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Seattle, Beyond The Grind
Past the coffee chains and the Space Needle, there's a quirky city that's part working port, part international gateway & part pioneer throwback.

By Frank Kuznik
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page E01
   


You know the drill. Friends and relatives come to town and want the grand tour, the city they've been sold in the travel brochures. In D.C., it's the obligatory run of monuments and museums. In Seattle, it's the Space Needle and Pike Place Market. Throw in a little Pacific Northwest rain and caffeine and high-tech gossip from the Gates gulag, and you can send 'em home wet and happy.

Having traded a Washington, D.C., address for Washington state in 1997, I've mastered the visitor itinerary on both coasts. But, as in the nation's capital, in Seattle there's another city beneath the hype, a working port town that juxtaposes seediness and sophistication like no other place in America. It's not the progressive ecotopia touted in glossy travel magazines. The real Seattle is much richer and more complex, and with a little help, not all that hard to find.

Seattle is a young town, established by white settlers barely 150 years ago, still shedding its longtime provincialism and adjusting to its recent economic and population boom. Even as the city rushes upscale, the last vestiges of a frontier town linger like puddles, shining pale white and neon-red in the streets. Where else would the city's premier cultural institution, the Seattle Art Museum, be located across the street from the Lusty Lady peep show? Or an elegant antiques store share walls with a gun shop?

The locals are equally distinctive, particularly in their manner of dress. While the general look is decidedly casual, the emphasis is on odd assemblages of work and outdoor wear. A woman clad, for example, in a long skirt, combat boots and thick stocking cap is ready for a day at the office--or at the macrobiotic food co-op. And a small but steady number of Seattlites seem to be perpetually in costume, cruising the streets in meticulous vintage outfits or theatrical hats and coats.

The sartorial playfulness is of a piece with the city's vision of itself as an arts and culture center, reflected in its huge number, and vast quality range, of galleries, bookstores, and music and theater venues. Art is an egalitarian pursuit in Seattle, which means that no coffeehouse, theater lobby or street corner is safe from off-key singers and guitar (or tuba or bagpipe) players. Still, there's a cheerful exuberance about such efforts, and an admirable openness and candor on the city streets. Even some panhandlers sport signs that say, "Why Lie? I Need Beer."

One of the chief virtues of Seattle is its size, roughly equivalent to D.C. in terms of downtown and the developed surroundings. But the geography is more daunting, as much of Seattle is composed of lakes and hills, and to get almost anywhere beyond the central city requires crossing a bridge. Most of the in-city attractions lie within walking distance (or a cab ride) of the downtown hotels, making it easy to divide a visit into walking and driving forays.

As for the weather: Everything you've heard is true. There are gorgeous days in Seattle, when Mount Rainier, 70 miles south, pops like a diorama and the parks and sidewalks are crammed with people soaking up every precious ray. But most days are overcast, particularly during the winter, when the forecast is often--no exaggeration--rain, turning to showers.

Do what the locals do: Go with the flow. Pack rain gear or buy umbrellas, which, contrary to popular misconception, get plenty of use here. Or wear your regular coat and hat and ignore the rain. Either way, don't let it dampen or alter your plans. It's amazing how quickly the constant mist ceases being weather and becomes atmosphere.

The best place to start is Pioneer Square, where in just a few blocks you can get a quick read on the city's tastes. Pioneer Square Park, which is topped by an ornate pergola, marks the nexus of history and commerce, the site of the city's oldest settlement, hard by a Starbucks. Skip the Underground Tour, a tourist trudge through dirt basements and subterranean storefronts, the remnants of an 1889 conflagration. Far more interesting is what's above ground--handsome, turn-of-the-century warehouses and buildings with elaborate architectural flourishes, and a salty mix of shops, street people, galleries and saloons.

Pioneer Square art runs the gamut from indecipherable paintings to stunning glasswork to dramatic Native American masks and carvings. Even if the art is bad, the large rehabbed spaces are always a treat. The shops in between carry the expected clutch of antiques and souvenirs and gifts, but among them are a few genuine worthies. There are two excellent toy stores--the jam-packed Magic Mouse, and three blocks south, inventive Wood Toys. Ebbets Field Flannels offers an edifying dip into baseball nostalgia. And there are several good bookstores, anchored by the Elliott Bay Book Co., one of the largest independents in the Northwest.

Historically a rough area, Pioneer Square has incorporated art and retail and nightlife without losing its urban edge--note the Bread of Life and Union Gospel missions thriving amid the upmarket surge. Of course, authentic grit means plenty of scary characters, and Easterners will find themselves well served by their long experience of being asked for money every half-block. Seattle's vagrants are mostly well-mannered and relaxed. Still, after dark you'll feel safer keeping to busy, well-lit streets.

