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Sampling the Best of the Northwest

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Gross
November 25, 2007

THE dining room at Cascadia — one of Seattle's top restaurants, with a cutting-edge chef, luminous décor and a cellar lauded by Wine Spectator — was empty. No one sat on the green banquettes, eating Alaskan king crab with white-truffle gnocchi under the coppery mahogany paneling, and empty wineglasses sparkled on white tablecloths. Only an occasional wandering waiter disturbed this stillness.

Across a frosted-glass divider, however, Cascadia's bar growled with energy. Every stool was taken on this Friday night, and upscale Seattleites mobbed the lounge and the sidewalk tables, where the setting sun warmed their faces and melted the ice in their cocktails. Of course no one was at dinner — this was happy hour.

To the Frugal Traveler, no phrase is more inspiring than “happy hour.” The prospect of two-for-one drinks and post-work camaraderie fills his heart with hope. If only every hour could be happy! But in Seattle, those 60 minutes of joy have been elevated into evenings not only of cheap drinks but also of discount gourmet snacks at the classiest restaurants. From midafternoon till long after midnight, one can graze on the delicacies of the Pacific Northwest, and still get change from a Jackson.

To survive a weekend on a budget of just $500 — a fortune for grunge aficionados but a pittance for high-tech billionaires — happy hour, I knew, would be key, particularly since I intended to do little else but eat my way through the Emerald City on a visit earlier this year.

Euphoria commenced around 4:30 p.m. at the Triple Door, a sleek downtown club whose plate-glass windows let sunlight bounce all over the shiny black tables. In one corner, musicians were setting up for a gig, and office workers came trickling in to snag tables. I sat at the long bar, drinking a cantaloupe martini that tasted too sweet until a plate of salty, spicy squid — stuffed with ground pork and garnished with cilantro — arrived to balance its sugars. (The snacks come from neighboring Wild Ginger, often ranked among Seattle's best restaurants.)

Soon, the lights dimmed, the room filled, and my happy-hour tour guide — my sister, Nell — showed up. I paid the bill ($10 with tip) and followed Nell down First Street to Belltown, a neighborhood crammed with self-consciously hip bars and restaurants.

At Cascadia, we went for the specialties: Alpine martinis and $1 mini-burgers. The latter were supposedly a big hit at a 2003 fundraiser for President Bush, but not with us; bland and overcooked, they tasted like they'd been sitting under a heat lamp. Such a shame, since my $4.50 cocktail — a vodka martini garnished with Douglas-fir sorbet and an actual cedar frond — was crisp, aromatic, inventive and cold, cold, cold, the perfect accompaniment to a juicy, greasy hamburger.

After laying down $20, Nell and I stumbled into the twilight and made our way to Brasa, a southern-Mediterranean restaurant that celebrates happy hour by halving its bar menu prices. No mere snacks here: my $5.50 chorizo pizza was enough for us both, and as Nell and I chatted with an actor sitting next to me, we drooled over his $6.50 lamb burger. It looked like it would go well with an Alpine martini.

Thirty dollars later, we re-emerged into Belltown, sated. It was 8 o'clock, and happy hour was on hiatus. To kill time (and, O.K., sober up), we visited the Roq La Rue Gallery, notable for its exhibitions of Pop Surrealism art. “A Fine Line” was opening, featuring the works of Jason D'Aquino, who drew images of spiders and skeletons over old calendar pinup girls, and Xiaoqing Ding, who painted a cute, apple-cheeked Chinese couple into fantastical scenarios, often involving foxes.

Not necessarily the sort of art you want to tipsily ogle with your sister, so we walked down the street to Rendezvous bar, a former 1920s burlesque theater. In the red glow of the original sconces, we knocked back a couple of beers ($10 with tip) until Nell's boyfriend, Andy Rubenstein, showed up, then finished the evening at Lava Lounge, a tiki bar where I don't remember drinking anything at all. It didn't matter — I was plenty happy already.

At 5:30 a.m. the next day, I awoke in my plush bed at the Musical House on Harvard, a Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast ($250.47 for two nights) in the Roanoke Park district, a few miles north of downtown, and hurried to get out the door and into my car. I wanted to build up my appetite by visiting Pike Place Market, the legendary complex of fishmongers, florists and fruiterers.

When I arrived, with the rising sun casting a pale pink hue over the damp streets, the century-old market was systematically putting itself together. Women cut flower stems in one warehouse-size wing, grocers laid down neat rows of nectarines, and men in rubber gloves assembled glistening rainbows of fresh fish. Best of all, there were no tourists. Before leaving, I stopped by the Daily Dozen Donut Company for a sack of the signature treat ($2.10 for 12), fried up fresh before my eyes on a conveyor belt that bathed them in oil.

Back at the Musical House, the owner, Albert Holdridge, a rotund jazz bassist with curly gray hair, was whipping up breakfast. I quickly showered before joining the other guests — a Tanzanian doctor and her American husband, visiting from Oslo; a married couple from Colorado; an entertainment journalist and a Hollywood financier — for honeydew melon, fresh currants, yogurt, granola, an omelet, chicken sausage and, of course, my doughnuts. Then I tottered to my room and passed out.

