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.
WALK A FEW BLOCKS NORTHWEST OF NORDSTROM and you'll find yourself in Belltown, the city's current vortex of cool. Once a nondescript district of low-rent lofts and warehouses, Belltown was the locus of Seattle's art scene in the early nineties. Now the neighborhood is known as much for creative cuisine, with some of the city's hottest chefs working side by side along a three-block stretch of First Avenue. Here the fresh seafood and produce from nearby Pike Place Market might wind up on your table at Marco's Supperclub in the form of, say, fried sage leaves or "Marguerita" mussels steamed in a chipotle, tequila, and lime juice broth; or perhaps a whole rockfish in a lemongrass marinade at nearby Flying Fish.
On clear spring and summer nights First Avenue resembles a small-town drag combined with one long sidewalk café. Vintage Cadillac convertibles, new Mazda Miatas, and the occasional Harley cruise the strip, while diners at outdoor tables linger late into the evening and greet friends parading by. The mood is warm and unpretentious, the crowd young and eclectic.
Later you might drop in at the nearby Crocodile Café—an alternative-music institution that's still going strong after all these years—where a hot local band is headlining, for an $8 cover. Maybe you heard their new hit on the radio as you were cruising First Avenue; they go on in five minutes, and you're standing a few feet from the stage. It's times like this when Seattle's accessibility strikes you not just as small-town, but as having a distinctly nineties sort of synchronicity: things just seem to click.
As symphony director Gerard Schwarz puts it, "Years from now people are going to say, 'Remember Seattle at the end of the century?' "
DURING THE DAY BELLTOWN QUIETS DOWN and feels like any other neighborhood where people take their clothes to the dry cleaner's and stop in at the barber's for a trim. But here the place to get your hair bobbed-or your head shaved-is Rudy's Barbershop, a sort of salon-cum-hangout that epitomizes Belltown's cutting-edge urbanity. This branch, on Wall Street, open since October, is one of five Rudy's Barbershops scattered around Seattle. (Another recently opened at L.A.'s trendy Standard hotel.)
Rudy's is the brainchild of Wade Weigel, 40, and Alex Calderwood, 32, two Seattleites who exist in a sphere of style about two steps beyond the millennium. Until recently both were fixtures among the nose rings and goatees of the Capitol Hill neighborhood-Weigel with his Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen (a sassy taquería with attitude to spare), the Cha Cha Lounge (more margaritas, burritos, and Day-Glo funk), and the Baltic Room jazz club; Calderwood with the sleek dance club ARO.Space. Now, beginning with Rudy's, Weigel and Calderwood are making their mark on Belltown.
"Each Rudy's has a real distinct neighborhood feel," Weigel says. In Belltown that means high ceilings, lots of natural light (and a view of Elliott Bay), vintage barber's chairs anchored to cement floors, a stereo blasting seventies tunes, and magazine racks filled with Details and Interview. This branch is a bit more upscale than those in other neighborhoods, which tend to cater to body piercings and have stacks of skin magazines.
But Rudy's is just one of many places bringing a new flair to Belltown. Next door is Mint, a store inspired by the look of an Olivetti typewriter and specializing in industrial-design furniture; a few doors down is Fig. 1A, a laboratory-themed florist where single blossoms are displayed in Pyrex beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks.
Around the corner on First Avenue, paint-spattered workers are turning a long-neglected 1912 building—formerly a Coke bottling plant and a mission for the homeless, among other things—into a hotel and shopping complex that will push Belltown's style frontier a few blocks farther north. By this month the building will house a chic tailor's shop selling Savile Rowstyle bespoke men's wear, and the reborn Cyclops café, once a Belltown landmark favored by grunge stars, writers, painters, and actors before it lost its lease on Western Avenue two years ago. The centerpiece of the project, however, will be the Ace Hotel, the first hotel to open in Belltown and a different kind of hotel altogether.
Amid the whining saws, stomping work boots, and swirling dust stands a slight figure with a ski cap pulled over his brow and a cell phone pressed to one ear. Alex Calderwood smiles and beckons his visitors into the chaos. Calderwood, Weigel, and a third partner, Doug Herrick, are making final preparations for the Ace Hotel's April debut, and today Calderwood is leading a tour of the nearly finished site.
The Ace fuses the concept of a European pension with a fresh, modern aesthetic. Its 35 rooms will have 14-foot ceilings, stark white walls and floors, wood-framed platform beds, and a stainless-steel sink and vanity. Standard rooms (with shared bath) will be relatively cheap at $80 a night; the current plan is to add a hostel wing where simple dormlike beds will go for $20. There are also two junior suites with private bath ($145) and a $300-a-night luxury suite designed, the owners joke, for "touring rock bands."
