The bridge from Mercer Island into downtown Seattle dips, inexplicably, down toward the water, as if the asphalt sank in humble obeisance toward the wild beauty of the water, or as though it, like anyone who gets drawn into the magnetic field of the city, feels it must somehow merge and be one with the water or else perish.
Seattle streets continue to plunge and plateau through hills that should have a reputation on par with San Francisco for elevation loss. Then, in the shadow of two skyscrapers, in front of the knobbly-kneed, jutting-elbow glassine sleekness of the public library, a flower-bestooned Vespa bisects the white lines of the crosswalk bearing a multi-colored, flower-hatted driver, down, flat, and down again toward Pike’s Market. Just after the elbow bend of Pike’s Place, a bend that tucks the famous Pike’s Place Fish in its crook, a man decked in silver from head to toe steps between cars, smooths his silver moustache, and ambles off to, presumably, apply silver paint to his face and present his statuesque self to the crowds for pennies of adoration. Later, as we wait at the light on Pike Street and 2nd Ave, a man wearing nothing but what must have been one of Jane Fonda’s purple unitards from 1983 strides past on a leisurely run from here to there.
Is this the Seattle of guidebooks?
We worry, needlessly, that Pike’s Place will be the anathema to locals that Fisherman’s Wharf is in San Francisco. But this is my final comparison to that red-bridge-tied city. Because Pike’s Place snaps the connection. Locals swarm in equal numbers to gawking tourists to the narrow halls of the market. Pike’s Place shelters some gimmicks, but in general offers fine foods, fresh veg, riotous flowers, and artisan crafts. The artists and vendors hawk their wares with all the bravado and pressure you’d expect from the proverbial fish monger’s wife.
“Hey Mom. Why my nose smell funny?” Little Friend queries as we near the iceberg displays of fish half her size. The smoked salmon that we sample at City Fish lingers like a welcome guest on our tastebuds.
At Chukar Cherries, we secret a bag of dried Rainier cherries onto our persons to savor later the tang of Pacific Northwest produce.
On the outskirts of the crowd at Pike’s Place Fish, we pick a pig’s nose.
Our stomachs welcome a bite, or two, or three, of macaroni and cheese that hails from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. Through the plate glass windows, we watch a future generation of the cheese swirl and eddy as the automated silver paddle rocks the milk in its stainless steel berth.
But we save some stomach real estate for lunch at Steelhead Diner, just steps away from the Market entrace up a hill-that-shall-not-be-compared-t0-a-fabled-north-Californian-city. It’s here that my Uncle Paul, a professed gourmand in hobby if not profession, swears he tucked into the best bowl of clam chowder. Ever. He’s serious about that “ever.” And one bite into the chunky soup that provides a landing pad for a viscous smear of truffle oil, I have to agree. In fact, I don’t even like clam chowder. I’ve been nothing but disappointed by the clam chowders I’ve previously tried. This Steelhead Diner bowl, with each lick, mmmm, and wow elicited by the spoonful, earns a spot in my top five best dishes of my life list by the time I scrape bottom. It’s got chews of clam and globs of potato. It’s got crunches of celery and zings of scallions. Most importantly, it’s got that truffle oil that lubricates all the rest quite nicely on the way to the stomach. This sounds like the most un-foodie comment to make on a “Top Five Life Dish” contender, but a few bites into the bowl, all I could say was, “This tastes as good as pepperoni pizza.” If I’ve just destroyed all gourmet credibility, I have two things to say: 1) What’s wrong with a really great pepperoni pie? and 2) Ignore me and trust my Uncle Paul.
As we rhapsodize about chowdered clams, we watch tourists and locals stream past the windows struggling to maneuver the steep sidewalks while bobbling paper-wrapped bouquets the size of rose bushes. We bemoan all of the menu items that we had not ordered. We appreciate the subtle uniqueness of the Steelhead Diner’s fly-fishing decor.
Pike’s Place Market makes a liar out of me. Typically, I squirm and wriggle my way through traditional guidebook recommendations, feeling in the very marrow of my bones that such destinations bypass the true pulse of a city. But here in the halls of Pike’s Place Market, I encounter a guidebook rec that makes my travel taste buds yearn for more than a free sample.