Food Feature: Covering much grounds

Seattle, coffee capital and home of the Puget Sound sound, reveals more growth than grunge

It was the third day of my first visit to Seattle when I thought I would shit myself — literally — and it wasn't just my third coffee before noon that was causing my discomfort. I'd just bought another cup to hold me over until I made it across the street to a coffee shop when I saw it: Starbucks.

Seeing Starbucks is, in itself, not unique. It's unlikely even the Amish have escaped that fate at this point. But in Atlanta, people gripe about one Starbucks bringing down a neighborhood. In Seattle, Starbucks are a neighborhood. The legends were true: I saw my first Starbucks across from a Starbucks — right after I turned the corner at a Starbucks kiosk. Thankfully, that would be the only cliched expectation fulfilled during my trip.

I was in town for five days without one overcast day. It took two days to experience my first flannel sighting, and I didn't hear a Nirvana song until day four. Everything I knew of Seattle — which I readily admit was gathered from a marathon of the '90s movie Singles, vintage MTV and yellowed issues of Spin — seemed wrong. The one thing I had right was how much these people loved their coffee. Some even took food with it.

Within blocks of where I was staying on Capitol Hill (think a fully actualized East Atlanta on a steep incline) were a handful of low-key finger-licking restaurants and at least five coffee houses: a Goth coffee house, an online coffee house, a library-themed coffee haus and more. I dare say, in my best Southern drawl, that it added up to a hill o' beans. Also within walking distance was most of the pedestrian-oriented grid of Seattle, full of friendly caffeine fiends, fine food and funky shops.

I went looking for 1991, but found 2001 to be much more satisfying. I couldn't find the apartment building featured in Singles. I failed to make it to the Soundgarden. And I didn't see the pier where they filmed MTV's "Real World." I did, however, drink at Linda's, the bar best known as one of the last places Kurt Cobain was seen alive. But my only real tourist indulgences were the Space Needle and a chaotic tour of the metallic jellyfish that is the memorabilia-packed Experience Music Project.

I found a post-dot-com bust Seattle flush with progress and amiable people needing tans even more than I do. Even the bums up and down Broadway were reasonably respectful — a mix of gutter punks and trust-fund hippies. Only the one asking for donations to the "United Negro Cannabis Fund" got a dollar. Panhandlers weren't pushy in the least as I ducked in and out of some fine consignment shops and dined on everything from the Globe's 12-inch vegan pancakes to the '40s-themed Bleu Bistro's biscuits with a Southwestern omelet and fancy, themed martinis. And it must be mentioned that Seattle's Fat Tire Amber is one hell of a fine brew.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Seattle was the food. A little restaurant in Belltown called Afrikando served amazingly tasty and affordable Senegalese food. "Across" town, Bimbo's Bitchin' Burritos satisfied my carbs craving. And the salmon. Who can forget the salmon? Certainly not anyone almost nailed with one by the Pike Place Market's famous fish throwers.

If I hadn't been so busy spending all my money on food to fuel my slow, car-culture-ravaged metabolism (I feel most sorry for the drunks; sometimes it felt uphill both ways), I would have parted with it all at one or several of Seattle's fine shops. Independents line streets like Broadway, Denny, Pike and Pine, while upscale national stores litter 1st through 5th avenues with a mix of urban and urbane, haute and hot styles.

If your tastes for the exotic call for Asia over Armani, Seattle's International District (the "ID" or "Little Saigon," depending on who you ask) was a manageable counterpart to Buford Highway. Ducking in to a recommended Vietnamese noodle house, it turned out — in a story-making twist of fate — to be Pho Hoa, part of an international chain with an Atlanta location. Sometimes the ATL (which also came to mind when I saw a 5-year-old with a mullet) seems inescapable.

Whether I was hanging out at venerable rock/art/lunch venue the Crocodile Cafe or in Nation, the concrete cocktail loft above hyped hipster hotspot I-Spy, Seattle scenesters seemed a creative, accepting lot — despite their espresso-fueled attention spans. A New Year's Eve warehouse party at Consolidated Works showcased the city's ability to mesh art and audio with little tension or pretension, and a random cheerful partygoer shared champagne as the Space Needle exploded in fireworks.

Would I go back? Gladly. I'm still in fresh-roast withdrawal. And while I never did shit myself, I can tell you where some of downtown Seattle's cleanest public restrooms are: just past the third Starbucks on your left.


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