SEATTLE -- A woman pushes a baby stroller while wearing impossibly high heels. Another young lady sports a tiara, in the middle of the afternoon. A guy pedals a bicycle uphill while smoking a cigarette. Skateboards proliferate. So does purple hair.
And not one of these observations is exaggerated.
Seattle's Belltown neighborhood has emerged as one of the city's liveliest and most eccentric enclaves, luring both residents and tourists. It took a little time for this appeal to flower -- about 110 years, actually.
The region just north of downtown was briefly home to a prestigious hotel in the 1890s (President Teddy Roosevelt was its first guest), but that venture failed. In the early 1900s, a towering hill that stood
And Belltown never became much of anything. By the late 1970s, it was a tawdry neighborhood of nondescript apartment buildings, car-repair shops, union halls, motels and warehouses.
That began to change when artists were attracted by cheap rents and spacious floor plans. Then many of Seattle's downtown workers -- and certainly the young ones -- got weary of crawling in on congested freeways and living far from the city's action. As in Los Angeles, a ravenous appetite developed for high-rise housing in the
The new residents generated another layer of demand -- for decent food and drink, shops where you could find something more interesting than mall inventory, and wee-hours entertainment.
Its location is enviable, tucked between the central business district on the south and the Seattle Center, home to the Space Needle and a complex of museums, on the north. It is right next to the popular Pike Place Market, is a couple of steep blocks from the Elliott Bay waterfront, and is within walking distance of the shores of Lake Union.
Some of Seattle's best dining has taken root in this neighborhood, including three restaurants of Tom Douglas, the city's most celebrated chef: Dahlia Lounge, Serious Pie, Lola's. Also here is Scott Staples' superb Restaurant Zoe. (For a comprehensive look at Belltown dining, accompanying story.)
The impressive Olympic Sculpture Park recently opened in the neighborhood's northwest corner, while over at Lake Union, a wooden-boats preservation group provides free sailboat rides on Sunday afternoons.
But any visit to Belltown will begin (and likely end) on First Avenue, its pulsing heart. The wide sidewalks allow room for outdoor tables at just about every establishment, plus shady trees and plenty of room for the throngs of pedestrians. That's where all the aforementioned eccentricities played out.
It extends to the businesses, too. It's initially jarring to happen upon the Army & Navy Surplus store (2112 First) and behold window displays that include a 50-caliber machine gun and wild-eyed soldier mannequins. (But in this neighborhood, the combat fatigues and cargo pants rate as high funk.)
Over at El Gaucho steakhouse, the basement has been turned into Big Picture Seattle, where patrons may first relax at a full bar and then step into a small movie theater with a cocktail or a glass of wine in hand.
The shopping component is not yet particularly strong along this street, perhaps because landlords have learned that the money pours in more quickly from nightclubs. "The last couple of years the club scene has really hit hard," said Staples, the chef-owner at Zoe. "It's been more of a detriment than anything. It's the kind of crowd the clubs bring in."
But that doesn't really impact the visitor who wants to stroll these streets during the day or swing through for lunch or dinner.
The dining establishments along First are independent and all over the map. There is Northwest cuisine at the Flying Fish (2234) and the Queen City Grill (2201), Japanese at Umi Sake House (2230), Mexican at Tia Lou's (2218), Polynesian at Ohana (2207), Thai at Jai Thai (2132) and French at Le Pichet (1933).
Many of these businesses are housed in buildings that date to the late 1800s, and restoration projects have allowed their character to flower: weathered brick, architectural flourishes and a gamut of windows that includes plate glass, transom, clerestory and stained glass.
It's clear that from the very beginning of this neighborhood, there were residences above the street, businesses in the storefronts, as is the case today. And some vestiges of Belltown's former life remain -- the Catholic Seamen's Club, for example, and Dean Transmissions.
The steep slope to the waterfront provides superb views at every intersection -- of pleasure boats and ferries and the occasional gargantuan cruise ship gliding by.
