Seattle institutions

Lately, my deskmates and I can’t converse without getting hungry.

It all started last week, when I solicited a coworker’s advice on where to get great seafood in Seattle. My parents are in town this weekend and are looking forward to eating wild Alaskan salmon, said to be some of the best in the world. They wanted something good, not too fancy and quintessentially Seattle.

Well, my coworker said, what’s more quintessentially Seattle than Ivar’s? It’s best known for the “Acres of Clams” sign ferry riders see on their way in and out of Seattle, but another location in Fremont specializes in salmon and overlooks Lake Union. It was settled.

Days later, we discussed where in South Lake Union we’d eat lunch to send off the winter-term news intern. Most of the South Lake Union neighborhood was purely industrial just a few years ago, but then came a connection to downtown and several biotech companies. And in 2007, when Amazon announced it would move its headquarters there, out went the decrepit warehouses and in went the upscale cafes, LEED-certified condo buildings and trendy restaurants. Most eateries are so new they haven’t yet established themselves among residents or Amazonians.

But when Dahlia Lounge and Serious Pie moved into a building on Westlake Avenue, their reputations preceded them. The owner, Tom Douglas, is a well-known and critically-acclaimed restaurateur here and already found a following at his eateries in Belltown. We concluded that Tom Douglas is, arguably, a Seattle institution.

Amid all this food talk was discussion about what makes something “quintessentially Seattle.” It’s tricky, because Seattle is a city of neighborhoods; one neighborhood might call a popular hangout a Seattle institution even though residents in another neighborhood haven’t even heard of it. Places like Kidd Valley, Buckley’s and La Toulouse Petit make up my impression of Seattle, but that’s because they’re all within two blocks of my apartment in Lower Queen Anne. For others, Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, Espresso Vivace or Bauhaus might sum up Seattle best.

There are a number of factors in what makes a true, city-wide Seattle institution. For one, it must be a citywide chain (see: Dick’s, Molly Moon’s) or it must be fabulous enough for locals and tourists alike to make the cross-town trip to visit regularly (Elliott Bay Books). For another, it should be old and/or decrepit enough that it’s firmly rooted in the Seattle community (Ivar’s). And it’s got to have that quirky, eclectic vibe that attracts hipsters, intellectuals and weirdos alike (King’s Hardware or, on the fancier end, anything tied to Ethan Stowell).

The absolute hippest in restaurants, bars and shops rarely endures–especially in Capitol Hill!–but Seattle institutions like these seem to infuse the right amount of hip with something classic. At King’s Hardware, you get the same old beer but you get to play Skee-Ball while you drink it. At Molly Moon’s, you can opt for good ol’ vanilla ice cream–or you can try a scoop of honey lavender.

Maybe that’s why I think Douglas’ restaurant Serious Pie, our chosen lunch spot today, can endure. It takes a classic favorite–brick oven pizza–and places it in a modern industrial setting with appetizers involving kale, pine nuts and carnation sunchokes.

Birthday headlines

Today, the day I turn 23, is the ultimate in in-betweens: it will be exactly two years before I’m legally able to rent a car, and it’s exactly two years after the day I had my first legal drink (in the U.S., at least).

I have no wild plans for this particular birthday, since work consumes my life and last year’s “Where’s Waldo?”-themed blowout at my house in Eugene, Ore. was memorable enough to carry me through to Feb. 10, 2012. I’ll mark this as the year in which I discovered the small pleasures of birthdays: opening cards over coffee and smiling at the messages, going to work to find a platter of brownies, and hearing from friends I haven’t seen in years. I don’t need to celebrate my existence with bar-hopping or expensive dinners.

Today, I celebrated as only I would do: by looking up Seattle Times headlines from Feb. 10, 1988, the day I was born. Startlingly, some of the headlines I found could be in a newspaper today. I leave you with them here.

  • Americans Should Open Minds To Non-Western Cultures
  • Military Can’t Bar Gays, Court Rules
  • U.S. Offers Plan For Mideast Peace
  • Middle Class Seems Stuck In Middle — Economists Worry Over Increasing Gap Between Rich, Poor

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

That’s how they taught us to say “Happy New Year” in Chinese back in elementary school. I remember we made and decorated little red scrolls, writing the Chinese characters for “happy new year” with calligraphy pens. We learned about the Lunar New Year and the elaborate parades the Chinese held to celebrate it.

I’m pretty sure those who celebrate Lunar New Year don’t make resolutions as we do in Western culture. But why not start a new tradition?

I know we’re all supposed to make resolutions in the first few days of the calendar year because it allows us to start with a clean slate, to promise ourselves we’ll change before we get a chance to slip back into old habits.

