“We call it grain-to-glass,” the nice young woman with the whiskey bottle says, explaining how her boss underwrote a harvest of locally-farmed barley grains and chaperoned them through a labyrinth of fermenters, distillers and oak barrels to their final resting place in my glass. And mouth.
Grain-to-glass. I chuckle silently while tapping the words into my phone; yet another sticky catchphrase reflecting the mania for all things artisanal in this erstwhile lumber town. In my few short days in Seattle, I’ve tasted bean-to-bar chocolate, sipped farm-to-cup coffee and flown in a custom-refurbished seaplane older than my parents. Known as the seat of A-list corporate kingdoms like Boeing, Starbucks and Microsoft, the Emerald City is also home to a thriving economy of detail-obsessed craftspeople. It has Fortune 500 cred and a pounding indie heartbeat, with all the dynamic, offbeat energy that pairing entails.
I laugh at “grain-to-glass,” but the truth is: I love the concept, just as I love Seattle’s summer weather, so crisp and cool you want to juice it. For your glass.
Most urban-planning experts will tell you Seattle’s white-collar wealth and abundance of artisanal culture are not at odds. In fact, they nourish each other – a fact I’m discovering while sharing a wine dinner with a group of veteran Microsoft programmers at the Hotel Max (620 Stewart St., 206-728-6299, hotelmaxseattle.com) in Downtown Seattle. My companions are, to put it bluntly, wealthy nerds; friendly and unpretentious and doing what wealthy people should do, i.e. pump money back into the economy as patrons of fine art. The art, in this case, is winemaking.
They recommend Woodinville wine country – located just 20 miles northeast of the city – for tourist day trips. “Over 80 bonded wineries out there,” a bearded coder tells me. “I like Quilceda Creek [Vintners]. The Cab is really special.”
A short walk from the well-trod tourist haunts at Pike Place, the Hotel Max is an ideal launch point for an exploration of Seattle’s homegrown delights. For starters, the neoclassical, 90-year-old property was purpose-built to house craftsmen and lumbermen who came to Washington to work in nearby forests and mills – it has “craft” in its DNA. As if to punctuate the hotel’s history, management hosts complimentary microbrew mixers in the lobby every evening from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Not a bad way to start the evening.
The hotel also boasts an excellent onsite restaurant, Miller’s Guild, specializing in handmade charcuterie, aged meats, barrel-aged cocktails and other fussy culinary treasures. The James Beard Award-winning chef, Jason Wilson, regales me with a funny story about the restaurant’s early days, when he fired up the restaurant’s impressive, two-story, wood-burning grill – dubbed The Inferno – for the first time. “We smoked the guests out of their rooms!” he says with a laugh. The problem was quickly corrected; during my stay at this charming property, I never so much as sniffed an artfully charred, 90-day dry-aged New York strip until I ordered one.
Just how “Seattle” is the Max? The owners have devoted an entire floor to Sub Pop records, the seminal indie music label that helped launch the careers of Nirvana, Soundgarden and other Seattle grunge legends. A life-size photo of Kurt Cobain is plastered on the door of my guest room, and I’m spinning a vinyl press of the Talking Heads’ 1983 LP Speaking in Tongues on the in-room turntable within minutes of unpacking my suitcase. Pure indie heaven.
Another benefit of staying at the Max is its close proximity to Capitol Hill, a leafy historical district just east of downtown that’s positively awash with indie coffee shops, craft cocktail bars, counterculture boutiques and other artisanal entertainments. Within 15 minutes of pedaling out of my hotel on one of the city’s ubiquitous, lime-green Pronto share-bikes (prontocycleshare.com), I’m neck-deep in Millennial hipsters at Neumos, one of the top indie music halls in the country (925 E. Pike St., 206-709-9442, neumos.com). Other must-visit destinations include Canon (928 12th Ave., canonseattle.com), a shoebox cocktail lounge with flat-out the most impressive arsenal of housemade bitters and tinctures I’ve ever laid eyes on, not to mention a fig-and-bacon-infused bourbon that makes for a memorable Manhattan; and Elysian Capitol Hill Brewery (1221 E. Pike St., 206-860-1920, elysianbrewing.com), where you can score a pint of the craft beermaker’s imperial pumpkin ale (the best on the market, IMHO) along with a full-service food menu.
Washington is a perfectly respectable beer state, but micro-distilling is where it really shines, with more than 40 small-batch producers. (That’s about 30 more than we have in Arizona.) Located just down the block from Elysian in a converted duplex, Oola Distillery (1314 E. Union St., 206-709-7909, ooladistillery.com) is the craft spirits wunderkind of Capitol Hill, with a tidy treasure chest of tasting awards and national write-ups belying its modest digs. The star of its product line – or, at least, its most novel offering – is a caramel-colored, barrel-finished gin, which took home a gold medal from the American Craft Distillers Association for its warm, maple flavor notes. The tasting program at Oola is disarmingly low-key; they simply pour you sips off a barrel-head in the warehouse. Cheers to that.