We headed down to this edge of Puget Sound for an invigorating walk up to Olympic Sculpture Park, an outdoor display of 21 sculptures from the collection of the Seattle Art Museum. It opened in January, and it is a wonder.
The park spreads out over an area of natural slopes and shelves on both sides of busy Elliott Avenue. It provides a real sense of discovery as you meander through its various levels, finding works displayed in a grove of trees, in a field of wildflowers, on a steep bank above the road, and in an amphitheater-like depression below the park's pavilion.
The most striking work on display is Alexander Calder's "Eagle," a great red-steel bird that appears ready to wing its way over to Bainbridge Island. But we were also impressed with Richard Serra's "Wake," 10 copper-colored plates that seem to take on entirely different forms depending on the angle from which they're viewed.
More comical was a concrete bench that -- zounds! -- turned out to be part of the collection. A plaque described artist Roy McMakin's "essential forms that balance proportion, construction and image in equal measure." Right. It's a bench. People sit on it. And a bird appeared to have perched on its back to render its own bit of art criticism.
Elsewhere, bright-orange chairs (which I don't think were art), faced west and offered commanding views of the sound and the snow-topped Olympic Range in the distance.
Another pleasant outdoor diversion on a visit to Belltown is a walk to the southern shore of Lake Union, where a ramshackle building houses the Center for Wooden Boats. There, a nonprofit group tries to spark interest in maritime history and classic water craft by taking a few folks out in sailboats every Sunday afternoon. For free.
There are sailings at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., and you must sign up in person beginning at 10 a.m. On the day we visited, all of the slots were taken within 75 minutes.
The sky was patchy blue and the temperature was in the 80s -- about as good as it gets in this city -- when eight of us set out aboard the 45-foot Getaway, said to be a replica of "a New Haven oyster-tonging sharpie." Another 15 folks rode in the 100-year-old Admirable, a Bristol Bay gillnetter that once was used to scoop up salmon -- at least until gillnetting was prohibited for most fishermen.
It was wonderful being out on the small lake, catching gentle breezes with our two sails, and dodging floatplanes, power boats, kayakers, wind surfers and other sailboats. Our captain took us over to where the houseboat scenes were filmed in "Sleepless in Seattle." The views of the city skyline and the Space Needle were spectacular from the water.
Back on dry land, and back in Belltown, an afternoon can readily be spent poking around in some of the shops. There is women's apparel and home and garden adornments at Endless Knot (2300 First); sleek, modern office supplies in bold colors at Paperhaus (2008 First); and architecture books at Peter Miller (1930 First). Mid-century modern furniture is on display at Chartreuse (2609 First); a sign on the door lists business hours for Wednesday through Sunday, and adds of Monday, "by chance."
Wherever you roam in Belltown, you're likely to find company -- in the person of down-and-out souls, begging for spare change or sleeping in doorways beneath sheets of cardboard.
"There are reasons for it," said Richard Bridges, executive director for the Millionair Club Charity, which endeavors to match street people with day-labor jobs. "Back in the late '70s and early '80s, the city decided to clean up Pioneer Square (on the south side of downtown). They felt that was going to be the tourist place. They got all the nonprofits (aid organizations) to move out to Belltown. There are 17 nonprofits in Belltown now. They were all here before Belltown decided it wanted to be something."
So Bridges is amused when he hears complaints about an unsavory element. "It's like buying a home next to an airport," he said, "and then after awhile saying, 'Why is that airport here? Why didn't they put it someplace else?' "
Seattle's primary gathering places were somewhere else for more than 100 years. Only then did Belltown begin to acquire the character that made it a desirable place to congregate. For all sorts.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: The Belltown neighborhood is directly north of Seattle's business district, bordered on the south by Stewart Street, on the north by Denny Way, on the east by about Sixth Avenue, and on the west by the waterfront.
