SIC x Seattle:
Old-school Seattle favorites, under-the-radar icons, food and entertainment options in our ever-expanding city.
There’s a lot of intrigue around Seattle right now – at long last, the rest of the nation has noticed us for something other than coffee and plaid! And while there’s a lot of excitement about what a swell place this is, if you’ve been confined to the six blocks around the Bezos Balls, you may not have a great sense of what, exactly, everyone is so stoked on.
Whether you’re a new resident or you’re just playing local for the week, it can feel like everything outside of, say, the Pike Place Market, is a bit of a (smokey) haze – and most guides of where to go will center around places where burly men throw fish and tourists stand in line for a tepid cup of coffee at the First (hint: it’s not really the first) Starbucks.
So where do you go when you want to see why everyone loves Seattle so much? Where are the frosty pints and fishermen, the grunge guys, the artists?
The truth is, most of them have long since cut off their grimy 90s hair and had to move their families down to Tacoma. But! Let’s not allow the narrative that Real Seattle Is Dead play on too long – because it’s just not true. There are no shortage of cool spots in this town. You just have to know which side streets and shortcuts to take.
We all get stuck downtown sometimes. Maybe it’s just two hours between a meeting, maybe it’s a full afternoon because you’re here for a convention and there’s only so much time you can bear sitting in traffic in a Lyft. It happens! While you’re here, and if you need a coffee, a snack, or an adult beverage (again, it happens!), here are a few of the spots downtown that are great.
Take cash to the walk-up window on Pike Street for an espresso (and maybe some attitude). Monorail Espresso is one of the original Seattle coffee joints, a holdover from the days when every corner in the city was dotted with carts (yes, carts!) serving lattes and caps but never fraps. If you wondered what Seattle was like in the 90s, Monorail is kind of it.
If you still need to spend some time wandering and learning, go to the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, another freebie. The Klondike Gold Rush Museum explores this history of Seattle’s role in, you guessed it, the gold rush, with photos and interactive stuff. It’s also technically a national park!
Tell no one that you’ve heard about Bernard’s, a place on Seneca that’s behind a heavy wooden door and down some stairs. Bernard’s is an in-the-know bar and restaurant under the Hotel Seattle where politicians and gadflies gather to gossip. The walls don’t talk at Bernard’s.
Biscuits are very hot right now and in Seattle and one particularly profane establishment has the goods. Yes, gentlemen, you are allowed to say the name Biscuit Bitch aloud, because that’s the name of this (now) multi-locational wonder. For a breakfast sandwich, any of BB’s locales cannot be beat.
If you’ve got time to kill and you want to take a stroll, head south toward Pioneer Square. There, you’ll find two beloved sites: first, the Waterfall Garden Park, a cool space of rushing water and shade that’s open to all during the day. This is a peaceful place to catch up on Twitter or have lunch and it commemorates the founding of the United Parcel Service, which was located at that spot.
If you don’t mind a steep hill (or hailing a cab to ride two blocks), you can quickly be transported from the Convention Center to the foot of Capitol Hill. There, you’ll find Li’l Woody’s, a burger chain (there’s also one in Ballard and in South Lake Union, not to mention White Center) that has rapidly become a Seattle favorite. This is not, like, an In N Out situation, though. Look for burgers will all kinds of creative toppings—interesting cheeses! Additional meats! Pickled veggies! An improbable number of extra meats! Did you want more meats?—as well as a fried chicken sandwich, a salmon burger, and even a veggie burger.
Take in a show at the Showbox at the Market, if only to assure that you can say you were there before it disappeared forever. The music and arts communities have rallied around this decades-old music venue -- and its sticky floors, low lighting, and unexpected steps that will definitely make you trip -- after it was announced that the property has been sold and the building slated for demo. Its future is in limbo, so go while you still can!
Another high-end option that’s firmly rooted in Seattle history is Aqua, by the same folks behind El Gaucho, which boasts gorgeous waterfront views and the kind of seafood you always expected everyone in Seattle always eats. Which, to be fair, we kind of do. Just not always at Aqua, which, with its $100 crab legs, is sort of a “use your boss’s credit card” kind of place.