After showing off a few completed rooms, Calderwood settles in for lunch with Weigel and Herrick at Macrina, an arty café and bakery across the street from the hotel. The Ace team is setting its sights on what Calderwood calls "the urban nomad-the modern young traveler looking for an alternative sort of experience with a nice vibe." The angle, according to Weigel, is "austere, understated glamour."
"Think Ray Gun, Bikini, Wallpaper—not Town & Country," says Calderwood.
"Right on," nods Weigel.
ALL THIS EDGY EXCITEMENT DOES LEAVE ONE hungry for the real Seattle-the one that lured so many seekers here in the first place. Fortunately, it hasn't disappeared. Despite its air of sophistication, this remains a city of the young, earnest, outdoorsy, and hopelessly caffeinated. The soul of Seattle can still be found in the coffee shops of Capitol Hill, in the cobbled streets of Pioneer Square, and in Pike Place Market, where mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables are piled in meticulous pyramids beneath signs proclaiming LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO EAT BAD TOMATOES! This is still a place where people shop for books and clothes and even groceries on-line; where twentysomethings whose stock options will create fortunes rivaling those of 19th-century railroad tycoons nonetheless outfit themselves at Army-Navy and REI; and where, reassuringly, the local weeklies are filled with personal ads like the following:
TWO WEEKENDS AGO. YOU WERE KAYAKING BY MY HOUSEBOAT WHILE A FRIEND AND I FLOATED ON MY SURFBOARD. WE TALKED ABOUT KAYAKING IN THE RAIN. WHEN'S GOOD FOR YOU?
VIVACE CAFÉ 2/5: YOU WERE A MALE WEARING GLASSES, A VEST, KHAKI CARGO PANTS AND GREAT SHOES. I WAS M, WEARING GLASSES, HEADPHONES, AND A BROKEN LEG. I CAN'T BELIEVE WE DIDN'T SPEAK. I'M BOBBY. COFFEE AGAIN?
Despite its reputation for bad weather, Seattle gets only 36 inches of rain a year—less than Chicago, New York, or New Orleans—and has a fairly temperate climate year-round. June through September is the best time to visit, when temperatures range from 65 to 75 degrees.
Ace Hotel 2423 First Ave.; 206/448-4721; doubles with shared bath from $80, suites with private bath from $145. A hip newcomer in the heart of Belltown. Opens this month.
Alexis Hotel 1007 First Ave.; 800/426-7033 or 206/624-4844; doubles from $225. Posh boutique atmosphere and a prime downtown location.
Four Seasons Olympic Hotel 411 University St.; 800/223-8772 or 206/621-1700; doubles from $260. Old-world elegance and outstanding service, plus one of the best swimming pools in the city.
Hotel Monaco 1101 Fourth Ave.; 800/945-2240 or 206/621-1770; doubles from $225. Stylish and comfortable rooms with vibrant decoration; a chic, spacious lobby; and a dynamite restaurant.
Inn at Harbor Steps 1221 First Ave.; 888/728-8910 or 206/748-0973; doubles from $160. Urban "inn" set in a residential high-rise. All rooms have fireplaces, sitting areas, and courtyard views.
Inn at the Market 86 Pine St.; 800/446-4484 or 206/443-3600; doubles from $145. A warm and intimate 70-room inn with a fabulous location in the heart of Pike Place Market. Best breakfast: café au lait and crusty French bread at nearby Café Campagne.
Sorrento Hotel 900 Madison St.; 800/426-1265 or 206/622-6400; doubles from $190. Small luxury hotel in an elegant 1908 building east of downtown.
W Seattle 1112 Fourth Ave.; 877/946-8357 or 206/264-6000; doubles from $245. Sleek business quarters near Benaroya Hall. Opening in September.
GREAT DEAL Pacific Northwest Journeys On the web at http://www.pnwjourneys.com; 800/935-9730 or 206/935-9730. For a $45 fee, this Seattle-based company will make your hotel reservations at its preferred rates, offering substantial savings-book a three-night stay at the Monaco or Four Seasons, for example, and you'll get $200 to $250 off rack rates.
Café Campagne 1600 Post Alley; 206/728-2233; dinner for two $60. A wonderfully Gallic setting by the Pike Place Market, with low ceilings and wooden tables. Try the petits plats, followed by rich cassoulet or the spicy lamb burger and crisp fries. Bistro cooking at its best.
Brasa 2107 Third Ave.; 206/728-4220; dinner for two $60. A new addition, with an earthy, robust menu from James Beard Awardwinning chef Tamara Murphy (formerly of Café Campagne).
Cascadia 2328 First Ave.; 206/448-8884; dinner for two $80. Big news: In June, Kerry Sear, former executive chef at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, will open his own place-specializing in Northwest cuisine-on Belltown's restaurant row.
Dahlia Lounge 1904 Fourth Ave.; 206/682-4142; dinner for two $80. Tom Douglas's signature cooking combines several cultures (Pacific Rim, Mexican, Russian) within one thrilling meal. Save room for Seattle's best desserts-especially the caramel pear tart or coconut cream pie.
