Let’s Ignore the Hype: This Is the Best of the Best of Seattle
There's one thing the tech giants of Seattle can't express deliver, recode, disrupt, or add an "i" to — the beloved and tried-and-true classic bars, restaurants, and local hangs that keep the city's heart beating.
SEATTLE — I have spent the better part of my 43 years living in Seattle in a neighborhood just east of downtown. (I am not from the suburbs, nor will I ever be.) I have watched Seattle grow from a sleepy Pacific Northwest city characterized by grunge music and Boeing airplanes into a global metropolis transformed by Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon. I have experienced the explosion of Mount St. Helens, the demolition of the King Dome, the construction of floating bridges across Lake Washington, and the tear-down of elevated Highway 99, but none of this compares to watching Amazon (and others) remap the physical and cultural landscape of our city. So, when I tell you that Seattle has changed, and — oh, how it has changed — I have a lot of mixed feelings.
While I generally believe that new business and real estate development is good for this city (with the exception of the traffic and homeless population that have come with it), as a born-and-bread Seattleite, I can’t help but be loyal to the people, places, and businesses that remain on my short list of favorites and continue to influence this city, in spite of all that has changed. A new Seattle has emerged where this fabric of mainstays intersects with fresh, innovative businesspeople, and this new city continues to surprise me.
As a self-anointed ambassador of Seattle, I give you the keys to my favorite old haunts, the best new spots, and the truly amazing places that are straight up awesome and cannot be missed. Even if it’s raining. (And it will be raining.)
Lay of the Land
Seattle is a beautiful city surrounded by water and flanked by mountains. While compact, the city also feels spacious thanks to an abundance of parks, green spaces, and canals. Downtown sits on the shore of Elliott Bay, with Belltown to the north, vibrant Capitol Hill to the east, and Pioneer Square to the south. South Lake Union and the Amazon headquarters lie just northeast of downtown. If this is your first visit to Seattle, you would be well served by staying downtown, which is in walking distance to most everything. And if you feel like visiting one of the islands in Puget Sound, the terminal for the Washington State Ferries is a short walk away.
What to Do
For many years, independently owned Baby & Co. has been the go-to for Seattle’s fashion set searching for cutting-edge designs by small-batch designers like Harvey Faircloth, Odeeh, and La Prestic Ouiston. If you don’t spend all of your money at Baby & Co, stroll south to Pioneer Square and be prepared to fall in love with everything at Flora & Henri, a Seattle boutique that has been a mainstay for luxury home goods, clothing, and children’s apparel for 20 years.
After exploring Pioneer Square, hop on the Jackson Street light rail for the short trip up to Capitol Hill. Stop into Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle’s original bookstore), where creaky wood plank floors and tall stacks of books have drawn Seattle bookworms for decades. Next door, Totokaelo, my other favorite clothing store, is where I go to seek out pieces from Rachel Comey, Acne, Dries van Noten, Maison Martin Margiela, and more. They also have the best shoe selection in town. While no longer an independent retailer, Totokaelo maintains the soul of a local store. Finally, don’t leave the neighborhood without smelling all the good smells at Le Labo parfumer, and grabbing a cone at Frank & Jo’s, Seattle’s plant-based ice creamery.
What to See
If you want to see Seattle’s best and best-known cultural sites, start with riding the elevator up the newly refurbished Space Needle. It’s touristy, but if you’ve never been to Seattle, the bird’s eye view of the city cannot be beat. When the revolving glass starts to make you dizzy, descend the Needle and head next door to the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum, where world-renowned glass blower Dale Chihuly displays his incredible creations..
Take a cultural intermission with a coffee at La Marzocco Café, inside the neighboring KEXP Radio headquarters. Manufacturers of the finest espresso machines, each month they turn their machines and amazing space over to a new, renowned coffee roaster. (You already knew that Seattle was the home of America’s coffee culture, right?)
Once fueled-up, head down the block to the Museum of Pop Culture (formerly the Experience Music Project). Founded by Paul Allen in 2000 and designed by Frank Gehry, MoPOP showcases the rich musical history of Seattle — Quincy Jones, Jimmy Hendrix, Heart, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, to name a few — and hosts rotating music-themed exhibitions.
Live Like a Local
Tired of retail therapy? Had enough culture to last a lifetime? If it’s a sunny day, the best way to experience the true Seattle is with a lazy afternoon on the grassy knolls of Gas Works Park. Throw together a picnic from the vendors at Pike Place Market, or better yet, grab savory Chinese pastries from Mee Sum across the street from the Market (the best barbecue pork Hum Bao ever), and call an Uber to take you to Gas Works (ten minutes from downtown). Take in the expansive views of the city, watch boats and paddle boards glide by, and soak up the sun — that’s what we are all about.