If you’re looking for a place to charm clients or impress your boss, you’ve got plenty of options. Dinner choices in Downtown includes foodie favorites as the Pink Door in Post Alley or any number of Tom Douglas establishments like Etta’s, Lola, the Dahlia Lounge, or Serious Pie. Expect lots of locally-sourced produce you’ve never heard of -- have you experienced a fiddlehead fern yet? -- and mushrooms foraged straight out of the thick PNW woods.
You may see a little plaque around with a picture of a tree. The plaque designates one of more than 40 privately owned public spaces (POPS) in the Seattle area. These are guaranteed public spaces build into private developments and are meant to increase the accessibility of the city, even as it grows. They’re great places for lunch, meetings, or just to take a breather. You can find a map of them here.
Just north of Downtown proper is Belltown, an old-timey Seattle neighborhood that has all kinds of bars and eateries. Stroll First and Second Avenues for classic brick architecture, coffee shops, and bars, not to mention a glorious view of the bay. To quench your thirst, pop into a proper bar like Screwdriver (it’s literally in a basement and sells “mystery shots”), Shorty’s (it’s circus-themed so coulrophobes, beware), or Neon Boots, the newest trendy cocktail place and home of the Most Flattering Selfie Light in Town. Honestly, Belltown could be its own destination but that’s a story for another day.
If you want to stay close to the Convention Center but don’t want to stay in full-on Downtown, cut through Freeway Park – an architectural wonder that features fountains, foliage, and plenty of places to sit and decompress – to First Hill. Take the steps up into the neighborhood to find coffee shops, bars, and really cool trees.
Let’s start with a classic. Vito’s is a storied staple of Seattle since it re-opened in 2010. An underground cocktail bar rumored to have once been a mob meeting place in its first life, the atmosphere is dark and loungey and the food can’t be beat. Sometimes you just need a two martini lunch to a live piano, you know?
For a similar but more pizza-centric experience, head to Primo, a tiny joint in the ground floor of two apartment buildings. The hours can be a little spotty, but the late-night happy hour can’t be beat. There’s also an outdoor patio perfect for warm evenings and cold beers.
Walk up Madison for a very sweet treat. Sugar Bakery has coffee, snacks, sandwiches, and the kind of sugar cookies you never eat except when you’re traveling and you just need one. The owners, Quynh La Walton and Matt Walton bought the place in 2016 and have been keeping it humming since. Oh, and they accept Bitcoin so…if you’ve been meaning to unload some, you can do it on cookies.
Grab a bite on your way to your next breakout group at rising star chef Monica Dimas’s Little Neon Taco, newly opened on Boren. They’re just really good tacos.
If you’re on a liquid diet, so to speak, you can visit the Hideout, which, like Vito’s, is also owned by the King of First Hill, Greg Lundgren. The Hideout was originally supposed to be a popup art gallery, but then neighborhood loved it so much, it’s become a full-time establishment. Be sure to order an Andy Warhol!
**Sidebar: If you’re living that gluten-free life, march through Seattle University’s campus to Niche bakery on 12th for your fix of baked goods.
Though Pioneer Square likes to claim the title, historians consider First Hill to be, in fact, Seattle’s first neighborhood. Home to wealthy Catholics and lots of artists, it used to house some of the city’s official buildings. Lawmakers, lawyers, and the like used to have to trudge up and down from the waterfront and closer-in streets of downtown and, in all their huffing and puffing, the neighborhood was nicknamed “Profanity Hill.”
Frye Art Museum
Once you’ve eaten your way up and down the blocks of First Hill, head to the Frye Art Museum and just stroll on in – it’s free! The rotating exhibits often showcase local artists and the space has been a mainstay for up-and-comers for decades. The Frye also has a pretty beautiful little cafe if you just need a quiet moment to contemplate your day.
Also guess what? SIC attendees receive a 10% discount* at the Frye Art Museum Store. Show your badge to a sales associate! Offer is valid from Oct 16-21.
