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Seattle's Wonk Concierge
Michael Kinsley Shows Off His Adopted Home Town

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.

We're heading downtown. Sure enough, Kinsley received a last-minute call from a visiting Easterner -- journalist Carl Bernstein -- and has invited him to join our tour. But first, there's time for the mandatory stop at Seattle's flagship REI store, the Disneyland of outdoor gear.

Kinsley makes a quick turn against traffic to reach the store. ("That's a very East Coast maneuver," he says. "When I first got out here, I felt like the king of the road.") A glass-enclosed climbing wall rises seven stories over Interstate 5, and the building is surrounded by an artfully constructed mountain creek habitat, a place to test hiking boots and mountain bikes. Inside, there's a walk-in-sized stone fireplace; massive timbers soar over the racks of boots and boats. The crowd is a mix of genuinely weathered outdoorsfolk and slim urbanites hanging out at the in-store coffee bar. Seattle is a hiking and paddling town for sure, but you shop at REI even if the only walking you do is along the aisles of Larry's Market or one of the many other gourmet groceries. The North Face parka is to Seattle what the little black dress is to New York.

"I hadn't been camping for 20 years when I got here and I spent several hundred dollars right away," says Kinsley. "It's required, whether you use the stuff or not."

Indeed, an hour later we're seated in Wild Ginger and the crowd looks more like a party of affluent mountaineers than diners at Seattle's top-rated restaurant. The pan-Asian cuisine, though, is very indoorsy: ahi bruschetta, rabbit satay, salmon steamed in Shaoxing rice wine.

"The food everywhere here is good," Kinsley remarks. "It's sort of migrated north from California, with lots of fresh ingredients and a fair number of ethnic influences."

Sated on satay, we move across the street to Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony. The $118 million, block-long hall throws a rich glow along Third Avenue from the glass-fronted gallery paid for by Boeing. Inside, as part of a concert series sponsored by Starbucks, the jaunty melodies of Benjamin Britten fill the wood-paneled, shoebox-style auditorium. Next on the program is the kind of "challenging" second piece that concertmasters love and general audiences endure. "It's time for our spinach," Kinsley whispers as George McKay's Violin Concerto begins. In the balconies, older patrons in beige raincoats watch the performance through birding binoculars.

Seattle prides itself on being a place where your weekend can include both a world-class concert and a wilderness hike. So in the morning -- after a crab and egg brunch at Kinsley's beloved Etta's Seafood at Pike Place Market -- we board the ferry and sail off for the Olympic Peninsula. It's a day-tripper crowd this morning, but on weekdays these huge ferries -- with onboard cafeterias and, of course, espresso stands -- are filled with commuters from around Puget Sound. "The first time you take the ferry you think, 'This is incredibly cool,' " says Kinsley as we pull away. "The third or fourth time you think, 'This is a pain in the neck.' They're like the trains in New York. Everybody strategizes about it. Everybody leaves dinner parties at the same time."

Once on the peninsula, though, it's easy to see why people put up with the ferries to live out here. The roads, when not arching over and along the water, cut through increasingly dense temperate rain forests. The land rises up from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to peaks high enough to house glaciers. According to the radio, it's snowing up there right now. "Incredible," says Kinsley.

Even the weather down here is none too balmy. It's barely 60 degrees and raining. Or is it?

"We don't acknowledge rain," Kinsley says. "Here, you stand in the parking lot getting wet and you don't even stop your conversation."

We're traveling now with Bill Barnes, who is himself an example of the Seattle phenomenon -- a Microsoft millionaire. Barnes recently retired at age 30 with a fat portfolio and a lot of free time. He's trying to launch a second career as a cartoonist, but he's also one of Kinsley's irregular camping partners. If it's hard to reconcile Kinsley the Harvard grad of wonky wit and fondness for the tax code with Kinsley the outdoorsman, Barnes says such conversions are typical of transplanted Easterners.

"Mike's embraced it even more than a lot of other people who have moved out here," Barnes says. "He does a lot of typical adventurous Seattle things.I do a lot more because of him."

A few minutes later, as we approach Olympic National Park, it begins to pour in a way that even the Seattleites have to acknowledge. "Okay," admits Kinsley. "These are showers. Rain on the Olympic Peninsula; who would have predicted it?"

The wet may not be a surprise, but it does force us to reconsider our plans for a night on the trail. Plan B: We head for Lake Crescent Lodge, a comely set of porched cottages surrounding a vintage log lodge on the lakeshore. We check into a double cottage and spend the rest of the day getting soaked on the surrounding trails. The paths wind through the old-growth woods to waterfalls and overlooks where the view is little more than ghostly glimpses of trees through wraiths of gray mist.

But a wet day makes for a delightful cocktail hour around the lodge's massive fireplace, and for a deeper relishing of the ensuing broiled halibut with crab and mango salsa, brie on garlic toast, raspberry sorbet and local wines.

Finally, stupefied, through the dining room window we watch a mist ice the surface of Lake Crescent during the evening calm. The rain has stopped for now. Coffee is served.

"We start out going camping and end up having a gourmet meal," says Kinsley. "That's classic Seattle."

Details: Michael Kinsley's Seattle

GETTING THERE: Numerous airlines fly from the Washington area to Seattle; fares start at $171 round trip, with restrictions.

TWO DAYS IN SEATTLE: A Kinsleyian weekend begins -- and sometimes ends -- with dinner or brunch or both at Etta's (2020 Western Ave.), the flagship seafood eatery of noted Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas. Etta's simple preparation of quality fish is one of the best reasons to visit the tourist environs of Pike Place Market.

Just around the corner, Wild Ginger (140 Third Street) lives up to its near iconic status as the best satay and pan-Asian food in Seattle. Reservations accepted; Gore-Tex welcomed. And if you need to buy a new parka for the occasion -- or a pair of crampons or a killer water bottle -- Seattle's REI (222 Yale Ave. North, 206-223-1944) is a gearhead's fantasyland, complete with indoor climbing wall, on-site mountain bike trail, cafe and coffee bar.

After dinner, head to Benaroya Hall (206-215-4747, www.benaroyahall.com), downtown's new arts venue. The smartly designed home of the Seattle Symphony offers a full calendar of music, film and live performances.

For a weekend away from the weekend, hop a ferry to the Olympic Peninsula. The hour-long Seattle-Bremerton ferry (206-464-6400, www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries) is really a commuter route, but these commuters demand good coffee and muffins, so the ride is perfectly pleasant for peninsula-bound tourists. On the far side of Puget Sound, a dense maritime rain forest makes for endless hiking and backpacking. Most of the Olympic National Park is designated wilderness, from forest to glaciers to Pacific coastline. Details: 360-565-3130, www.nps.gov/olym. But there are pockets of civilization if the weather drives you out of your tent. The Lake Crescent Lodge (360-928-3211, www.olypen.com/lakecrescentlodge) is a comfortable collection of cabins around a lakeside inn, a massive fireplace and a memorable restaurant. The lodge reopens in April; rooms start at $106.

INFORMATION: Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 206-461-5800, www.seeseattle.org.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company