“To eat in and around Seattle, which I did recently and recommend heartily, isn’t merely to eat well. It is to experience something that even many larger, more gastronomically celebrated cities and regions can’t offer, not to this degree: a profound and exhilarating sense of place.”—Frank Bruni, “Seattle, a Tasting Menu,” The New York Times
I was raised in Colorado on canned spinach, Kraft Singles and Ding Dongs. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about good food, I just didn’t know any better. Not until I moved to the Emerald City in 1998.
In Seattle, I was enlightened. I drank good coffee, ate fresh salmon, berries, oysters and kale. But I didn’t realize the culinary significance of this until I left 10 years later for the East Coast.
One night in Baltimore, while my husband and I were looking for a place to eat, it really hit home. Of the number of restaurants I could count on one hand that were worthy of my privileged Northwest palate, all had waits of an hour-plus. So we traveled north on Charles Street through the Johns Hopkins campus, my husband driving while I consulted Yelp, my search yielding nothing. “Where the **** am I supposed to eat around here?” I wailed in frustration. We ate at home instead.
This would never happen in Seattle. Your favorite James Beard–award-winning restaurant is booked for the evening? No problem. Go to your equally favorite James Beard–award-winning restaurant right down the street. In Seattle there is delicious, innovative cuisine to be had. Everywhere. Just pick your Top Chef.
Then there was that time looking for decent espresso with my daughter in Hampden (if you love John Waters, when in Baltimore, you must go to Hampden). I hadn’t had much luck finding good espresso in the Mid-Atlantic; the food scene in DC got better after Obama took office, but Baltimore’s coffee scene was abysmal. I remained optimistic, however, determined to find Charm City’s Vivace equivalent. As we walked, I spotted a La Marzocco and stopped mid-stride: Let’s try this place! We were horrified when the shots the barista pulled rushed from the machine like dirty urine from a racehorse, not to mention the lack of latté art and dense foam.
But in Seattle—my beloved Seattle!—the food is so good. It’s so good journalists wax poetic about it and musicians pen lyrics:
Iced coffee, the egg, and the bánh mi
We eating hella good in the city by the sea
Pho Bac, Pho Viet, Pho Cyclo
Thanh Thao, maybe Than Bros, or Thanh Vi
Laughing cow smiling at me.
—The Blue Scholars
The French refer to culinary sense of place as goût de terroir or “taste of the earth.” It speaks not only to the earth in which a food is grown but, more broadly, to the people and culture that formed it. So what is this "profound, exhilarating sense of place" embodied in Seattle’s food? It’s the fruit of our state’s orchards and vineyards. It’s Asian umami, practically native to Seattle cuisine, originating from the Japanese farmers who were Pike Place Market’s first produce merchants. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit that brought Doc Maynard, Henry Yesler and Arthur Denny to a misty, briny corner of the world to build a city among the sitka and spruce. It’s the experimental, risk-taking nature ingrained by the likes of some of our most creative inhabitants, past and present—Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Bill Gates, Angelo Pellegrini—who put Seattle on the map, showing the world what it means to innovate from this beautiful northern tip on the shores of the Salish Sea.
Obsession follows absence; sometimes you must leave a place to really know it. I discovered Seattle’s sense of place by leaving and experiencing what other cities lack: the salt and the rain and the cedar in the air. The orcas and the water and the mountains and the sound. The evergreens and the drizzle and the gray and the lavender and the rosemary and the sun breaks—the glorious, magnificent sun breaks.
And most importantly, the independence granted by inhabiting a place so absurdly abundant and teetered on the Pacific’s edge, placing us closer to the future and farther from those who might dissuade us from what we’ve already done among the evergreens: felled a tree, tamed a land and created a sense of place like no other.