Nirvana, 1991. Photo by Angela Boatwright.

MC’s Guide to the Cradle of Grunge


Words and pictures by Strath Shepard

While Seattle may still be known as the cradle of grunge, its more recent status as a cradle of nerds has made it the USA’s fastest-growing city, with Amazon and Microsoft employees multiplying exponentially every day.

Thankfully, the influx of lanyard-wearing techbots has brought with it an ever-evolving landscape of new restaurants, bars, and other ventures to keep everyone entertained in their off-hours. Work hard, play hard… said no one cool, ever. I recommend visiting between May and October when everyone comes out of the basement to greet the (black hole) sun. Good times abound.

If you’re thirsty the second you land, have your driver detour for Loretta’s Northwesterner, a great old bar with a legendary tavern burger, or to Jules Maes, which shares the claim of being the oldest bar in Seattle with The Central Saloon, where Nirvana played some early shows. If it’s weed you’re after – this is one of the few states where it’s legal – you can basically throw a rock and hit a dispensary; I like The Reef on Capitol Hill, right across the street from my favourite slice in town, Dino’s Tomato Pie. Basically, all of your needs have been met, but there’s still a lot of exploring to do. Put that joint out, son, it’s time to roll.

Seattle sits between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, hugged by giant mountain ranges to the east and west, and consequently, outdoor activity is an everyday thread throughout city life. There are amazing parks with old-growth forests right in the city (the Olmstead-designed Arboretum, Seward Park and massive Discovery Park are my favourite), and a day trip on the ferry to eat at Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island is a must. But to get your bearings, head up to Volunteer Park and climb the water tower for a bird’s eye view of the surroundings. Named for volunteers who served in the Spanish American war, the park also holds the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the beautiful glass Conservatory, and Isamu Noguchi’s famous sculpture Black Sun. (Adjacent to the park sits Lakeview Cemetery, where Seattle badass Bruce Lee and his son Brandon are at rest.) Art and architectural wonders dot the city, and many are excellent. The restaurant atop the Space Needle rotates a full 360º every hour, making for another excellent view, and the large colourful blob next door is the Museum of Pop Culture, designed by Frank Gehry.

Seattle Public Library

Downtown, explore the amazing Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas and LMN Architects in 2004. My favourite part is the map room at the top, or the red hall on the fourth floor, which feels being inside Northwest native Agent Dale Cooper’s mind. The Aquarium is right on the waterfront in a beautiful building, and there are OTTERS. The Seattle Art Museum is world-class, as is the Olympic Sculpture Park, with works by Louise Bourgeois and Richard Serra, among many others. I like the living installation by Mark Dion, Neukom Vivarium–a Western Hemlock nurse log inside an 80-foot greenhouse. It’s covered in moss. Hashtag mood.

Up north on the University of Washington campus, the Henry Art Gallery is one of the best small museums in the country, complete with James Turrell’s Skyspace and an outdoor installation by Robert Irwin. The Frye Museum and shop are amazing, and the newly completed Nordic Museum is also worth a visit. It’s in the Ballard neighbourhood, which has so many Scandinavian residents that the King of Norway pays a visit every year and they throw him a parade and everyone gets wasted. Speaking of that, enough culture – let’s visit some of Seattle’s best nautical bars. Call them dives if you like but I reject the term (unless applied to The Baranof, which opens at 6 AM, even on Christmas. I was having a tough year).

The Sloop in Ballard is a favourite, just down the street from the amazing Ballard Locks, which connect the freshwater ship canal to the saltwater of the Sound. In Wallingford, the Pacific Inn serves arguably the best fish and chips in Seattle; back on Capitol Hill, check out Bait Shop and the back deck of Captain Blacks, which used to be Eddie Vedder’s house. Just down the hill is Speckled & Drake (ducks are vaguely nautical) with artwork by Murder City Devils frontman Spencer Moody.