*Excludes consignment items, but still! Support the arts!
Go south on the light rail to experience one of Seattle’s landmarked business districts. Columbia City is diverse in pretty much every sense of the word and has a wide array of spots to eat and look and do stuff.
Grab brunch at the famous Geraldine’s Counter, a neighborhood cornerstone that often has a wait but is always worth it.
If you’ve got a minute for a movie, you can’t go wrong with the Ark Lodge Cinemas, which only has three screens and tends to show the films that have the most cultural buzz. Your seating options will look more like a movie night at Granny’s house than a summer blockbuster recliner but there are locally-sourced snacks and, occasionally, a cat who wanders in. His name is Felix.
Don’t go back downtown without stopping into Safari Njema for dinner. Yes, it’s housed in what basically looks like a strip mall – but don’t let that fool you! Walk in and expect one of the owners to start telling you what you want. Then, a massive plate of food will appear and you will eat it and you will be so happy you feel like you could die right then and there.
Flying Lion Brewery & more
If you have room (you won’t, but try!) after dining like a king on Kenyan cuisine, walk a few doors down and take your pick. Ice cream from Full Tilt? A flight of extremely local beer from Flying Lion? Or maybe something less local with a side of pinball at Hummingbird Saloon? All are good choices. Maybe just do all of the above.
Seattle has, like the rest of the nation, a tragic history of mistreating residents of Asian and Pacific Island descent. This is visible in the International District, where residents of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese descent live and have lived for decades.
The ID – which technically houses Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon – has been a populated by immigrant families for more than a century. At various points of Asian exclusion and internment, many of them lost their property and their wealth – but they continued to come back, building the neighborhood and the community.
Learn about this history and the incredible influence of Asian-Americans in Seattle at the Wing Luke Museum. This should be a requirement for all new residents and visitors and is well worth the trip.
Next, grab a sandwich or some dim sum at any of the restaurants up and down King Street or the numbered streets in the neighborhood. Among them: Purple Dot, Green Leaf Vietnamese, Pho Ba, or King Noodle.
The combination Chinese restaurant/karaoke bar is something of a Seattle cornerstone. Most neighborhoods have at least one place where you can get a whiskey sour, a plate of lo mein, and watch a big guy in a sweaty t-shirt singing Cher. But the ID has arguably some of the best versions of this. One must-visit is Bush Garden, which has been on the verge of closing for years but remains open as I’m typing this. Another is the Dynasty Room, which is a revival of an old-time dive that used to live in the back of a restaurant called the Four Seas. Neither is long for this world so you’d better go quick!
For a truly unusual (and enjoyable) experience, duck into a building that definitely looks closed, head up the stairs, and enter the wonderful, somewhat weird world of Fort St. George. The food at FSG is an amalgam of American cuisine (like hamburgers and spaghetti) and Japanese comfort food (think roe on everything). You can get one extremely stiff drink and watch a baseball game at the bar, or join together two larger tables and watch people play chess in the park across the street.
Pho (actually spelled Phở) is a Vietnamese noodle soup that Seattleites LOVE. Made with beef or veggie stock, pho is an inexpensive and sizeable meal that allows the patron to dress it up as they please. You can find pho in the ID, to be sure, but you can also find tiny pho restaurants in almost every other neighborhood, too. And it’s pronounced “fuh,” not “foe.”
Here’s the thing about Ballard – it’s a neighborhood of two worlds. Ballard gets recommended a lot to visitors because of the chic dining options (there are lots!) and many upscale cocktail bars, but if you want to get a taste of Seattle back when it was, well, a little grubbier, Ballard also has you covered.
The first tip is to go to Ballard on a weekend. If you go Sunday, there will be a farmer’s market that stretches for blocks and blocks. If you go on Saturday, you’ll actually be able to walk on the sidewalk without running into a toddler or an Australian Shepherd.