There's a coffee shop on every other corner, though it would be dull indeed to sit at home-grown Starbucks, which you can find in any city in America. You'll have more fun sampling the delightful variety of independent coffee nooks here, steeped in the local passion for the bean that gave rise to Starbucks, but carrying far more hometown aroma. In Pioneer Square try Zeitgeist, a boho redoubt that doubles as a gallery. Still Life in Fremont is a cozy neighborhood hangout, though often crowded. Far and away the most artful coffee in town is served at Espresso Vivace on Capitol Hill, where cream toppings are applied in delicate patterns. You can contemplate your brew sitting at handsome '50s chrome-and-Formica kitchen dinette sets, or sip while you sample the generous supply of newspapers and games.

The tourist hordes inevitably head north from Pioneer Square, up First Avenue to Pike Place Market. Happily, you can find a less hectic, more authentic commercial and culinary smorgasbord just four blocks east of Pioneer Square, in the International District. In the pre-PC era this zone was known as Chinatown, though that name doesn't reflect the heady mix of Asian cultures on display within 12 square blocks. Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian--name the Asian immigrant group, and it's got a store and/or restaurant here. There are a few accommodations made to visitors, but for the most part this is a working ethnic neighborhood with produce stacked on sidewalk shelves in front of the grocery stores.

There's a map and neighborhood guide posted at the corner of King and Maynard streets, alongside a striking red and gold pavilion. But it's just as easy to wander, past restaurants named Ho Ho and Ga Ga Loc and Uncle Ball's, a good number of which have roast chicken and duck carcasses displayed in the windows like fall fashions. The food is real and comparatively cheap. Every store seems to have a section devoted to herbal remedies, even the Martial Arts Equipment and Oriental Gift Shop, with its collection of nunchucks and swords.

Another option from Pioneer Square is to head a block west to the waterfront, which you can explore on foot or aboard the waterfront streetcar. Fans of Baltimore's expansive Inner Harbor will likely find Seattle's waterfront cramped and overly commercial, interesting mostly for its ferry and freighter traffic and public spaces with dramatic views of Elliott Bay and the city skyline, especially at night.

The waterfront is also the primary launch point for offshore excursions, at least one of which you should take during your visit. If you have just a few hours and enjoy sightseeing, the Argosy Tour Boats offer narrated cruises around Elliott Bay, or up the Ship Canal that laterally bisects the city, through the freshwater locks into Lake Union. If you have a day to spare and money to spend, hop one of the Princess Marguerite excursion boats for a leisurely ride up the Sound to either the San Juan Islands or Victoria, British Columbia. Weather is a factor, as fog and rain will obscure most of the scenery. But on good days the San Juans rival anything on the Maine or Oregon coasts, and Victoria is a charming slice of Britannia.

But for a taste of workaday Seattle, ride one of the ferry boats that ply the Sound like buses. Built to accommodate both cars and passengers, the ferries have cabins the size of a railway terminal, with elevators and newspaper boxes and video games and a cafe and bar. Commuters, kids, bikes, strollers--it's a floating zoo of humanity, with plenty of seats in the cabin and on deck, and on nice days, great views of the city and the Olympic Mountains. Take the ferry from Pier 52 for a 35-minute ride to Bainbridge Island, where it's a short walk to Winslow, a nifty little beach town.

No trip to the spectacular Pacific Northwest is complete without some sort of outdoor adventure. You can start indoors. Seattle's outdoor stores are the best in the United States, offering tremendous selections of clothing and gear. On the South end of First Avenue, the North Face has somehow managed to marry designer and recreational looks. Patagonia, about 12 blocks north, is equally fashionable and has the added advantage of being next door to Federal Army and Navy Surplus, a happy falloff in both style and price. And don't forget to visit REI's flagship store, a megamart complete with a 65-foot indoor climbing structure that is mentioned, without fail, in every article written about Seattle.

If you're emboldened to take to the land, motor east a half-hour on I-90 and follow the signs to Snoqualmie Falls, where you can taste the scenic Northwest from the comfort of a manicured park and covered viewing platform. "Twin Peaks" fans will immediately recognize the 270-foot waterfall that cascaded behind the opening credits of the TV show--not as creepy without the theme music, but on misty days when the mountains are enveloped in clouds, still a foreboding sight. You can extend your visit by hiking the half-mile trail to the base of the falls, which winds around the power plant to another observation platform. Reward yourself for making the steep ascent back with a drink in the cozy Attic lounge of the Salish Lodge, adjacent to the falls.

You say you want a real hike? Venture another 10 miles east to Mount Si, the Cascade Mountains peak closest to Seattle. This is a well-maintained and popular trail, best done in midweek, when foot traffic is at a minimum. It's a serious workout for flatlanders--four miles to the summit, with a 3,200-foot vertical gain. But as long as you're in reasonably good shape and take your time, you shouldn't have any trouble. The view at the top is tremendous, with the Snoqualmie Valley stretching back toward Seattle on one side, and the Cascade peaks rising fiercely on the other.

Back in town, you'll want to sample a Seattle neighborhood for some real city character(s). The most entertaining is Fremont, a short drive north of downtown, which modestly bills itself the "Center of the Universe." An amalgam of hippie, retro, New Age and prankster influences, Fremont delights in its weirdness and keeps it proudly on display. The life-size rocket blasting off from the corner of 35th and Evanston is easy to locate, especially at night. The troll devouring the Volkswagen can be more elusive. (Walk up 36th Street to the Aurora bridge and stay clear of his one good eye.)

