When you lived in a city for many years, it’s weird to return as a tourist. Seattle was my home for high school, college, and my swinging 20s, until I journied east to New York City. Since then, I’ve returned only a handful of times. Each visit has reminded me how dynamic a city can be—especially one like Seattle, where the economy has been an unstoppable force ever since Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, and other mega-companies sprung up there decades ago.
So on my recent homecoming, it wasn’t shocking that Seattle had evolved with shiny new towers, an expanded bus system, and slick restaurants. I still recognized the Emerald City’s forward thinking citizens and ever-hip vibes as the familiar metropolis where I came of age, and I still loved it. I just had to adjust to all of its incredible newness.
My first stop is always Capitol Hill. It’s Seattle’s LGBT zone, and home to endless restaurants, bars, shops, and cafés, plus sprawling Cal Anderson Park, home to open lawns, public art, and all-gender restrooms. Most of the action happens on the “Pike/Pine corridor,” two parallel boulevards that cross Broadway, which is itself a great walking strip. At the corner of Broadway and Pine, a Jimi Hendrix statue rocks out for eternity in his hometown. His full-throttle stage posture embodies the spirit of Seattle’s musical history, where the 1990’s grunge era unleashed bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.
Capitol Hill was my ’hood. I lived there and knew every corner. Thankfully, a lot of my favorite places are still around and kicking. Number one is the Wildrose (1021 E. Pike St. Tel: 206-324-9210. www.thewildrosebar.com), one of the oldest lesbian bars in the country, where Seattle dykes and their gay boyfriends have drank, played pool, and danced the night away since 1984.
Ladies get the added bonus of hitting Hothouse (1019 E. Pike St. Tel: 206-5683240. www.hothousespa.com), a soothing, spotless women’s-only spa located around the corner from the ’Rose, and a perfect place to relax in a sauna, steam room, or hot tub pre- or post-cocktails. But guys, not to worry, if you want your own men’s-only retreat, there’s Club Z (1117 Pike St. Tel: 206-622-9958. www.thezclub.com) and Steamworks (1520 Summit Ave. Tel: 206-388-4818. www.steamworksbaths.com/seattle), both open 24 hours, also on the Hill. (Though I’m pretty sure those scenes differ from the strictly spa-like atmosphere of Hothouse.)
One of my favorite all-time local bars in Seattle is actually an enormous nightclub called The Cuff (1533 13th Ave. Tel: 206-323-1525. www.cuffcomplex.com). It’s a mostly male crowd that brands itself a leather bar, though it’s friendly to everybody and has cheap drinks, a separate dance space, plus big outdoor area. Another favorite is the multi-level R Place (619 E. Pine St. Tel: 206-322-8828. www.rplaceseattle.com), a true neighborhood bar with Drag Race viewing parties, karaoke nights, and other special parties that rarely bring a cover charge.
Two other LGBT watering holes are fun places to soak up Seattle’s gay scene. C.C. Attle’s (1701 E. Olive Way. Tel: 206-726-0565. www.ccattles.net) is an easygoing joint with good pub food and daily happy hours. Très gay Pony (1221 E. Madison St. Tel: 206324-2854. www.ponyseattle.com) has a little outdoor patio and gritty queerpunk attitude. But I’ll always have a soft spot for Neighbour’s (509 Broadway Ct. Tel: 206-324-5358. www.neighboursnightclub.com), the club where I first kissed a girl and is still a mainstay for Capitol Hill clubgoers, with solid nightly DJs, live shows, and serious drink specials.
For something different, drift down the hill to Re-bar (1114 Howell St. Tel: 206-233-9873. www.rebarseattle.com), which is part bar, part club, and part theater. It’s one of the spots I’ve missed the most since leaving Seattle. Its theater nights are innovative and loaded with incredible writing, acting, and singing talent. Re-bar is where I was first exposed to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, when a local troupe staged its own unforgettable production of it a year before John Cameron Mitchell’s movie came out. I was forever changed, and now always try to catch a Re-bar show when I’m in town.
While Seattle is as cocktail-friendly as ever, it’s also rich in cultural, culinary, and recreational options. And let’s not forget that this is the original coffee Mecca, not just because it’s where Starbucks started. Seattle was slinging lattes when most of the US was still trying to figure out how to pronounce “cappuccino.” (Side note: The very first Starbucks [102 Pike St. Tel: 206-903-8010. www.starbucks.com] is still in action today at the Pike Place Market.)
On Capitol Hill, one of my favorite spots to people-watch with perfect coffee is either from the sidewalk tables at Caffe Vita (1005 E. Pike St. Tel: 206-709-4440. www.caffevita.com) or an espresso at Vivace Sidewalk Bar (321 Broadway. Tel: 206-860-2722. www.espressovivace.com) on Broadway.
