Thanks to a fervent locavore ethos and booming tech scene, the city is shedding its rough-and-rugged mantle and becoming a capital of innovation.
April 13, 2018
There’s a saying in Seattle that only tourists and transplants carry umbrellas. I am here to attest that this is not true. Every time the clouds gather and the rain starts, this third generation Seattleite reaches for one of the many umbrellas stashed in my car, office, or apartment. If there’s one thing us locals have developed a skill for, it’s debunking stereotypes. Yes, the drizzly weather, Starbucks coffee, and grunge music iconography of the ’90s still fuel outside perceptions, but Seattle’s legacy of innovation places it at the forefront of the future.
Powered by the expansion of tech behemoths such as Amazon and Microsoft, both of which are headquartered in the region, industries are booming, from technology and health care to architecture and the arts. Most of all, the city is still building itself with the trailblazing spirit of adventure and creativity it was founded on.
Seattle had its first boom in the late 1800s, when prospectors of the Klondike Gold Rush would stop through to gear up for the brutal trek. The rush lasted only a few years, but the entrepreneurial, pioneering nature that fueled it would linger for decades to come. Boeing was founded here, and during the 1962 Century 21 Exposition, more than six-and-a-half million visitors turned out to look at the future possibilities of space and science. The fair saw the construction of the Space Needle (my grandfather was a lead ironworker on the project), which is currently undergoing an extensive renovation by local architecture firm Olson Kundig. The project includes the addition of floor-to-ceiling glass on both the interior and exterior spaces, and a first-of-its-kind rotating glass floor.
Less than a mile away is South Lake Union; formerly a ghost town full of parking lots and warehouses, the area has become nearly unrecognizable since Amazon’s urban campus arrived, eight years ago, bringing with it upscale apartment buildings, breakout restaurants, and high-end furniture stores like Ligne Roset and Inform Interiors. In January, Amazon opened the Spheres, a triple-domed glass structure that’s being touted as the city’s next landmark, albeit one not open to the public. With 40,000 plants from 30 countries, aquariums, a waterfall feature, and restaurant from James Beard–award winning chef Renee Erickson, it’s billed as the future of office design. The Spheres, like Amazon itself, has been a source of constant controversy—many longtime residents feel that the rapid growth and swiftly evolving neighborhoods are turning the city into a soulless corporate playground. Things have changed, yet the continual flow of transplants has also been a boon for the economy and a creative fabric that grows more diversified by the day.
“We have the traffic congestion and affordability challenges, but in the end, we are a far more interesting and sustainable community than we’ve ever been,” says Scott Redmond, president of Sellen Construction, whose projects include the Spheres, the Museum of History and Industry, KEXP radio station’s headquarters, and hundreds more. “The influx of people from around the world has really helped the culture and design scenes flourish.”
Creativity and experimentation, once centralized in Capitol Hill, has spread to new territories. The century-old buildings of historic Pioneer Square are now inhabited by artist studios and startups. The former fishing enclave of Ballard is home to galleries, boutiques, and theater spaces. Olson Kundig, Suyama Peterson Deguchi, and Graham Baba are among the local architects responsible for shaping the look of modern Seattle, closing the book on the era of beige interiors and bland office towers and ushering in a renewed focus on sustainable design that fits into its surroundings. “We live in one of the most beautiful natural areas in the country, and many architects and designers are embracing a material expression of that through the use of wood, glass, and steel,” Redman says.
Intrepid young chefs are playing with flavor profiles and widening the culinary scope, building upon the locavore movement started by chefs like Matt Dillon and Cormac Mahoney, who butchered their own meat at the now-shuttered Madison Park Conservatory, and Maria Hines, a leader in promoting the names of farmers and fishers on the menu at Tilth, one of the first in America to be certified organic by the Oregon Tilth organization.
“Thankfully, so many people are paying attention to where their food is coming from and how it is being produced,” says Erickson, who serves ingredients sourced from her own farm on Whidbey Island at her six restaurants. “Seattle has a pioneering spirit in how we think about food.” That, and much much more.
Last October, Seattle was declared a City of Literature as part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, so it’s no surprise that the Rem Koolhaas–designed Seattle Public Library is a popular stop for both locals and visitors. The downtown branch opened in 2008 to much uproar from citizens, many of whom thought the architecture was too modern and oppressive. Fast-forward a decade and the angular glass-and-steel structure is one of the city’s most beloved buildings. For those interested in the issues surrounding the built environment, a trip to the city isn’t complete without a stop at the Center for Architecture & Design, Seattle’s only public venue dedicated to hosting exhibitions and discussions on a wide range of design-related topics, from model shows and urban planning to lectures about the architect’s role in society.
