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Call it some kind of fierce, intuitive desire to protect the Olde Continente (e's added here for effecte), aka Die Mutterlande, but I've often experienced a fierce fight-or-flight response when faced with the old travel-writing truism that "Seattle is America's most European city."
Fight generally wins, and I go immediately to sarcastic, Socratic responses.
(Why, because of the medieval walls, pocked and battered by time and war, surrounding the Pike Place Market?)
They tagged Seattle with this rosy hue because twenty years ago you could buy a cup of coffee there at a small coffee shop. You could see fish laid out on ice, and watch guys in bib overalls chuck the fish over a counter. (Because of the caravans of gypsies and roving gangs of skinheads intent on enforcing white supremacy?) They sold cheese and vegetables at the market. You could buy a gelato. (And visit the ancient cathedral in a square where martyrs were burned?) They had ferryboats and beer. (And colorful natives in lederhosen, blowing alpenhorn, who insist you drink lager from their boots?)
But now I'm changing my tune, and the new tune sounds suspiciously like "Lili Marlene." On a recent visit to the Emerald City, after several years absence, I washed up onto a neighborhood that, when I lived in Seattle in the '90s and '00s, was European only in the number of junkies and crystal meth-addled dignitaries who roamed its streets, a nasty place where the pure of heart (and here I include Paul Allen and Bill Gates) dared not tread after dark. This was an edge-of-downtown piece of the north side that, unlike Belltown and Sodo, nobody even bothered to name. Its boundaries were roughly Denny Way and Lake Union, with Westlake Avenue creating a thoroughfare to get the hell out of there on the way to the more welcoming neighborhoods of Fremont, Ballard and Wallingford.
This time, however, I squelched the urge for flight and set up camp on the corner of Denny & Westlake. Where, to my Continental delight, I found, in no particular order, a streetcar; a gorgeous and expensive little boutique hotel with smashing views and service; a not-so-private supper club; and a seafood restaurant trying out a new prix fixe menu. And brother, it isn't Europa without the words prix and fixe.
The hotel was the Pan Pacific Seattle, the anchor of what has become an enchanting complex of shops, including a Whole Foods Market, and chef John Howie's Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar, which has recently begun to try a monthly tasting menu that is paired with some excellent Washington wines. My room overlooked the Space Needle and Lake Union and had a flat-screen TV as big as Luxembourg. The wheels were provided by the new Seattle Streetcar, which connects the Westlake Center shopping area with Lake Union and is so totally European in design and convenience that I expected to be rudely accosted by a lederhosen-wearing skinhead carrying a baguette. The Streetcar was so much fun that we rode it up and down Westlake just for the hell of it, stopping only to board the Seattle Center Monorail for a quick, futuristic jaunt into Seattle's famous complex of museums, restaurants and Space Needle.
It was the aforementioned Allen who bought up and has been busily redeveloping this area, once all warehouses and industrial blegh, into a vibrant downtown neighborhood which has attracted new museums and businesses like venture capitalist Jon Staenberg's Hand of God winery, which specializes in Malbecs that Jon grows and imports from Argentina. In his understated, Ninth Avenue North storefront space, he also runs the Velvet Undergound Dining Experience (VUDE), a so-called "private dining club" where members (who sign up on VUDE's web or Facebook pages) enjoy wine-soaked dinners prepared by talented chefs.
Like John Howie, who was slinging filet mignon with the best of them on the night that I ate at VUDE. And was then shaving morsels of Toro and peppered Ahi Carpaccio when I tried his Seastar prix fixe tasting menu the next night (there, I was able to work prix fixe into the conversation again, and I win). Everything was so fun, tasty and compact that we didn't move the car for the entire weekend visit, and didn't even make it down to the Pike Place Market for fish- or European-cliche tossing.
I haven't had so much fun, or seen a city in such a pleasant new way, since I last visited...um...well, Amsterdam. (The wooden shoes a dead giveaway. The way they pronounce Van Gogh like they're coughing up a hairball.) Or maybe it was Baltimore. (Because of the resemblance of the Mariners to the Orioles. And a crabcake is a crabcake is a crabcake.)