Though it opened after I moved away, I consider Oddfellows (1525 10th Ave. Tel: 206-325-0807. www.oddfellowscafe.com) a staple for a one-stop, classic-Seattle experience. It’s a huge restaurant with a long bar and reliable menu of craft drinks and light, seasonal dishes, and its high ceilings maintain a nice, breezy atmosphere. Next door, you can hit Little Oddfellows for coffee or tea inside the Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 10th Ave. Tel: 206624-6600. www.elliottbaybook.com), an ever-enticing and well-programmed bookstore that’s inspired readers and writers since 1971.
The restaurant scene is incredible in Seattle. You can have the best sushi of your life one night, follow it with an unbelievable brunch, and fill up again sampling the wild array of flavors at the Pike Place Market (1st Ave. at Pike St. Tel: 206-682-7453. www.pikeplacemarket.org) all afternoon.
Speaking of the Market, yes, it’s a tourist enclave. It’s also crawling with locals who rely on its fresh fish, produce, flowers, and meats for their own residential pleasure. They might hit the delectable Daily Dozen Donut Company (93 Pike St. Tel: 206-467-7769) to buy a few minis fresh from the fryer as they browse the market’s vendor stalls. If a taste of no-frills Chinese baked goods is calling, they’ll stop at Mee Sum Pastry (1526 Pike Pl. Tel: 206-682-6780) for a perfect barbecued-pork hombow. If it’s an old-school chowder break kind of day, Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar (1916 Pike Pl. Tel: 206448-7721) is the seafood diner of choice with changing daily menus.
There’s also something brand new as of June 2017 on the Pike Place Market’s waterside along Western Avenue. MarketFront (85 Pike St. Tel: 206-682-7453. www.pikeplacemarket.org/marketfront) is a $74 million addition to the landmarked public market that’s introduced 30,000 square feet of public open space, new day stalls for farmers and artists, and retail space for regional purveyors and artisans. Inside, don’t miss Honest Biscuits (www.honestbiscuits.com) for Seattle-meets-Carolina baked goods and fried chicken or Old Stove Brewing Company’s (www.oldstove.com) tempting gastropub fare, with open-air views across Elliott Bay.
With so many dining choices, consider something unexpected: Capitol Cider (818 E. Pike St. Tel: 206-397-3564. www.capitolcider.com) is a gluten-free restaurant. Even if neither cider nor eating gluten-free are your thing, you might still fall for the chill ambience, mellow live music, and unforgettable dishes like burrata with rhubarb chutney, cider-battered fish and chips, and BBQ root-vegetable chips with house-made ranch.
As a seafood devotee, I’m quick to head north to the Fremont district for a bite at Rock Creek Seafood & Spirits (4300 N. Fremont Ave. Tel: 206-5577532. www.rockcreekseattle.com), with its Southern flair and more daring flavor combos, like oyster shooters with either sake or Aquavit. On the picture-perfect edge of Lake Union, Westward (2501 N. Northlake Way. Tel: 206-552-8215. www.westwardseattle.com) is equally alluring, not because it’s ranked among today’s best American restaurants, but because they blow me away with every super-fresh bite of local seafood.
On this recent visit, I fell for one of Seattle’s newest Greek restaurants, Omega Ouzeri (1529 14th Ave. Tel: 206257-4515. www.omegaouzeri.com). I’m already partial to Mediterranean flavors, but there’s no understating how good the menu is here, in particular the dreamy, tender-grilled octopus (which should not be overlooked, despite its ubiquity on most menus these days) and what may be the best tzatziki I’ve ever tasted.
Accommodations run the gamut of hip spots and big chains, mainly in downtown Seattle, but Hotel Max (620 Stewart St. Tel: 206-728-6299. www.hotelmaxseattle.com) stands out for its location just outside of the convention-center fray, down from Capitol Hill and near central transit lines. It offers chic design and local art, free craft-beer hours every evening, and a full floor of guest rooms with turntables and vinyl from local Sub Pop Records. For unrivaled water views, though, Belltown’s Edgewater Hotel (2411 Alaskan Way. Tel: 206-7287000. www.edgewaterhotel.com) occupies Pier 67 on Elliott Bay, and its upscalelodge style has made it a quintessentially Seattle accommodation since 1962.
Seeing my former home evolve and thrive in my absence has been like knowing an ex has successfully moved on without me. Of course I miss that old flame, and I’m going to be corny here, I cherish my memories and still feel deeply infatuated with the beautiful Emerald City. While travelers should certainly check out common tourist spots like the waterfront, Pioneer Square, and sights like the Space Needle and Olympic Sculpture Park, they’d be remiss to overlook the city’s rich layers and neighborhoods. If Seattle is like my ex, I can personally vouch for how cool, smart, and gorgeous she is, and you’d be right to want to date her.