Typical of teenagers, Justin Oba skipped high school. But he was no mall rat. Oba had eating on his mind, ditching class to catch a bus from his home in Tacoma to downtown Seattle to hang out at the Pike Place Market. With that kind of dedication to eating and adventure, this is who I want to lead my food tour.
“We’re going to eat our way through history,” Oba promised as we gathered for the early morning VIP Savor Tour of Pike Place Market.
Over three hours, we heard the story of the market that opened in 1907 for farmers to get produce to urban dwellers. We visited a dozen vendors along the way, eating fresh pupusas stuffed with crunchy chicharron (Los Agaves), Turkish pide (Miss Café), a Pacific Northwest take on authentic Southern biscuits (made with market cheesemaker Beecher’s Flagship at Honest Biscuit) and a juicy salmon burger crusted with savory rub from local celebrity chef Tom Douglas’ Rub With Love.
Staff at Pike Place Fish Market do the flying fish routine at the main entrance, below the famous red “Public Market Center” neon sign. It’s hard to miss. Guys in orange aprons holler out orders while throwing fish up to the counter where it’s wrapped and tossed back for customers below. That’s the show of Pike Place, gimmicky and quite recent in the ongoing history of the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction.
A huge sign at the entrance says: “Meet the producer.” I’d rather talk to the fishmongers and get the real story of the seafood beyond the fling and flash and that’s what I do.
“This is truly the heart and soul of Seattle,” says Oda.
While Pike Place Market is an excellent place to start, and I ended up in and around it several more times because you can eat and drink very well in this area, a weekend in Seattle establishes pretty quickly that this is a food town.
Come here to eat and you’ll be satisfied and craving more.
Ferry is the way to go. Clipper Vacations has daily direct sailings (twice daily from mid-May to mid-September) between Victoria B.C. and Seattle aboard the Victoria Clipper V. The trip is surprisingly smooth and takes under three hours. Treat yourself to a reclining seat in the upper deck Comfort Class section.
Where to Stay
The Inn at El Gaucho in the trendy Belltown nabe is walking distance to Pike Place Market and only a few blocks from the ferry landing at Pier 69. But it’s all uphill, so nobody will fault you for taking an Uber, Lyft or taxi.
I loved this vintage hotel. Once 22 apartments for retired members of the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, it’s reborn as 17 suites done in understated 1950s Hollywood bungalow style with upscale room amenities. Cozy up by the lobby fireplace for wine and nibbles each evening, or have a coffee and a fresh-baked, chewy cookie. Note: rooms are all on the second floor, so this is not an accessible stay.
Here are some of the memorable meals I savoured in the Emerald City, named for its year-round greenery and trees, not the Great and Powerful Oz:
Behind the quilted leather doors on the main floor of the Inn at El Gaucho building, enter the old-school word of curved banquettes, white linen and tableside-made Caesar salad. Tuxedo-wearing waiters serve dry aged steaks seared over coals prepared in a show of dining room theatrics thanks to the open kitchen. They also know their way around the hefty wine list of this reborn version of the 1953 original El Gaucho restaurant. The low-lit, curved bar with its upholstered front is like something out of a Rat Pack fantasy. How cool that innkeeper David Bayley used the same colour and style for the upholstered headboards in the Inn at El Gaucho rooms.
This privately owned movie house in the basement of the Inn at El Gaucho screens movies in a small cinema that feels like a members’ club for film lovers. It was the first theatre in the state to have a full bar and the truffle-butter popcorn is out of the world.
Pacific Northwest-meets-Greece in Belltown, at yet another eatery from celeb chef Tom Douglas. Part of luxury Swedish-inspired hotel next door, Hotel Andra, brunch at LOLA set me up for the day with steel-cut oatmeal topped with banana, cocoa nibs and walnuts and a side of yogurt swirled with Greek sour cherry jam. Mezes and made-to-order donuts? Why not? Or you could go for Tom’s Favorite breakfast: Grilled octopus, potatoes, sugar snap peas, fennel, onions and dill yogurt with a soft-poached egg.
Just down Western Ave. from Pike Place Market, newish Aerlume focuses on local farmers and purveyors for its menu, says executive chef Maggie Trujillo. With a stunning Puget Sound view and a firepit in the dining room, this is a gorgeous room. The view will be even better once the ghostly Alaskan Way Viaduct is finally demolished.
Ultra-crispy buttermilk fried chicken packs a triple taste of savory bird with sides of creamy garlic chicken schmaltz aioli and salty roasted chicken bacon jus, with Beechers’ white cheddar from the market melting into ancient grain risotto.
Named one of the Best New Restaurants in America by Bon Appétit, my favourite meal was at contemporary Korean steakhouse restaurant Joule, about 15 minutes by car from downtown in the hip Fremont neighbourhood. Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi work with less-familiar cuts of beef with outstanding results. And the prices are wallet friendly, too. My rich, six-ounce steak was $24. (Check your cheque, btw, many Seattle restaurants now automatically add a 20% “service charge” and you’ll see it on the bill.) My perfectly charred and medium rare bavette steak was packed with flavour, sliced and resting in an artichoke puree studded with truffled pine nuts. A pure umami bomb. Fresh steelhead trout with sunchoke, fennel and young coconut was equally impressive.
The new glass and metal Amazon Spheres headquarters looks like off-planet housing stuffed with a rain forest. But at the new Wilmott’s Ghost restaurant, located in one of the three spheres, crunch into thick Roman-style pizza made with earthbound authenticity. The shell-pink room is a pretty spot to rest tourist-weary feet. (Tip: download the Amazon Prime app and visit the Amazon Go Store nearby, the world’s first automated payment store. Not a cashier in sight. I picked up a box of Maldon salt and walked out. A few minutes later, I was emailed a receipt and my credit card was charged.)
A close second for top meal was Mamnoon, which focuses on contemporary takes on Syrian, Iranian and Lebanese-inspired dishes. Fried cauliflower with tahini, silken hummus, an amazing fattoush salad composed of bitter Belgian endive, celery root and sweet fennel were followed by Persian fish stew (ghalieh mahi bi polow). It hit a full range of tastes with confidence, with sweet-sour tamarind, cilantro, almonds, pistachios and saffron basmati rice. Anthony Bourdain ate here on his Parts Unknown visit to Seattle.
As Bourdain wrote in his 2017 Parts Unknown field notes on Seattle: “It was a foodie town long before the word foodie existed and will be when that loathsome term is long dead and buried.”
Linda Barnard’s stay was supported by VisitSeattle, which did not review or approve this story.