Also on the weekends, you can visit Hood Famous Bake Shop, another former pop-up that went full-time. Hood Famous specializes in Filipino treats and is also co-owned by Chera Amlag and Geo Quibuyen, who you may know as the Guy From The Blue Scholars. Many snacks here are purple, flavored by the ube root, which makes it a literally colorful experience.
If you want something that’s more in line with Ballard’s fishing town roots, visit either the Sloop (an extremely crusty bar where a person can “Sloopersize It” – don’t ask! Just do it!), Hattie’s Hat (“Ballard’s Last Stand”), or the Smoke Shop, which is a café/bar known for its salty servers and slam-dunk breakfasts. At the Smoke Shop, you may see guys fresh off the fishing boats. You’ll know who they are by their grizzled looks and fistfuls of cash. If someone rings the bell, everyone gets a round – and it really does happen sometimes!
Along Ballard Avenue, stop into any number of locally-owned shops for all kinds of goodies to bring home to friends. Gold Dogs, Tides & Pines, Prism, Jax Joon, and Horseshoe are all great places to find locally-made clothing, crafts, accessories, cards, gifts, and other cool stuff. Get an idea of where to stop in on Visit Seattle’s website.
If you want to learn about the fishing and shipping industries – both of which are very much still alive and well in Ballard – you can head to the Ballard Locks. This architectural wonder was built to help boats go from Puget Sound to Lake Union and continues to operate every day. There’s also a salmon ladder you can look at (it’s pretty neat) and a museum full of old photos and tiny boats.
Ballard was its own city for years, with its own city hall and its own police force. You can learn a lot more about Ballard’s roots at the newly-finished Nordic Museum, which is nestled in among the boats and the barges on the still-working waterfront.
This northern corner of Seattle often gets forgotten, in large part because people don’t go out of their way to go there. But they should! There are a ton of cute little spots all up and down Phinney and Greenwood (which are basically the same street but there’s a turn and it’s just a whole thing) to see and do.
You have your pick of coffee shops in this little commercial district. You can’t go wrong with Herkimer or, for a slightly offbeat experience, Makeda & Mingus, a community-centered cafe that’s often full--FULL--of dogs.
At the north end of the Greenwood corridor, you’ve also got plenty to choose from. The Baranof is a classic dive with jello shots and karaoke most nights (just keep walking through the empty restaurant toward the noise), North Star Diner is a 24-hour cafe with (you guessed it) a karaoke lounge and bar next door, and Naked City is a longtime brewery that’s family-friendly and has great food. Take your pick.
For folks with kids or pets in tow or who just prefer to take their meetings on foot, a lap around Green Lake is the perfect length. A recreational oasis in the middle of a neighborhood, Green Lake offers an almost-3 mile loop dotted with wildlife, a beach, a historic amphitheatre, and a couple of places to stop for a bite if you’re feeling peckish. There’s also a swimming pool inside the rec center there, in case taking a dip alongside the ducks isn’t your scene.
If you’re looking to learn about conservation and critters, the Woodland Park Zoo can’t really be topped. The zoo – which is so established that their website is literally just zoo.org – has had its ups and downs, but in the last few years has really doubled down on helping preserve habitats and rescue beasts of all sizes. Woodland Park Zoo is, as the name implies, also nestled in beautiful park, so the flora is something to see.
The Cookie Counter
There are a few true gems around the Seattle area that don’t really fall into one neighborhood or another, or are generally just so worth it that they must be highlighted on their own. These are a few of those spots:
Orient Express: Also just called “the cars,” this bar/restaurant/karaoke lounge is a Seattle birthday party staple. It’s also haunted, according to the lady who works there and gave me a tour one slow night.
New Luck Toy: Yet another Chinese restaurant/karaoke lounge/bar/cool kid spot is New Luck Toy, located in West Seattle. West Seattle is its own pocket of the city that also probably deserves an entire guide, but for the purposes of this primer, let’s just say you should start here for the people-watching, skeeball, and cold beers, and then amble as needed. Oh and...when they call the dish “numbing beef in fiery sauce,” they’re not being dramatic.
