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?