Where to Eat
Award-winning chef Scott Carlsberg’s now closed Belltown restaurants Lampreia and Bisato were on Seattle’s short list of best restaurants for the better part of 20 years. He has resurfaced after a seven-year hiatus at a new and reimagined Bisato, located in what was once an Italian trattoria and institution on the in Pioneer Square dining scene. Bisato’s menu features refined dishes grounded in traditional Italian cooking. Carlsberg and his partners have reimagined the dining room as a contemporary altar to the cuisines, with a minimalist design featuring an open kitchen, dark wood paneling, and dim lights. Anything but distracting, the decor helps focus attention on the food — which is amazing. Incredible dishes like house-made burrata and tender and savory short rib braised in Barolo are just a few standouts from the seasonal menu. Be forewarned that Bisato is not the place where you will find a comforting, quick plate of cacio e pepe, but rather the perfect spot to experience a beautiful, long meal on a cozy evening.
Matt’s in the Market
Matt’s has been around for a long time, but when someone from out of town asks where they should eat, this is always where I send them. Across the street from the Pike Place Market on the second floor of the Sanitary Market building, Matt’s has a beautiful view over Elliott Bay and the hustle and bustle of the market below and serves some of the best Pacific Northwest fare in town. Matt’s began serving farm-to-table food long before the phrase became commonplace, sourcing ingredients from local farmers and foragers from the stalls below. Every day, the menu mixes the freshest, seasonal seafood with staples like homemade chips and dip and a barbecued pulled-pork sandwich. Matt’s is open for lunch and dinner daily, and serves brunch on weekends. Make a reservation, or take your chances waiting for a bar stool.
Located on the crest of Beacon Hill, a short drive from downtown, Homer quietly opened last August and has been packed ever since. Chef Logan Cox, formerly of Sitka & Spruce, has created a Mediterranean-influenced menu focused around a wood-burning fire. Meats and fish are grilled and seared to perfection, but the real standout are Cox’s vegetable dishes that sing with citrus and spices from the Middle East. An ingredient as simple as house-made pita bread is absolutely amazing paired with dishes of lamb ragu with tahini or labneh with dried tomatoes and mint. Don’t leave without trying the signature soft-serve ice cream with two rotating seasonal flavors. Homer doesn’t take reservations, so get there early or be prepared to wait.
These are my people and this is my place. I have been eating at this hole-in-the-wall, red-sauce Italian joint for more than two decades. During that time, the ownership has changed, but the menu, prices, and deliciousness of the food sure haven’t. Family favorites are spinach ravioli, lasagna bolognese, and pesto pizza. If you are off gluten but on beef, you are in luck, as Machiavelli serves one of the best filet mignons in Seattle. They don’t take reservations, so go early or be prepared to wait. (Tables tend to turn quickly.)
Another new darling in the Seattle restaurant scene is Sawyer, a small restaurant ten minutes north of downtown in the Ballard neighborhood. It may strive to be a neighborhood joint, but Sawyer’s is quickly becoming a destination for Seattle foodies who crave inventive comfort food so good and approachable that it’s no wonder the James Beard Foundation nominated it for Best New Restaurant in America. Not to be missed are pork belly buns and a animal-style burger. Reservations are highly recommended.
Thee oldest fine-dining restaurant in Seattle has been owned and operated by the Canlis family for 63 years and is routinely named the best restaurant in Seattle and the go-to for celebrating special events. Since it has been around forever, it should come as no surprise that much of the loyal clientele are of the octogenarian variety, who came of age in Seattle alongside the restaurant. Given such stature and longevity, no one was surprised a few years ago when Canlis brothers Brian and Mark decided to breathe new life into the restaurant by reimagining the space and the cuisine for the 21st century. The rebranding would require a new chef and a revamped the menu. Enter Brady Williams, a 28-year-old from Roberta’s in Brooklyn. While it may have seemed like a gamble to hire someone so young for an establishment so old, the vision has paid off: Williams was recently been nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest. Historically known for cutting-edge food (Canlis was the first restaurant in Seattle to serve Waygu beef) with a Pacific-rim flare (the Canlis family has Hawaiian roots), Williams has preserved many of their classic dishes while diving into the bounty of ingredients found in the Pacific Northwest. The result is a menu that is simultaneously timeless and avant-guard —exactly what Canlis is to Seattle. As a result of this fine balance, the old guard continues to show up at 5 o’clock for happy hour and Canlis Salads, while the new wave of Seattleites with deep pockets and sophisticated palates have taken notice and confirmed what we already knew, that Canlis is as current today as it ever has been.