During the warmer months Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park offers unrivaled views of Elliott Bay, and is the perfect place to bring a picnic dinner. Designed by New York City–based firm Weiss/Manfredi, the park contains three separate sites connected by a Z-shaped grass platform and sculptures and installations by the likes of Richard Serra, Teresita Fernández, and Alexander Calder. Obligatory museum visits include the Frye Art Museum and Henry Art Gallery. Both organizations champion contemporary art and give platforms to emerging talent. The Henry, located on the University of Washington campus, was the first art museum to open in Washington State, and has shown major names such as Chuck Close, Paul McCarthy, and Ann Hamilton. Bonus: Don’t miss the site-specific James Turrell Skyspace, especially during the sunny summer months. The Frye is a vanguard for inclusionary programming, with past exhibitions from artists including Kahlil Joseph and Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes. Housed in a concrete Olson Kundig building, it’s a store that stocks a unique mix of items from local designers and makers.
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Dale Chihuly is a cultural lightning rod (a Google search reveals court battles with apprentices and firestorms over off-color remarks), but, all controversies aside, the Washington native’s four-decade career has revolutionized the craft of glass-blowing and paved the way for glass artists to sit on an international arts stage. Sitting in the shadow of the Space Needle, the centerpiece of Chihuly Garden and Glass is a 40-foot-tall glass-and-steel structure that looks like an abstract greenhouse, complete with eight galleries full of the master’s work. Just across the Seattle Center campus is the headquarters of KEXP, the city’s beloved independent radio station, launched in 1972. The space features a large central hall for performances and events (complete with a window into the DJ booth), a room for in-studio performances, and, because music and espresso go hand-in-hand in this city, the first coffee retail concept for Italian espresso machine maker La Marzocco.
In some parts of town, veering off the main road can lead to the best surprises, as is the case with Glass Box Gallery, which sits in an industrial hub just south of the International District. Opened four years ago by artist Weston Jandacka, the gallery is home to a rotation of avant-garde exhibitions, pop-up shops, dinners, and installations. Like many in the creative community, Jandacka champions authenticity and innovation—exhibitions at Glass Box have included virtual reality, neon art, video, and interior design dreamscapes.
This city has never been known for its sartorial prowess. Yes, it’s the birthplace of high-end fashion retailer Nordstrom, but say “Seattle” and the first clothing brands likely to come to mind are outdoor gear meccas Eddie Bauer and REI. Counted among these homegrown adventure-seeking outfitters is Filson, the 121-year-old retailer that started its legacy equipping miners on their way to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. Despite still offering high-performance apparel for fishing, hunting, and other tough-weather activities, Filson has become a popular cool-kid uniform for everyone from photographers to CEOs. Recently the company opened a flagship store in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood. Replete with a giant salvaged wood trellis, high exposed beams, and an 18-foot modern totem pole by local sculptor Aleph Geddis, the shop embodies Seattleites’ laid-back approach to building a wardrobe: function and fashion always go hand in hand.
Drive north on 1st Avenue and, just before you hit Pioneer Square proper, is Division Road, a heritage menswear boutique that fittingly captures the Northwest aesthetic. A study in neutrals, much of the stock comes in a palette of gray, navy, black, and brown, so it’s easy to whip together an interchangeable wardrobe of simple, high-end pieces from brands such as Dehen 1920, Viberg, and Wesco. Also in the neighborhood is Peter Miller Books, the city’s only bookstore dedicated solely to design. Last year Miller lost his former Belltown shop and returned to Pioneer Square, where he had launched the business more than 30 years ago. Browse rare and out-of-print titles, and snag one of Miller’s two explanatorily named cookbooks: Lunch at the Shop and Five Ways to Cook Asparagus: The Art and Practice of Making Dinner.