ART: Olympic Sculpture Park, part of the Seattle Art Museum, is at the extreme northwest corner of Belltown. It occupies two square blocks, between Alaskan Way and Western Avenue (at Broad Street). It will beis open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Sept. 30, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Oct. 1 to April 30. www.seattleartmuseum.org.
SAILING: The Center for Wooden Boats offers free sailboat rides every Sunday afternoon. Reservations are taken in person only, beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday at the center, 1010 Valley St., on the south shore of Lake Union. The boats go out at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. for one-hour sails, and there are about 40 spaces available for the day. www.cwb.org; (206) 382-2628.
LODGING: Modern Scandinavian decor and a flawlessly friendly staff make the three-year-old Hotel Andra a profoundly comfortable place to spend the night in Belltown (there are few other lodging options in the neighborhood). It's also within easy walking distance of the Pike Place Market and the Seattle Center. The Andra's bed and bath linens are of high quality, and the lobby has the comfort quotient of a residential living room. The color scheme in our room was soothing: mocha wallpaper, white trim, Navy blue bedspread. The restored 1926 building has such classic touches as crown molding and windows that open, but the downside is small bathrooms and some slow shower drains. Low-season rates (October to April) from $247, high-season rates (May to September) from $289. Variety of packages available in the fall. 2000 Fourth Ave. (877) 448-8600; www.hotelandra.com.
DINING: Black Bottle, 2600 First Ave., (206) 441-1500, www.blackbottleseattle.com; Dahlia Lounge, 2001 Fourth Ave., (206) 682-4142, www.tomdouglas.com; Flying Fish, 2234 First Ave., (206) 728-8595, www.flyingfishseattle.com; Le Pichet, 1933 First Ave., (206) 256-1499, www.lepichetseattle.com; Lola, 2000 Fourth Ave., (206) 441-1430, www.tomdouglas.com; Macrina, 2408 First Ave., (206) 448-4032, www.macrinabakery.com; Queen City Grill, 2201 First Ave., (206) 443-0975, www.queencitygrill.com; Restaurant Zoe, 2137 Second Ave., (206) 256-2060, www.restaurantzoe.com; Serious Pie, 316 Virginia St., (206) 838-7388, www.tomdouglas.com.
INFORMATION:The Belltown Business Association's Web site is www.belltownbiz.org. It has walking guides that may be ordered at (206) 448-9100 or picked up at tourist racks around town. Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site is www.seeseattle.org/visitors.THERE'S NO SHORTAGE OF DIVERSE DINING IN BELLTOWN
SEATTLE -- Exceptional local seafood and a wealth of small farms contribute to some first-rate dining in Seattle. But in shaping the parameters of Northwest cuisine, restaurateurs have reached the inevitable conclusion that less is more.
"The older I get, the less chefy I get," said Tom Douglas, the Seattle impresario who has three of his restaurants in the Belltown neighborhood. "You have to step back and let the pristine ingredients shine. My cooking now is much simpler. It's now about the glory of the fish."
Simple yet exquisite preparations can be found all over Belltown; the neighborhood, in fact, is emerging as foodie central in the city. A visitor cannot go wrong at any of these establishments:
Restaurant Zoe: Chef-owner Scott Staples is a champion of the independent farmers whose wares can be found at more than a dozen farmers' markets in the area. He brings them to bear in some inventive preparations that showcase the available seafood.
A pan-seared Alaskan halibut entree, for example, was accompanied by English pea puree, oyster mushrooms, pickled cippolini onions, a carrot vinaigrette and, just for a jolt of saltiness and smoky flavor, bacon lardons. An unusual seafood cut -- skate wing -- was crusted with cornmeal and served with fingerling potatoes, leeks, clam veloute and prosciutto (there's that jolt again).
For dessert, the chocolate pot de creme was heavenly, primarily because of the luscious, fresh Northwest bing cherries within.
Zoe, with a comfortable, airy interior, has big windows that peer out from its corner location -- on Second Avenue, and thus pleasantly removed from the hubbub of First Avenue.
