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.

So you want Thai food? Narrow that down.

Yesterday I drove to Bellingham for an assignment–more on that this weekend when the story gets published–and it gave me perspective on my new city life. Before now, I used to take day trips to the city–San Francisco, Portland–and come home to a comparatively sleepier place–Santa Cruz, Eugene. Now, counterintuitively, I visit smaller towns and come home to skyscrapers and the perpetual sound of sirens.

It’s one of the many things about city life that I still haven’t quite gotten used to. I’m still on sensory overload, trying to process all the ways my new lifestyle differs from run-of-the-mill suburban life.

Listmaking always helps.

  • Traffic. Ah, the traffic. I live about half a mile away from the Times office, yet it can take me up to 30 minutes to get home at the end of the day. Cars coming from downtown, Belltown and the Central District seem to converge on Denny Way, which bridges Interstate 5 and access to neighborhoods such as Ballard and Fremont. And it’s far from the only place that’s in total gridlock every single afternoon. It’s just as bad as, if not worse than, the traffic I braved in Silicon Valley the summer I worked at Palo Alto Weekly.
  • “LOOK! FREE PARKING!” Never have I been so excited to see these words. In downtown Seattle, free parking spaces are only slightly more common than unicorns or UFOs. They’re so thin on the ground that even veteran locals don’t know of any secret alleys or hidden lots. Rather than spending hours driving around trying to steal free spots, most locals will grin and bear it with a paid spot, taking care to get the most bang for their buck by running as many errands in a five-block radius as possible.
  • Too many options! As previously stated, if you say you want to grab Thai food near my apartment, you’re going to  have to narrow that down. I’ll probably never visit every single restaurant and shop on Queen Anne Avenue.