Whenever I land in a new city, I make it a point to seek out lesser-known watering holes and independent restaurants. I take pride when the cab driver arches an eyebrow at my destination of choice. “We don’t get many tourists going there,” he’ll say. And I like it that way.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
The one without an Applebee’s,
And that has made all the difference.”
That’s how the Robert Frost poem goes, right?
I brought that attitude with me to Seattle and cynically steered clear of Pike Place Market for that reason. I assumed that the food vendors, produce stands, and meat markets served low-quality goods, meant to appease the kind of diner who thinks that Subway’s Philly cheesesteak is a close approximation of the real thing.
As I found out Sunday, this was a big mistake.
That afternoon, I joined two friends for a Pike Place Market Food & Cultural Tour from Savor Seattle. The two-hour walking tour included stops at 10 stands and stores, samples at each stop, and history lessons about Pike Place Market — all led by a friendly, pun-happy guide named Brett. (Like a painter using every square inch of canvas, Brett masterfully snuck puns into seemingly every other sentence. By tour’s end, I could only shake my head at the steady stream of groan-worthy/chuckle-inducing lines.)
This is a blog post about a food tour, so you’re probably more interested in the culinary highlights than the pun-induced lowlights. Fair enough.
Over the course of two hours, we tried:
- Cinnamon-topped doughnuts from the Daily Dozen Donut Company
- Apples and pears from Frank’s Quality Produce
- Grilled pork loin sandwiches from Pear Delicatessen and Shoppe
- Dungeness crab cakes from Etta’s Seafood Restaurant
- Macaroni and cheese from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
- Seafood bisque from Pike Place Chowder
- Smoked salmon from the Pike Place Fish Market
The list goes on, but I don’t want you to start drooling on your keyboard. Then again, if you’ve ever eaten the cheese and crackers at Beecher’s, you probably already are.
The food ranged in quality from “This is amazing!” to “Now I can die in peace.” The worst dish was still better than anything I’d eaten all month.
Most stops included a visit from someone associated with that stall or restaurant, which added to the sense of discovery. For instance, the owner at BB Ranch Butcher — a/k/a The Bill Nye the Science Guy of Butchers — told us about his various meat-related science experiments. (There’s a sentence I never thought I would type.) One such experiment involves feeding weed to pigs for an upcoming event. In another test, they’ll cover a side of meat in peanut butter and Maker’s Mark while letting it age … just to see what effect it might have. I mean, who does that? Other than genius/mad scientist butchers, of course.
As we relaxed outside Etta’s, the final stop on our tour, I came to a shameful realization: In all my times trying to wiggle around the languid masses, I never bothered to stop and smell the roses … or stop and try the doughnuts. I really had been missing out all these years. Joke’s on me, after all.
Outstanding fare from all over the world lines every street and is stuffed into every alley at the market. Pike Place Chowder doesn’t serve a kitschy bowl of the Seattle stereotype, and the fish throwers at Pike Place Fish Market toss some legitimately tasty salmon back and forth. I always assumed these were “for the tourists” and that “for the tourists” meant “a step up from McDonalds.” Like I said: shameful.
The brain trust at Pike Place could, in theory, kick out one of the long-standing tenants, replace it with a Subway, and watch the profits roll in as the line extends out the door. Pike Place doesn’t need to offer some of the best cheese, chowder, or doughnuts you’ll ever eat. But, in committing to a memorable market experience, it shares with the world the best of the Northwest. If that’s not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.