For coffee lovers, no visit to Capitol Hill – or Seattle, for that matter – would be complete without a detour through the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room (1124 Pike St., 206-624-0173, starbucks.com). Steeped in the delicious, consciousness-sharpening aroma of roasting coffee beans, this is where the world’s second-largest food retail chain experiments with new beans and roasting methods, and where it creates its “reserve” line of single-origin coffees. Visiting the roastery is a bit like, say, visiting the Coors factory in Golden, Colorado – in other words, precisely the kind of mass-consumption corporate “origins” experience that most Capitol Hill regulars would turn their nose at. Whatever. Starbucks’ reserve stash really is wonderful – liquid energy for the day ahead.
If you want to visit the Mesopotamia of craft coffee – i.e. the original Starbucks (1912 Pike Pl., 206-448-8762, 1912pike.com) – it’s a mere 10-block bike ride down the street from the roastery, near the legendary Pike Place Market (pikeplacemarket.com). A dense, multi-level warren of shops, produce stands, fishmonger arcades and restaurants built on a steep hill overlooking the Puget Sound, the market draws 10 million visitors annually and is the 33rd most visited tourist attraction in the world, so realistically, there’s no way you’re visiting Seattle and not spending a little time here. Long enough, at least, to snap a photo of yourself atop Rachel, the market’s enormous bronze-swine mascot.
Hopping on my Pronto bike, I take leave of the market and pedal four blocks to my lunch date at Lola (2000 Fourth Ave., 206-441-1430, tomdouglas.com), a Greek-ish, North African-ish, pan-Med bistro in the heart of downtown. Lola is the handiwork of Tom Douglas, who’s sort of like the Sam Fox of Seattle, a golden-touch impresario commanding an ever-expanding armada of popular restaurants, including the James Beard Award-winning, ultra-organic Dahlia Lounge (2001 Fourth Ave., 206-682-4142, tomdouglas.com) and the Yucatan-inspired Cantina Lena (2105 Fifth Ave., Seattle, 206-519-5723, tomdouglas.com). With its exotic but even-pulsed menu of gourmet kebabs, roasted vegetable spreads and juicy grilled meats, Lola is what might happen if Bernie Kantak took over a Pita Jungle, I muse between delightful mouthfuls of minty lamb leg.
I grew to love the Pronto bike-share system during my brief Seattle stay – it got me to and from a Mariners game at Safeco Field (seattle.mariners.mlb.com), saved me untold taxi dollars and helped burn off a few hundred of the empty calories I accrued at Canon – but it’s hardly the only interesting way to see the city. Operating a fleet of vintage de Havilland floatplanes, Kenmore Air (kenmoreair.com) is uniquely equipped to service the region’s chaotic maritime geography (see Orcas sidebar). Within minutes of boarding the six-passenger de Havilland on Lake Union in the city center, I’m floating above the famed Space Needle, ingesting greedy eyefuls of Seattle’s beauteous Y-shaped isthmus, with the Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington to the east. Kenmore’s Seattle Scenic Tour ($99) takes about 20 minutes and offers a more gobsmacking visual experience than the Space Needle – if you feel you must choose between the two.
Not that you need a bird’s-eye view to enjoy the majestic funkiness of the Emerald City. With the rhythmic slap-slap of my oar accompanying the deep throaty hum of the city around me, I’m crossing Lake Union on a kayak furnished by Northwest Outdoor Center (2100 Westlake Ave., 206-281-9694, nwoc.com), enjoying a crisp summer afternoon sullied only by a light haze hangover from a wildfire in Vancouver earlier in the week. (No Mt. Rainier glimpses for me this trip, unfortunately.) No matter – the paddle-by glimpses of Lake Union’s legendary houseboats make for great viewing, too. Packed along the shore like RVs at a Country Thunder show, the homes – some of which are two-story and quite large – rest on giant pontoons, the legacy of pre-regulatory Seattle settlers who claimed the lake and never left. Craft-homesteading, you might call it.
After an hour of paddling, I’m ready for a taco or six at the Agua Verde Cafe & Paddle Club (1303 NE Boat St., 206-545-8570, aguaverde.com), a popular organic Mexican restaurant located a short walk from a small pier where you can tie up your kayak or paddleboard. Popular with denizens of Seattle’s Ballard district – which is a little like Capitol Hill, only more boutique-oriented, with fewer drag shows – Agua Verde excels in mod-Mex cuisine with a Yucatanian flair, including bacalao cod tacos with creamy avocado. Is it farm-to-table? Hard to say. But like most everything in Seattle, it’s crafty.
THREE MORE MUST-VISIT CRAFT HAUNTS
Hearty, vegetarian, Asian-inflected fare near the Pike Place Market.
1526 First Ave., 206-486-2160,
Attention, chocolate addicts: your local solution for “bean to bar” goodies.
3400 Phinney Ave. N., 206-632-5100,
In Seattle, even the big resort restos are farm-to-table. If you do one big splurge meal, make it this ritzy Northwest-style Four Seasons eatery from celebrity restaurateur Ethan Stowell, featuring outrageously good tuna poke and some of the city’s choicest raw-bar options.
99 Union St., 206-749-7070,
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