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The Culinary Heart of Seattle

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I’m at that vintage age where I remember cruising Bob’s Big Boy in East Pasadena, California in the 1950s, stopping in for a burger and vanilla coke to show off my three-quarter race, highly customized 1946 Ford convertible with white leather tuck-and-roll upholstery and lots of chrome under the hood. It was the “scene” in 1950’s Southern California and I, with my hot rod and my surfboard, was right in the middle of it. I thought of this in connection with a recent post on the Greater Boston Area Board asking the question: “How do you get to the culinary heart of a city?” Was Bob’s, back in the 1950s, part of the “culinary heart” of Pasadena, or just part of the cultural, but not the culinary, heart?

Does Seattle have a “culinary heart?” We certainly get lots of requests from visitors looking for a unique Seattle culinary experience, and there has been lots of advice given along these lines on this Board. There is a contingent, for example, that pushes Dick’s Drive-In as a special Seattle experience. It is true that Dick’s is locally owned and since its founding in 1954 has been a hang out for teenagers and young folks. But does this make Dick’s part of a unique Seattle experience that is different from local hangouts for teens and young folks anywhere else in the country – the Bob’s Big Boy of my youth, for example?

Perhaps the “culinary heart” of a city doesn’t have to claim uniqueness, in the sense that it doesn’t exist in other cities. The many Italian restaurants in Boston’s Little Italy, for example, aren’t that different from Italian restaurants in other cities, but that doesn’t make them any the less part of the “culinary heart” of Boston. Even so, it’s hard to think of a burger joint as part of the culinary heart of any city, including Seattle. Burgers are just too ubiquitous. So how do you get to the culinary heart of Seattle? Salmon? -- even though most of it comes from Alaska, just like the Alaskan salmon served throughout the USA. Our locavore restaurants? -- even though locavore restaurants are common in other cities. I know that we Seattle Chowhounds periodically struggle with this issue, either explicitly or implicitly, and I have more questions than answers as I think about it. But the phrasing of the question on the Boston Board was particularly elegant, I thought, and brought the issue back to mind in a slightly sharper focus.

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  1. I would say it's Pike Place. Beecher's, Eliott's, Starbucks...maybe it's not the best answer for your question, but it's one that comes to mind for me.

    1. I agree with CWT the heart is the Market. However, I feel it's the slightly grittier sites such as Lowell's, Emmet Watson's, Jack's Fish Spot, etc. Joints where you can get oysters, mussels and local seafood that is well prepared and inexpensive. Personally I love sitting in Emmet Watson's with a beer and a plate of raw oysters while savoring the fact we get to live here. These are like the Chowhound destinations I seek when I visit other great cities.

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      Jack's Fish Spot
      1514 Pike Pl Ste 2, Seattle, WA 98101

      1. When I lived in Seattle, long, long ago, I thought the Pike Place Market was its culinary heart, both for the seafood and for De Laurentiis. Many was the night I'd bring home some oysters or salmon, or some cheeses and salami, and a bottle of wine. I lived right across the street, so this was my neighborhood grocery store.

        There was an Italian place owned by a guy named Peter. I can't remember the name of the place, though.

        I have a recurring dream in which I chase around the Market looking for one specific restaurant that sold seafood, IIRC. I used to get hot toddies there, too.

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        Pike Place Market
        1501 Pike Pl, Seattle, WA 98101

        1. I agree that the culinary heart of Seattle is Pike Place. In addtion to the seafood and produce, stores like Don and Joe's Meats and restaurants like Matt's, Etta's and Place Pigalle are all treasures.

          1. For me, the Pike Place Market is totally Seattle's culinary heart. It offers a huge range of fresh, often local, produce and other ingredients and plenty of exotics. It's our first stop when our regular old college crowd gathers for another evening of cooking, eating, and joking. The Market is always stop #1, though it's usually supplemented by Uwajimaya and PFI. I suppose that puts my experience of Seattle's food heart right along First Avenue, up from the waterfront, from about Union to Jackson; the part of town locals (questionably) called "Skid Row" when I was growing up here.