While you’d be hard-pressed to see someone teetering around town in stilettos, it’s not all hiking boots and fleece zip-ups. With the recent rush of global transplants, Seattle has undergone a serious style upgrade. People here crave simplicity—high-end fabrics, local designers—and a few well-constructed pieces go a lot further than fast-fashion trends. Baby & Companyhas been a mainstay, stocking its racks with European designers and vintage wares. Current owners Jill and Wayne Donnelly still offer their customers a mix of cult classics and cutting-edge styles (from Ter et Bantine to Fred Perry), and are known to mount eye-catching window displays and host art-centric events. Totokaelo is another popular shopping destination, housed in a white-walled, hardwood-floored space on Capitol Hill. Minimal décor keeps all eyes on the chic offerings (think Acne Studios, Céline, Dries Van Noten), and the Art-Object section is full of enviable items for the home.
Limited-edition release events draw sneakerheads to Likelihood, a modern men’s shoe store designed by local firm Best Practice Architecture, done up with hexagonal tube lighting fabricated by artist Troy Pillow and a wall-mounted sculpture by Toronto-based artist Kelly Mark that playfully proclaims: I Called Shotgun Infinity When I Was Twelve.
Tap into the growing design scene at Join Shop, which opened last May in SKB Architects’ award-winning 400 Fairview building in the South Lake Union neighborhood. The boutique is the brick-and-mortar iteration of Join Design, a collective of more than 60 independent makers including furniture and accessory companies Fruitsuper (founders Sallyann Corn and Joe Kent launched the shop), Grain, Iacoli & McAllister, and dozens more. This summer, the anticipated arrival of Blu Dot will bring the brand’s minimalist furniture to Capitol Hill.
Seattle’s sleepy hotel landscape got a jolt when the Thompson Seattle premiered in 2016 within walking distance of the Seattle Art Museum and Pike Place Market. Designed by Olson Kundig, the exterior looks like a stacked set of glass rectangles, while the midcentury-inspired interiors are the handiwork of Studio Munge and Jensen Fey. Locally based Huxley Wallace Collective conceptualized Scout, a seafood-centric restaurant with a wood cabin–framed private dining room dotted with light pendants by Erich Ginder. A giant stuffed bear upholstered in plaid flannel greets guests. At the rooftop bar, craft cocktails are served in a glass-walled box and on a terrace studded with fire pits overlooking Puget Sound. Groups should order the Flamingo, a popular punch finished tableside with a splash of brut champagne.
One of the oldest hospitality establishments in the city and a stomping ground for musicians and artists, Hotel Sorrento received a breath of fresh air when the 76-room stay was renovated, three years ago. Book one of the two suites individually designed by local designers Brian Paquette and Tamara Codor, and Sterling Voss of Codor Design. In addition to the lobby-level cocktail bar and Fireside Room, regular programming includes silent readings, live music, and literary events. Another classic worth checking out is the original Ace Hotel, which came onto the scene in 1999 and has since spawned a legion of imitators set on replicating its casual-cool culture. The Seattle location has gone on to inspire the look and feel of the seven other properties around the country (and one in London). From the preserved hardwood floors and loft ceilings to repurposed furniture, whitewashed brick walls, and custom artwork from the likes of KAWS and Shepard Fairey, the Ace captures the laid-back spirit of Seattle, shot through with a creative twist.
One of Seattle’s best attributes is its close proximity to the numerous islands that dot Puget Sound. A 25-minute ferry ride away, the Lodges on Vashon is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Jena Thornton and Scott Shapiro. The 16 freestanding prefab units by S+H Works are infused with a Scandinavian feel, although everything was crafted by island-based artisans, from the soaps to the coffee. An open-air pavilion outfitted with a concrete fire feature serves as a communal space where guests can hang out on summer nights.
Riding the crest of the new hotel wave, this summer Paligroup will open its first property outside of California, Palihotel Seattle. Slated to open in the heart of downtown, the 96-room project will inhabit the historic Colonnade Hotel building, and its Hart and the Hunter restaurant (a concept from chef Kris Tominaga) is set to serve up Southern-influenced eats, including the fresh-baked biscuits LA Timescritic Jonathan Gold famously raved about in a 2013 review.
RESTAURANTS & BARS
The bedrock of gastronomy in Seattle is predicated on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable ingredients, but more and more chefs are getting creative with flavors. Take Steven Han’s Girin, a Korean steakhouse and ssam bar located in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. Girin, which serves dinner nightly and lunch on select weekdays, is a departure from his two previous restaurants, which serve Japanese cuisine. Both the menu and the design take inspiration from Korea—central to the 125-seat dining room is a structure for VIP seating that resembles a Korean farmhouse, framed with locally sourced fir timbers and rafter poles. Before you go for a specialty cocktail, consider makgeolli instead. Served in a brass drinking bowl, it’s a fermented rice drink and Korea’s oldest spirit. The tangy, fizzy alcohol is brewed in just two locations in the U.S., and Girin happens to be one.