When I regained consciousness, it was lunchtime, and though I didn't much feel like eating, I felt duty-bound to consume as much of Seattle's bounty as I could bear. Inexplicably, I hadn't eaten any salmon yet, so I drove west on a road that wound around Lake Union, listening to KEXP and for the first time really taking in my surroundings: the brilliant water, the vertiginous hills, the green smell that reminds you of nature's unavoidable proximity.

Too soon, I was at Chinook's, a respected seafood joint at Fishermen's Terminal, a pier still used by professional anglers. Actually, I was at Little Chinook's, the lower-priced, plastic-boothed annex. Unfortunately, my salmon fish-and-chips ($10.16 with drink) was flavorless, and I had to ask a waitress if this really was the wild fish served at the restaurant proper. It was.

I couldn't imagine eating again, at least not for a few hours, so I returned to Belltown and the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park. Once an industrial zone, the nine-acre park on Puget Sound has, since it opened in January, become an integral part of the city, a free place to while away an afternoon amid macroscopic pieces by Richard Serra and Louise Bourgeois — which is exactly what I did. Accompanied by Andy and Nell, I zigzagged past Alexander Calder's monumental “Eagle,” then down to the rocky waterfront, where a group of marijuana activists arrived by bicycle. They were mostly naked, their bodies painted green.

I wouldn't say they gave me the munchies, but still, it wasn't long before we were eating again, this time at Tamarind Tree, a Vietnamese restaurant. Often, Vietnamese food loses its oomph when gussied up, but Tamarind Tree managed to blend style (black lacquer, bamboo accents) with dishes as authentic as any I've eaten in this country. Nell, Andy, a couple of friends and I ordered so much — from easy-to-enjoy skewers of grilled beef to a sour halibut soup — that our waitress started laughing. Still, we spent only $28 each.

Finally, I could eat no more. It was time, at last, to pay homage to a noisy, rebellious, long-defunct rock band. No, not Nirvana — Jules Maes, a saloon in semi-industrial Georgetown, was playing host to a salute (admission $5) to Big Black, a hard-core band that had played its last gig in Seattle 20 years before on that weekend. In the back-room theater, local bands screamed out “Bad Penny” and “Colombian Necktie” from an album whose unprintable name has made me blush ever since I saw it back in 1987. The show was loud and chaotic, and one guitarist strummed with his teeth, back and forehead. I sipped a $2 Rainier beer. Perfect.

Breakfast at the Musical House the next morning was less ambitious — only the best egg-and-bacon on a roll ever — and that was a good thing, for I needed excellent salmon to make up for Chinook's. So, I picked up Nell and Andy and took them to Ballard Brothers Seafood and Burgers, whose specialty is Cajun-style blackened salmon sandwiches with French fries for $6.95.

We got everything to go — Ballard Brothers' décor is one step up from Burger King's — and headed down to the Center for Wooden Boats, which offers free Sunday sailboat cruises on Lake Union. On the pier, surrounded by hand-hewn vessels, we pulled back the waxy paper enfolding our lunches — and discovered heaven. Moist yet crispy, rich with salmon flavor but also spicy, and herbaceous in a way that made me wonder if this delight was even legal.

Despite all I'd swallowed in the past two days, I gobbled that sandwich up as if I hadn't eaten in months, then dipped my fries in the juices, trying, as my weekend came to an end, to hold on to those five brief minutes of ecstasy.

Total: $392.39 (with taxi and bus fares).

High-End Grazing at a Good Price

WHERE TO STAY

Musical House on Harvard, 2612 Harvard Avenue East, (206) 650-7622, www.musicalhousebandb.com, has rooms from $125.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Ballard Brothers Seafood and Burgers, 5305 15th Avenue NW, (206) 784-4440, www.ballardbrothers.com.

Brasa, 2107 Third Avenue, (206) 728-4220, www.brasa.com.

Cascadia, 2328 First Avenue, (206) 448-8884, www.cascadiarestaurant.com.

Daily Dozen Donut Company, 93 Pike Street, (206) 467-7769.

Jules Maes Saloon & Eatery, 5919 Airport Way South, 206-957-7766.

Lava Lounge, 2226 Second Avenue, (206) 441-5660.

Little Chinook's, 1900 West Nickerson Street, (206) 283-4665, www.anthonys.com.

Rendezvous, 2322 Second Avenue, (206) 441-5823, www.jewelboxtheater.com

Tamarind Tree, 1036 South Jackson Street, Suite A, (206) 860-1404, www.tamarindtreerestaurant.com.

The Triple Door, 216 Union Street, (206) 838-4333, www.tripledoor.com.

WHAT TO DO

Center for Wooden Boats, 1010 Valley Street, (206) 382-2628, www.cwb.org.

Olympic Sculpture Park, 2901 Western Avenue, (206) 654-3100, www.seattleartmuseum.org.

Roq La Rue, 2312 Second Avenue, (206) 374-8977, www.roqlarue.com.

WHERE TO SHOP

The “garage” at REI's flagship store, 222 Yale Avenue North, (206) 223-1944, www.rei.com, has tons of outdoor gear, from flashlights to backpacks, that has been returned and put back on sale at a major discount.

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