Where to Drink
This tiny bar below the Pike Place Market was conceived by owner Bryan Jarr while traveling through the Basque Country of Spain. A narrow space with only a few tables and bar stools, Jarr Bar resembles a pinxto bar found in the Parte Vieja of San Sebastián. Serving small plates of cheese, charcuterie, tinned fish, and other seasonal bites, Jarr is a great place for happy hour. In addition to the small menu, they mix great cocktails and have an extensive wine list of interesting unfamiliar Spanish varietals. This summer, Jarr will open Little Fish with chef Zoi Antonitsas in the new annex to the Pike Place Market. Little Fish will be a modern-day craft cannery and restaurant that celebrates seafood in all its forms: canned, smoked, cured, and fresh. Local products preserved in the cannery will be served in the restaurant alongside a selection of tinned fish from all over the world.
Just a few blocks from downtown, on the lower slope of Capitol Hill, another tiny bar took the Seattle cocktail scene by storm when it opened three years ago. Foreign National, the sister bar to Stateside restaurant next door, is reminiscent of Saigon in the 1960s. Go for creative cocktails riffing on the Singapore Sling or a Scorpion Bowl, and be sure to order a few of the snacks produced by the kitchen next door.
Where to Stay
With all the development in Seattle, it should come as no surprise that there are several new hotels opening around the city. The two hot new boutique hotels a stone’s throw from Pike Place Market are Palihotel Seattle and The State Hotel. I stayed at both.
The Palihotel quietly opened last fall to considerable fanfare as the new favorite among small, design-oriented hotels in Seattle. On a recent stay, I regret to report that the Palihotel could use a fresh infusion of energy. While the service was friendly, they forgot to deliver my morning room service. All would have been forgiven had it not been for the sleepless night above the noisy street below. (Soundproof windows had clearly not been part of the building redevelopment.) That said, the interior design is stunning. The guest rooms are dark and sultry, with comfortable beds and clever fixtures like petite Smeg refrigerators stocked with locals spirits. The art-directed common areas are a great place to unwind with a cocktail. The décor of in-house restaurant The Hart & The Hunter is a feast for the eyes, with lots of brass, wood beams, and ceramic tiles. I could definitely hang out here, but I would be by myself. Every time I have visited, the restaurant has been empty, probably a reflection of the unremarkable food. (Time to get a new chef.) I really hope the Palihotel turns it around, because it has the potential to be a great spot for both locals and visitors. Furthermore, the rates are reasonable, and that’s always a welcome thing.
The State Hotel
Around the corner from the Palihotel is The State Hotel, which opened a few months ago. The locally owned, independent, boutique hotel occupies an historic 1904 brick building, whose features the developers wanted to preserve and repurpose while adding character and creative design to the interior spaces. The result is a hotel that Seattle should be proud of. The design captures the essence of the Pacific Northwest, with strategically placed art by emerging local artists. An abundance of natural light streams through the ceiling-high windows into the lobby and adjacent restaurant, Ben Paris, where foxes and pheasants dance from above — in a beautiful hand-painted mural by local artist Kyler Martz. If you can tear yourself away from the cocktail bar, take your drink upstairs to the roof deck, where you can watch the color of the sky change as the city turns on its lights. On the way down, be sure to check out the incredible custom wallpaper by Portland artist Kate Blairstone, who used the bounty of the Pike Place farmers market as the inspiration for her amazing designs. (Feel free to press every button the elevator: Every floor is different.) Guest rooms feature leather headboards, custom case goods, and incredibly comfortable mattresses. But the most important feature of the guest rooms is the absence of street noise – a detail that does not go overlooked by this sleep-challenged traveler. Ben Paris is an energetic all-day eatery that aims to become a neighborhood gathering place. The food is excellent, and features inventive twists on classic American fare. I especially loved the fried chicken in the evening and the potatoes in the morning. Clearly, a lot of local heart and soul has gone into The State Hotel. If you want to sleep like a local, this is where to stay.
When to Go
I am not going to sugarcoat this: Seattle is dark and damp in the winter months. But the upside of global warming (oy...) is that short, dark days are giving way to warmer temperatures in spring and summer, making May and June my favorite time to explore Seattle. Be forewarned that while high summer is grand, it is also when the cruise ships dock, bringing hoards of tourists to Pike Place Market and the waterfront. I would especially avoid visiting the first weekend in August, when Seattle holds its annual Seafair festival, a weekend filled with hydroplane races on Lake Washington, parades of pirates in the streets, and Blue Angels streaking through the skies.
How to Get There
SeaTac International Airport is twenty minutes from downtown and easily accessible by LightRail, Seattle’s new mass transport system, or Uber. No need to rent a car: Seattle is a great city to explore on foot, and Uber is readily available when you need a ride.
Keep Exploring Seattle
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Where Locals Eat, Shop, and Buy Weed in Seattle
A Chef's Tour of Seattle's 10 Best Restaurants