A five-minute walk north is one of Seattle’s favorite brunch haunts, The London Plane. The brainchild of chef Matt Dillon, this light-filled space on the corner of Occidental Square is part café, part specialty foods grocery, and part floral workshop. It’s the perfect place for simple, fresh midday fare ranging from Mediterranean-inspired entrées to pastries baked in-house. Organic produce and eggs are sourced from Dillon’s Old Chaser Farm, just a half-hour ferry ride away on Vashon Island.
Up on Capitol Hill, hometown culinary star (and 2016 James Beard Award winner in the Best Chef Northwest category) Renee Erickson has quietly taken over a strip of E. Union Street with two French-inspired restaurants and General Porpoise, a quirky but delicious doughnut shop. Bateau and Bar Melusine are the latest additions to her empire, which also includes The Walrus & Carpenter and The Whale Wins. Bateau’s simple black-and-white palette gives off an elegant farmhouse vibe, the perfect Seattle backdrop for a high-end steakhouse. With beef sourced from her farm on Whidbey Island, about an hour away, Erickson serves up around 30 cuts of meat each day. Over at Bar Melusine, the crisp green-and-white décor feels appropriate to the menu, teeming with the maritime flavors of Brittany and Normandy.
Tucked away on the other side of Capitol Hill is Foreign National, an upscale speakeasy-style pub serving nuanced drinks that turn classic cocktails and tiki favorites on their heads. With ingredients like jackfruit, green chili vodka, and star anise smoke, each sip is flavorful and bold, and the ’70s glam look (think lots of brass, dusty rose wallpaper, and yes, a gigantic disco ball) remains unrivaled anywhere in town. Don’t leave without ordering one of the small plates prepared by the chefs from Stateside, its French-Vietnamese big-sister restaurant next door.
Another Korean-inspired favorite is Revel, opened by chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, who met and fell in love while working in New York City for Alain Ducasse. A decade later they have their own kitchen—or four: other restaurants include Joule, Revelry, and Trove. Until the beginning of this year, Revel was located in Fremont, but the duo are currently in the process of moving operations to South Lake Union for a year during the renovation of their Fremont location.
And while one wouldn’t expect to find one of America’s best Southern restaurants in its northwesternmost continental state, Edouardo Jordan’s June Baby has been racking up the accolades since it opened, last April. To savor Jordan’s hearty Southern cooking, inspired by his Florida roots, journey to Ravenna, a quiet residential neighborhood just past the University of Washington. Here, Jordan turns out dishes such as chitlins with rice, fried chicken gizzards, and salt-and-pepper brisket. It’s a novel kind of cuisine for Seattle, but for Jordan, the ingredients and techniques trace back through his family history. The streamlined, modern space boasts open shelving lined with pickled vegetables, and the red-edged bar adds just a hint of flair—it’s simple, soulful, and authentic. Nothing’s more Seattle than that.
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Their Go-To Spots
“Bear the line for lunch at Il Corvo—it moves fast. The chef is a James Beard Award finalist—get the kale salad and any of the three pasta dishes on the menu that day. Marjorie is a restaurant inspired by owner Donna Moodie’s Jamaican upbringing and her mother’s flair for hospitality. Order whatever she recommends—though you can’t go wrong with the plantain chips, fresh burrata, and bourbon brioche bread pudding. The best dirty gay bar in the country is in Seattle. Grab a drink at Pony—any drink will do because honestly, you’re not there for the drinks.”
“One of my favorite things to do is to have breakfast at Pike Place Market and see the market open. Breakfast is available from 6 a.m., fresh produce and seafood start arriving at 7 a.m., and the official market bell is at 9 a.m. You get to see the merchants bringing in their merchandise—it’s special time to be at a quintessentially Seattle place. The city’s historical enclave is Pioneer Square. Here, it’s worth visiting our first skyscraper, the Smith Tower. The Chapel of St. Ignatius is a very meditative, sacred building on the Seattle University campus. When you walk inside that space and you feel the volume and how the daylight is sort of drifting into the chapel—it’s a special moment.”