Dahlia Lounge: This is Douglas' finest restaurant in Belltown. Whatever you have as a main course, be sure to save room for the signature coconut cream pie, which comes with great shavings of coconut meat -- not the little threads found in the home kitchen.
We particularly enjoyed lemon-scallion Dungeness crab cakes with avocado Hollandaise, flying fish roe and stir-fried pea greens. And, for a departure from Northwest seafood for a night, there was a wood-roasted suckling lamb from California's Anderson Valley, the hearty flavors complemented with fava beans and ricotta ravioli.
It's clear that a high priority is placed on service here.
Serious Pie: This is a casual lunch spot, operated by Douglas (with similarly good service), but you've probably never had pizza quite like this.
One pie was adorned with Penn Cove clams, house-cured pancetta and lemon thyme. Another had artichokes, anchovies, incredibly ripe tomatoes and pantaleo leaves (similar to arugula). As fine as both were, we couldn't help casting greedy eyes at the pizza delivered to the table next to us: hot coppa with soft egg and dandelion greens.
This is a very popular place. Plan on arriving early on a weekday; not long after noon, every seat was filled at the communal tables and the tall bar tables. The enticing smells from the wood-fired oven will guide you in the door.
Flying Fish: You know you've found a great spot when you peruse the lunch menu and realize that each of 10 different items sounds terrific. We went for a crispy monkfish sandwich on a toasted baguette and halibut fish and chips, and both met expectations.
The Flying Fish, one of the restaurant pioneers in Belltown, proclaims on its menu that its raw ingredients are either farmed organically or harvested in the wild.
Queen City Grill: A late, light supper was enjoyed here: roasted-beet salad with three-cream bleu cheese, along with a glass of Andrew Rich syrah from the Northwest. The place has a great, throwback feel, with dark booths, apricot-hued sconces, and standards sung by Michael Buble and others on the sound system.
Black Bottle: The offerings are strictly small-plate at this relatively new place, and some of the sidewalk tables pick up a view of Elliott Bay -- a great spot for late-afternoon nibbles. But the operation is a bit rocky yet; we twice stopped by and couldn't find anyone who knew for sure whether they had opened up yet, or whether the full menu was available.
One hearty small plate is lamb skewers with cucumbers, tapenade, pita wedges and yogurt sauce. The meat is pinwheels -- not the finest cut, but it will knock down a hunger. Seven-spice shrimp packs a wallop, but much of the shell is still on, so it's a bit of a chore getting to the good stuff.
Le Pichet: For a Parisian fix, head in here for lunch -- and be sure to wait for the list of specials. On our visit, it was a delicious quiche of smoked salmon, gruyere cheese and leeks. For starters, try the goat cheese and tomatoes baked on a baguette and accompanied by arugula, green beans and nicoise olives. Another nice choice is the simple salade verte with a vinaigrette of mustard and great big hazelnuts. Wine is served in demi-pichets -- a bit more than a glass.
Lola: We've only eaten breakfast at this restaurant, a Tom Douglas place attached to the Hotel Andra, but the offerings at lunch and dinner look equally tempting. Get a hearty start on the day with the Greek-themed breakfast items, including a zucchini omelette with spicy coppa, feta cheese and fried-up garlic mashed potatoes. Serious temptation (maybe next time): made-to-order doughnuts with jam and mascarpone cream.
Macrina: All of those professionals living in the new high-rises demand a proper cup of coffee, and this little bakery addresses the imperative, serving its gourmet joe in big mugs with saucers instead of those infernal paper cups.
The bakery is next door, and it churns out fruit muffins, citrus-oat scones, buttermilk biscuits with fruit filling, quiches and coffee cake. But we can personally vouch for the flaky, buttery orange-hazelnut pinwheels -- mercy!
The ambience is wonderful here, too: a vintage storefront, bare concrete floor, weathered-wood counters, chalkboard menus, and plain wooden chairs painted colorfully.-- Eric Noland