MOHAI: If you’ve never been to MOHAI (the Museum of History and Industry), you don’t really get Seattle. Located at the very base of Lake Union, MOHAI takes you room by room through how Seattle got here, how the colonized changed the entire landscape to fit the industries, and why our neighborhoods are the way they are. On the top floor, you can find rotating, hyper-local exhibits about interesting facets of Seattle’s culture, like the history of hip-hop or how immigrants shaped our restaurant culture.
Elliott Bay Book Company: Portland has Powell’s. San Francisco has City Lights. New York has the Strang. Every major city has its best-known bookstore and, in Seattle, that’s Elliott Bay. Once an anchor in Pioneer Square, the store moved to Capitol Hill a few years ago and quickly settled into the new space. Catch readings of amazing national and local writers, get the best recommendations, and have a snack at the surprisingly popping cafe in the back. And if you’re looking for the bookish Seattle pick-up line, try asking someone how many punches their Elliott Bay card has. It works, I promise.
Plum Bistro: The ultimate in upscale vegan dining, Plum has been a Capitol Hill destination for almost a decade. While the neighborhood around Plum has invested deeply in meat-based dining (there’s literally a place called Chophouse Row around the corner), owner Makini Howell has remained true to the animal-free, Northwest-based, locally-sourced experience. Plum literally just tastes like Washington. Also THERE IS BRUNCH!
Jones BBQ: If you want ALL the meat, head out to deep West Seattle for Seattle’s realest of real BBQ. Sold in metrics like “slabs” and “pounds,” there’s nothing delicate about Jones. It’s BBQ like you think it’s supposed to be, served with slaw and cornbread like God intended. Even Bobby Flay liked it. Bobby. Flay.
The Georgetown Trailerpark Mall: Georgetown is an industrial neighborhood with some real gems (including Jules Maes, Seattle’s first bar, and Georgetown Liquor Company, a vegetarian/vegan punk bar with old video games and surly servers), but the quirkiest thing about it might be the weekend craft fair. The Trailerpark Mall is exactly what it sounds like, in that local, independent artists sell their wares out of Airstreams and other other RVs in a parking lot. You never know what you might find down there, so it’s worth popping in every couple of weeks.
Southgate Roller Rink: Listen, if you haven’t laced up and skated in circles in a few (ok, 20) years, you’re overdue. Southgate is a bit out of the way -- it’s in White Center, south of West Seattle -- but it’s completely worth it. Come for adult skate in the evenings (there’s a skate! Up! Bar!) or bring the kiddos earlier in the day. There’s also Skate-a-roke, Pride Skate, and a bunch of other themed evenings. Carpool out there and make a night of it.
Clock-Out: If you love comedy, music, or sweaty DJ dance parties, make the trip to Beacon Hill (you can take the light rail!) to the newest hot spot for local talent, the Clock-Out Lounge. This place has been open for less than a year, but already it’s become the place where up-and-coming artists are making the rounds. The calendar is packed with comedy shows, musical showcases, and of course, karaoke nights (because this is Seattle and did I mention we REALLY like karaoke?). Plus, there’s soul brunch on Sundays! Soul brunch!
Porchlight Coffee and Records: Looking for a place to see and be seen when you’re working over a coffee and also just happen to look effortlessly stylish? That would be Porchlight on the east side of Capitol Hill. The owner, Zach Bolotin, is a visual artist and jack-of-all-trades who’s also tapped into the indie music scene, which means you’re likely to see a local music celebrity (we call them Sea-Lebrities here) as you sip a cold brew and listen to music you’ve never heard of. You can buy records, art, merch, and accessories at Porchlight--grab one of the “Coffee & Records” crewnecks they sell to complete your Seattle uniform.
Once you’re done, pop over to the South Lake Union location of Tacos Chukis, which is both the most-hyped and the most deserving of the hype when it comes to tacos in this town. Originally a hidden gem on Capitol Hill, TC has upgraded to three locations -- including one conveniently by MOHAI. Try literally any of the tacos topped with grilled pineapple (!) for the real deal.