In Belltown, check Navy Strength, and Deep Dive recently opened under what we like to call Bezos’ Balls– the large dome-shaped greenhouse structures built by Amazon’s founder amid the company’s many buildings downtown. Other top bar picks include Jarr Bar, Belltown’s Queen City and Neon Boots, Fort St. George in the International District, the art-filled Hideout and its sister Italian restaurant Vito’s, and heavy metal x vegan pizza oasis Dark Bar. Catch some DJs at Sugar Hill or Chop Suey, dance at Kremwerk or the delightfully trashy Pony or see a show at The Sunset, Neumos, Barboza or The Crocodile – then do your best ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ afterwards at Hula Hula karaoke.

For a quieter night, Bar Ferdinand is consistently amazing for wine and food, and the Stumbling Monk is phenomenal for rare sour beers and Trappist ales. I feel parched. What to drink? The microbrew selection in Seattle is never-ending thanks to Washington State being the hops-growing capital of the world. My money’s on Stoup Brewery’s Citra IPA or Bale Breaker’s Topcutter, named for the machine implement used to harvest hop vines on the brewery’s own farm – but the classic Rainier Beer is light and refreshing in the warmer months. If you feel like giving the Aperol Spritz a rest, try Sprezza, a new locally produced vermouth that I’ll be drinking all summer.

The morning after, treat yourself to a facemask from Korean beauty specialist K-Banana; it’s worth visiting just for the amazing interior, designed by Sausage Skateboards co-founder and artist Jesse Brown. Then take yourself shopping at Glasswing, vintage shop Indian Summer, Totokaelo, Can’t Blame the Youth, and the original REI, Filson and Nordstrom stores (look for the Pop-In and New Concepts sections, and stop in the restaurant for the secretly best Dungeness crab bisque on the planet).

For amazing books, check out Elliott Bay Book Company, cookbooks at the Book Larder, and graphic novels at Fantagraphics. Homestead is an amazing spot for…home things; Plant Shop – you get it. And no visit to Seattle would be complete without exploring Pike Place Market, home to the original Starbucks, fish-throwing seafood vendors, the oldest comic book store in the country, and food. So much food.

The food scene in Seattle is off the meter in every direction and could fill a magazine of its own. Favourite burger? Lil’ Woody’s. Mandatory burger? Dick’s Drive-In. Ethiopian food? Jebena Cafe. Coffee shop? Analog. On the go? Monorail Espresso. Neighbourhood brunch? Barjot. Vietnamese joints? Pho Bac Sup Shop or Ba Bar. French Vietnamese? Stateside. Chillest Italian? Machiavelli or the Pink Door (it’s in an alley near the market – look for the pink door). Mexican food? Copal, Arriba Cantina, or that truck by the gas station in Georgetown. Dumplings? Ping’s or Din Tai Fung. Dim Sum? Jade Garden, Harbor City (get the Peking duck), or Dim Sum King for Shu Mai to go. Filipino? Musang and Hood Famous for coffee and pastries. Hyper-local favs? Single Shot, Sitka & Spruce, Matt’s. Middle Eastern on the run? Yalla. Southern food? Junebaby. Secretly great fried chicken? Union Saloon on a Tuesday. Favourite sushi? Kashiba, Tsukushinbo, or Maneki, which started serving in 1904. Favourite oysters? Trick question. All of the oysters. In a city with some of the finest fresh seafood in the world, there are a million choices. Westward has amazing views of Lake Union and a fire pit, but the best seafood all around can be found at Bar Melusine, The Walrus & the Carpenter, L’Oursin or Rock Creek. Or just go straight to Taylor Shellfish. Basically, just plan to eat as much as you can every day before you stumble back to your hotel.

What hotel? I like the Sorrento, The State, Pali Hotel, the new Hyatt Regency, or the Tom Kundig-designed Thompson, which has an amazing rooftop bar. If you want to stay where Kurt stayed, check out the Inn at the Market, or you could fish out your window at The Edgewater hotel like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page did in the 70s. These days that might get you kicked out, but what do you care… you’re living the grunge life now.

This article first appeared in Monster Children Issue 63. Get yourself a copy here.

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