Too bad I had no time for a 2010 reflection those first few days of January. I went to Santa Cruz, Calif., for a family “Christmas” celebration on New Year’s Eve, spent a few whirlwind days by the beach and promptly returned to the usual 80-hour work week on Jan. 4. The breaks I’ve caught since then generally last no longer than 36 hours, and you’d better believe I spent the majority of that downtime catching up on sleep!

So…better late than never! Here are the things I hope to accomplish in the next Lunar New Year:

Find a job–ONE job. While I truly enjoy examining the balance on my bank receipt these days, my hectic schedule makes me miss the days when I had time for tasks such as grocery shopping, laundry folding and breathing. As mundane as it sounds, someday I want to live a life in which the phrases “commuter traffic” and “happy hour” actually mean something.

Sleep. This is among the everyday tasks I haven’t carried out properly since October. The fact that I’m calling it a “task” is itself an indicator that I want for more snooze time.

Get a life. I pretend to be bohemian sometimes, but I’m really a homebody. I lived in the same house almost all my life before college, and I like the idea of planting roots in one place for a while and making a life for myself. True happiness is running into multiple acquaintances at the neighborhood grocery store. Whether work keeps me here in Seattle or takes me to another city–Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Abu Dhabi–I’ve pledged to get more involved in my local community by volunteering, performing more music and attending local events.

Exercise and eat healthier. Such a resolution was difficult to make throughout college, when I was juggling multiple classes, work and extracurricular activities. (Let’s just say I grabbed a lot of bagels and cups of coffee between classes.) But when my first resolution is carried out, I have no more excuses. I’ll have a lot of time to sweat it out in the gym–conveniently located just downstairs in my building–and to carefully pick out healthier ingredients to incorporate in meals. This is the year!

Blog more. Obviously.

The Seattleite

Every American city attracts a certain type of person. Activity in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the 1960s forever branded the city as a hippie haven. Los Angeles is purported to be full of tan, slender wannabe actors and musicians waiting for that big break. New Yorkers are notoriously loud, rude and fazed by nothing.

Seattle’s people don’t come with as many stereotypes—at least, none that I was aware of before I got here. I associated Seattle with companies and objects rather than specific types of people: Microsoft, Starbucks, the Space Needle. It’s only been a week, but after talking to a wide variety of people in neighborhoods all over the city, I’ve already begun to understand what defines the typical Seattleite.

Intelligent. I already knew that Seattle was the most educated city in the U.S., but I didn’t see the evidence until I started working at the Times. Even my totally banal first clip got a tidal wave of constructive criticism in the form of e-mails, voicemails and online comments. Perfect strangers weren’t afraid to tell me what I left out of the article, listing the unanswered questions that remained. For the first time, I actually understood the journalism adage, “Your readers are your editors.” Never have I seen such deep, logical thought come from online commenters.

Cliquey. Before I drove up here, my friend Rachel warned me that Seattle residents, while initially very warm and welcoming, wouldn’t truly open up to you as quickly as most West Coasters. Locals will put you through what’s called the “Seattle freeze” (no, it’s not a reference to the weather or the name of a yummy drink), where they’ll be a little standoffish toward you until you’ve proven that you belong in their group. Another friend who’s lived here a little less than a year said she didn’t make friends until she found friends in her coworkers at a gym. Suddenly, she had a huge handful of friends, and friends of friends, and so on—a whole network she never could have wormed her way into without her job. I see evidence of cliquey behavior everywhere. When I go into a coffee shop in Greenwood, I’ll get a curt greeting while someone who obviously comes in regularly walks in and gets a warm welcome, an inquiry into his work and the health of his family and a nice chat about the horrible weather we’ve had lately.

Quirky. A friend who lives near Green Lake is off-and-on dating a man who is in an open, long-term relationship with someone else, and it doesn’t bother her in the least. This weekend, as the festivities of Pride Week concluded with a parade of cross dressers and half-naked women marching through Capitol Hill, a car show on the other side of town attracted families in minivans and men driving F-150s with “NO-BAMA” bumper stickers. (I remember because the narrow residential streets of Greenwood were suddenly very hard to navigate with all these huge pickups crowding the sides of the roads.) That’s a testament to the wide variety of people living here, and it shows that no city does things the way Seattle does things.

Picky. The sheer number of coffee shops in this city should have tipped me off. Seattleites look for a specific combination of things in a cafe. The coffee has to be exceptional. The décor should be a little eclectic, lending a comfortable, not-too-polished bohemian vibe. Free Wi-fi is a must. And it’s best located on the corner of the block, where it’s easier for outdoor patrons to people-watch from their tables. You won’t see more than a couple of people hanging out at any café that doesn’t boast all these selling points. Clearly, Seattleites aren’t easy to please—but you wouldn’t be either if you had as many options to choose from as they do.

I’ve still got a lot to learn about Seattle, but I feel like I’m really starting to get a grasp on the people here. Now I just have to figure out how to earn their friendship.