Flying Fish 2234 First Ave.; 206/728-8595; dinner for two $80. Go for the clean lines, tapas-size portions of rock-shrimp spring rolls or razor clams, great platters of crab, mussels, and snapper, and exotic, flown-in fish.
Macrina Bakery Café 2408 First Ave.; 206/448-4032; lunch for two $20. Belltowners stop in for gutsy, flavorful breads (served at many of Seattle's best restaurants), along with fried-egg sandwiches on "Giuseppe" bread, bowls of fresh fruit, and foamy lattes.
Marco's Supperclub 2510 First Ave.; 206/441-7801; dinner for two $70. One of the Belltown originals, this intimate, sexy bistro is still my favorite. Start off with the fried sage leaves; you'll swoon.
Plenty 1404 34th Ave.; 206/324-1214; lunch for two $15. An inviting neighborhood café in Madrona, just a few blocks east of Capitol Hill. Chef Jim Watkins is known for simple food, lovingly prepared. Great atmosphere and big, luscious desserts.
Sazerac 1101 Fourth Ave.; 206/624-7755; dinner for two $80. Southern-inspired food, dished up with flair in a high-concept, high-ceilinged space in the Hotel Monaco.
Stars Bar & Dining 600 Pine St.; 206/264-1112; dinner for two $100. Celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower's new Seattle outpost. The crowd is dressed-up and boisterous; the setting gorgeous and warm. On my last visit the cuisine and service were still a bit uneven, but I wager Stars will live up to its name before long.
Wild Ginger 1400 Western Ave.; 206/623-4450; dinner for two $60. An absolute must-visit. Many kinds of Asian cuisine-Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese-come together in a way that has earned this restaurant nearly landmark status.
ARO.space 925 E. Pike St.; 206/320-0424. One of Capitol Hill's newest clubs, with eclectic dance music, DJ's, and touring bands. Vegetarian dishes served in a hip cafeteria. Weekends see a lively gay and lesbian scene.
Baltic Room 1207 Pine St.; 206/625-4444. Piano jazz club on Capitol Hill, with velvet banquettes, a baby grand, and a fireplace.
Benaroya Hall 200 University St.; 206/215-4747. The Seattle Symphony's elegant new home in downtown Seattle.
Crocodile Café 2200 Second Ave.; 206/441-5611. Still the city's best live-music club, with hot bands, easygoing crowds, and a funky atmosphere.
Dimitriou's Jazz Alley Restaurant & Night Club 2033 Sixth Ave.; 206/441-9729. Grab a table close to the stage and hear nationally known jazz and blues artists perform while you dine.
Safeco Field First Ave. and S. Atlantic St.; 206/346-4000. The Seattle Mariners' new state-of-the-art stadium opens in July.
Ardour 1115 First Ave.; 206/292-0660. Whimsical women's wear, lush sweaters, and exquisite-yet-affordable jewelry.
Domestic Furniture 1422 34th Ave.; 206/323-0198. Full line of wooden and upholstered pieces by acclaimed artist and designer Roy McMakin.
Fig. 1A 95 Wall St.; 206/441-1919. FTD meets the chemistry lab: cement floors, white-tiled walls, and flowers displayed in beakers and flasks.
Flora & Henri 1215 First Ave.; 206/749-9698. Beautifully made children's clothing based on vintage designs.
Great Jones Home 1921 Second Ave.; 206/448-9405. Antiques and treasures for the home and garden; gifts, candles, and linens from Provence; whimsical stationery and note cards.
Mint 91 Wall St.; 206/956-8270. Industrial-chic furnishings with a 1940's, 50's, and 60's office look: mint-green file cabinets, vintage typewriters, globes, and more.
Nordstrom 500 Pine St.; 206/628-2111. Recently opened flagship for the Northwest's premier department store.
Pacific Place 600 Pine St. Seattle's newest and glitziest mall, with five levels of shops, restaurants, and movie theaters.
REI 222 Yale Ave. N.; 888/873-1938 or 206/223-1944. A temple to recreational equipment, with a 65-foot indoor climbing wall, rock-laden paths for trying out hiking boots, and a rain chamber for testing Gore-Tex.
Rudy's Barbershop 89 Wall St.; 206/448-8900. A youthful salon with a distinctly urban sensibility. Stop by for a bleach or a cut, and tune in to the local buzz.
Seattle Best Places (Sasquatch Books) An indispensable source for restaurant, hotel, and nightlife listings; locals swear by it.
Seattle by Bill McRae (Lonely Planet) This first-edition city guide from the well-known travel series came out in September and offers very thorough coverage.
Rent a bike from the newly opened Blazing Saddles (1230 Western Ave.; 206/341-9994) and riding from the Harbor Steps along the waterfront to the Chittenden Locks.