you're looking for them."

We pass signs in Chinese, many of them hanging along second-floor apartment balconies over street-level shops. There are Korean herbalists and a well-known Japanese grocery store called Uwajimaya. In suburban Renton, where Kinsley lives on Lake Washington, you'll find newer immigrants -- Saigon Printing, Mekong Rainier Grocery. After Honolulu, Seattle must be America's most Asian city.

"There aren't really Asian neighborhoods," Kinsley says. "It's the whole society. But by the second generation, they're yuppies. They go hiking. They're Americans."

Further on, we pass a skeleton of steel and concrete rising above the horizon, an Erector Set silhouette against the red evening sky. "A new stadium," he says. "Football, I think." Kinsley is not a sports fan.

Seattle is still building things -- the new Seahawks stadium, for example, and the year-old Experience Music Project rock museum, both constructed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen -- but there is also a sense that the bloom is off the boom. When Kinsley arrived here in 1996 to edit Slate, Microsoft's online political and cultural magazine, Seattle was more than just the hot topper of perennial livable-city lists; it was increasingly seen as the capital of all that was hip and profitable in the new world order. Young graduates and tourists alike flocked to the place where Boeing made the biggest jets, Internet twenty-somethings made the biggest bucks and Seattle was making a big bang as the trading nexus of the Pacific Rim.

Now, Boeing HQ has eloped to Chicago, the Internet bubble has burst and black-clad anarchists laid waste to Seattle more than a year ago in a nihilistic five-day howl against globalization. ("That was all rabble from Eugene, Oregon," Kinsley says. "The latte didn't stop flowing for a minute.") Understandably, the city is shaken by its run of bad luck, which included a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in February and twice-daily backups on the commuter bridges.

Still, whatever its current livability rating, a drive through Seattle remains a slide show of lovely vistas. Top out on one of the city's rolling hilltops and Elliott Bay opens up to the west, subtitled by the neon signs of Pike Place Market and the waterfront. Another rise features the houseboats and kayaks of Lake Washington to the east. Sometimes, legend has it, Mount Rainier looms huge to the south. (Seattleites say just knowing it's there behind the clouds is enough.) There's a pleasant low-rise feel to intown neighborhoods like Queen Anne Hill and Capitol Hill, lots of trees and frame cottages lining side streets paved with rain.

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