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Seattle Today

Saturday night in Seattle, and the gleaming foyer of Benaroya Hall is filled with black gowns, black heels, even black-tie. Among the elegant crowd, you notice a tiny diamond nose-stud glinting in the light. Its owner wears a wine-red satin sheath and has short-cropped hair, and you can easily imagine this woman—and others in the crowd for that matter—turning up later for a raucous midnight set at the Crocodile Café.

But this is 1999, not 1990, and the hottest thing in town this weekend is an evening of Beethoven and Mahler.

While the smoky clubs of the grunge days still pack them in with bands like Pop Star Assassins and Flogging Molly, the pop-culture phenomenon that was Seattle has gotten, well, older. After the hard times of the early nineties—too much crime, too many vacant buildings, too many parking meters begging for quarters—the city has undergone a remarkable cultural renaissance, transforming itself from a depressed-but-charming town into a mecca for food, shopping, and the arts. Quirky espresso carts are still on every other corner, but there's a sleeker side to today's Seattle. You see it in the waterfront condos going up on the edge of hip Belltown; in the space-age retractable roof of the $498 million baseball stadium due to open this summer; and in the stunning Benaroya Hall, new home of the Seattle Symphony. It's a stone-and-glass marvel, slung across an entire block, with a warm-yet-modern interior accented by African makore-wood walls and floors of lustrous oak.

Benaroya debuted last September to the kind of giddy fanfare that has long eluded this understated city. The opening gala was a glamorous scene: flashbulbs lit the darkness as patrons entered to the flourish of a brass ensemble, and waiters circulated with trays of champagne. A gargantuan tent that blocked off most of Second Avenue was barely able to contain the post-concert bash for 2,500. All this in a city where the biggest celebrations most Saturday nights are the fireworks displays during games at the Kingdome.

Tonight's performance is part of the symphony's Masterpiece Series, conducted by music director Gerard Schwarz. Passing beneath octopus-like blown-glass chandeliers by Dale Chihuly and an enormous Robert Rauschenberg mural, the crowd streams into the hall to be seated. There is a momentary hush, Schwarz strides onstage, and the auditorium comes to life.

The overwhelming impression is one of tremendous sound—brilliance, clarity, volume—and enough of it to peel the fresh paint off the ceiling. During intermission, concert-goers mingle in the cylindrical glass-enclosed foyer, musing over the latest gyrations of local Internet stocks while taking in dramatic views of the city and the waterfront beyond.

ARRIVING FOR AN AFTER-CONCERT DINNER AT Tulio Ristorante, a few blocks from Benaroya, the maestro joins his wife, Jody, and six other guests, being careful not to step on the Stradivarius stashed under the table. Schwarz has swapped his conductor's tails for a black turtleneck, and the mood is relaxed.

Ever since his arrival from New York in 1983, Schwarz has been determined to raise the level of the Seattle Symphony, to give it a national profile, and to construct a new concert hall that would replace the functional-yet-drab quarters it shared at the Seattle Center Opera House. Now he has done all three. Six months into its inaugural season at Benaroya, the orchestra is still reveling in its grand and very grown-up space. "It's phenomenal," Schwarz beams. "For the first time, the players can actually hear one another."

The talk turns to the city's dynamic cultural scene. Schwarz recalls his early days here, long before the boom years of the mid-nineties. "Back then, Seattle was thriving in a small way," he remembers. "But what we're having right now is kind of ideal." He pauses to help himself from a plate of calamari fritti. "People always ask why I came to Seattle, and they expect the usual response-that I came for the outdoors or the lifestyle. That's all very nice, but I came for the art."

A SHORT WALK THROUGH SEATTLE'S SPARKLING downtown leaves no question that something is happening. Standing at the corner of Sixth and Pine, axis of the new Seattle shopping scene, is like stepping onto a miniature Fifth Avenue, except that the pedestrians are dressed in pile vests, jeans, and Doc Martens, and not one of them is trying to hail a cab. A polished granite façade frames the new Tiffany & Co., topped by Atlas shouldering a clock. (Across the street an Old Navy superstore reminds us, lest we get carried away by the Tiffany collection, that we're never more than a few feet from more jeans, hooded sweatshirts, quilted parkas, and pile.) Nearby is the six-month-old Pacific Place complex, which, with its soaring skylighted atrium, has become a destination in itself—a shopping mall with the grandeur of a basilica. These days, it would not be uncommon to pass the founder of the world's largest on-line bookstore riding the escalator here, or to spot the president of the world's first on-line drugstore waiting to buy movie tickets at the Pacific Place Cinema.

On the fourth floor of Pacific Place, renowned California chef Jeremiah Tower presides over his new Seattle shrine, Stars Bar & Dining, a dramatic see-and-be-seen restaurant that has brought banquette politics to Seattle. Under a tongue-and-groove bare-wood ceiling, in a cathedral-like room softened by diaphanous curtains hung from brushed-aluminum rods, elegantly dressed shoppers schmooze by day and Microsoft millionaires compare stock splits by night. The bar crowd looks so stylish you catch yourself wondering whether the people are in fact real, or perhaps rented from some other city-maybe London, or L.A.

Why did Stars settle upon Seattle, of all places?"Oh, come on," huffs Stanley Morris, Tower's right-hand man and unofficial design director. "Seattleites are grown-ups. They need a grown-up place to eat." He gestures toward the bar's open fireplace, around which the city's new sophisticates are sipping martinis and Cosmopolitans. "We're after a Northwest lodge­goes­Manhattan sort of look," he says. Last Halloween was the occasion for Stars' particularly Manhattan-style opening bash: Tower, clad in chef's whites, greeted masked partygoers at the door; Elvis Presleys, Brad Pitts, and Andy Warhols flirted with drag queens and sexy sequined Marilyns; and mermaids lolled about like nymphs atop the shellfish bar. The place has been packed ever since.

Downtown is clearly sprucing up—and even old mainstays are getting into the act. From the windows at Stars you can gaze upon the restored terra-cotta façade of the Frederick & Nelson building, a beloved 1890 landmark that recently became the flagship location of another Seattle icon, Nordstrom. Department stores rarely inspire popular frenzy, but for Seattleites, Nordstrom is hardly an average department store: at last summer's opening, crowds estimated to be in the thousands waited to get in, literally cheering and pumping their fists. Nordstrom execs said they'd "never seen anything like it." Personally, I'd attribute the crowds to Nordstrom's fabulous shoe department, which, months later, is still jumping.

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