The spine of the neighborhood is Fremont Avenue, loaded with vintage clothing and antiques shops, bookstores, bars and restaurants. Fremont Place, the main cross street, leads to less-traveled shops with mischievous names like Esoterica and Postquarium, and an imposing bronze of Vladimir Lenin, liberated from Slovakia in 1989. Anywhere else in the continental United States, this seven-ton monster might look like a dirty Commie trick. Here it's just another wacky joke, standing guard outside the hemp products store.

Fremont also boasts "the largest proven beer reserves in the world," a claim that seems perfectly reasonable from inside either of its outstanding microbreweries. The Redhook brewery, built inside a restored red brick trolley-car barn, runs swell tours and fresh taps in a lodge-size pub with couches and a fireplace. Dad Watson's offers less impressive ale but the rich ambiance of a Victorian parlor, minus the moral rectitude. If you find yourself giddy with the free spirit of Fremont, you might stumble into the Red Door Alehouse, possibly the drinkinest joint west of the Mississippi.

When the rain turns to a downpour and you need a warm, dry retreat, head for one of the city's splendid art house or repertory movie theaters. Seattle is an avid film town, and while a movie might not seem an optimal use of vacation time, the venues alone are worth a visit. On Capitol Hill, the Harvard Exit has a foyer that looks like a sitting room at Dumbarton Oaks. The Egyptian, an old Masonic auditorium on Capitol Hill, and the Neptune, in the U District, are among the last theaters in America where you can walk up to the ticket window and say "one" instead of which one. Check newspaper listings for the Seven Gables/Landmark theaters, as well as for the Grand Illusion, a shoebox-size art house in the U District.

Alas, there's not much left of Seattle's famed grunge scene--an early-'90s phenomenon that spawned Nirvana and its many angst-riddled, neo-hard-rock imitators, not to mention the truly strange fashion moment of flannel-shirt-and-stocking-cap chic. But you can get a quick sampling of current nightlife in Belltown, an area immediately north of downtown with a burgeoning strip along the lines of Washington's U Street. El Gaucho and Axis, both on First Avenue, are the latest pretty people hangouts, pretentious but entertaining places to order a martini and watch the show. The low-rent end of the spectrum lies just one block east, on Second Avenue, at either the Lava Lounge, a smoky sailors' haunt, or the Crocodile Cafe, a scaled-down version of D.C.'s old 9:30 club.

Or head back to Pioneer Square, where on weekend nights one cover gets you into 10 bars to hear just as much bad blues as you can bear. Even with all the slumming suburbanites, the crowds may be a bit unsavory. But as long you don't knock over any motorcycles, you'll be fine.

Frank Kuznik is on the move again, this time back to Cleveland as the editor of Scene, an alternative weekly. He last wrote for Travel about the Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio.

DETAILS: Seattle

The following are the establishments mentioned in the story. (Area code is 206 unless specified.)

PIONEER SQUARE

* Magic Mouse Toys, 603 First Ave., 682-8097.

* Wood Shop Toys, 320 First Ave. S, 624-1763; 1-888-624-1763.

* Ebbets Field Flannels, 406 Occidental South, 623-0724

* Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600

* Zeitgeist, 161 S. Jackson, 583-0497

* Espresso Vivace, 901 E. Denny Way, 860-5869

* Still Life in Fremont, 709 N. 35th, 547-9850

INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT

* Martial Arts Equipment & Gift Shop, 658 S. King, 624-3838

THE WATERFRONT

* Argosy Tour Boats, Pier 55, 623-4252

* Princess Marguerite, Pier 48, 448-5000; 1-800-888-2535

* Seattle-Bainbridge ferry, Pier 48, 448-5000

OUTDOOR ADVENTURE

* The North Face, 1023 First Ave., 622-4111

* Patagonia, 2100 First Ave., 622-9700

* Federal Army & Navy Surplus, 2112 First Ave., 443-1818

* REI, 222 Yale Ave. N., 223-1944

* Salish Lodge, 6501 Railroad Ave. SE, Snoqualmie, 425-888-2556

FREEMONT

* Redhook Brewery, 3400 Phinney Ave. N., 548-8000

* Dad Watson's, 3601 Fremont Ave. N., 632-6505

* Red Door Alehouse, 3401 Fremont Ave. N., 547-7521

MOVIE THEATERS

* Harvard Exit, 807 East Roy, 323-8986

* Neptune, 1303 NE 45th, 633-5545

* Egyptian, 801 E. Pine, 323-4978

* Grand Illusion, 1403 NE 50th, 523-3935

BELLTOWN

* El Gaucho, 2505 First Ave., 728-1337

* Axis, 2214 First Ave., 441-9600

* Lava Lounge, 2226 Second Ave., 441-5660

* Crocodile Cafe, 2200 Second Ave., 441-5611

INFORMATION: Seattle/King County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 206-461-5840, www.seeseattle.org.

--Frank Kuznik

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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