            Lately, the Chamber of Commerce has tried to over-write colorful/grungy history with new labels (West Edge - ick). We've got a busy maritime history, and it's all about the waterfront and its denizens. In the days of trees, ships transported lumber from logs that were skidded down to Yesler's mill along skid road (now Yesler Way).* to serve the California Gold Rush and, later, the Yukon trade. These ships, as well as the fishing fleet, needed convenient provisioning. Market businesses like DeLaurenti grew to fill this need, as well as to retail the goods to Seattleites. The advent of containerized freight ended the era of rugged dock-workers, as the docks no longer required the huge gangs of stevedores who once filled the taverns, cantinas, peep-shows, and brothels there.

            *Naming is cloudy, as most resources say Skid Road was Yesler Way, though "Skid Row" has become a generic reference to the down-and-outer part of any town and, historically, came to refer to First Avenue, from about the Market down to Pioneer Square. The area still bears the marks of that era, and even some of the businesses (Merchant's Cafe one among these).

            Still, the Market is the culnary heart of town, for me.

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            Pike Place Market
            1501 Pike Pl, Seattle, WA 98101

            Uwajimaya
            600 5th Ave S, Seattle, WA

            1 Reply
            1. re: mrnelso

              certainly, the market was the culinary heart of the city and the historic commission is constantly under fire for its valiant efforts to preserve the remaining tatters but, as sellers of raw products are replaced by vendors of ready-to-eat food and, worse, tzatchkes for tourists uninterested in mushrooms or apples, fewer locals shop there except when out-of-town guests visit. down to a single butcher (albeit a good one), the oldest bakery about to be displaced, city fish taken over by folks from pure food fish - take pleasure in what remains of its culinary soul as it loses more every year to cruise ships, conventions and the dreaded food channel.

            2. I'm not sure why it's taken for granted that there is such a thing as "the culinary heart" of a city. What exactly do you mean, anyway? The "defining" food-oriented place/establishment/attraction of the city? The most historically significant? The oldest? The one that has had the most impact or influence? Metaphorically it makes the most sense that you'd be looking for the place/establishment/attraction that is the motor for the food/dining scene of the city, and without which, said food/dining scene woud die, right? I am not sure the Market, or any other one place/area/establishment, etc. is that. Why would there be only one ("the" culinary heart)?

              I think the Pike Market is a fun stop and "important" historically, but does that mean that anything (or everything?) in there (including Beechers and other newer places) are somehow also part of "the culinary heart" of Seattle?

              1 Reply
              1. re: akq

                Tom has raised an intriguing and provocative question, even if somewhat abstract and intangible, which has produced some intriguing and provocative responses. Like akq, I’m not exactly sure what the “culinary heart” of a city means or if it is a concept that can be applied in practice. It may be more of a gestalt, than something that can be precisely analyzed or defined. Does Seattle, or the larger Pacific Northwest, have a culinary identity akin to the fried food, pickles and chutneys, and various BBQ traditions (North Carolina, Memphis, etc.) of the south, or the meat-and-potatoes identified with the mid-west, or the clam shacks and lobster rolls of New England? The culinary scene in Seattle has changed a lot in the last 30 or 40 years, as Seattle has become more urbanized and an increasing number of sophisticated eaters and sophisticated chefs have created a new culinary landscape. Fine dining certainly wasn’t the “culinary heart” of Seattle in the 1970s, and the options then weren’t anything like they are today. I still associate Seattle with seafood (e.g., salmon, lingcod, rockfish, oysters) and a casual ambience of jeans and wool shirts, although I recognize that this has changed a lot over the years. The “culinary heart” of a city or area isn’t necessarily defined by its restaurants. More often, it seems to me, it’s defined by local traditions of what people cook at home, and this is often dictated by the specific types of ingredients that are produced in that area. This is especially true in countries like Italy, France, or China where regional differences are quite distinct.

              2. The Market might be the heart by acclaim - I still go there for my spices and fruit myself - but I'd offer Fisherman's Terminal as an alternative. Not because it's the best place to buy fish, or because fish is actually landed there, but because it is a major home port of the fleet that supplies the wild seafood that feeds our region (and, yes, the nation at large.)