Photo: Revo 1599, Flickr
It wasn't a rash of espresso-guzzling Italian immigrants or even an enterprising chancer like Starbucks founder Howard Schultz who turned Seattle into America's coffee HQ: it was the weather. The damp, London-esque climate here has been an overpowering influence on its food scene, according to Seattleite Ethan Lowry, co-founder of urbanspoon.com. "Our notoriously grey weather, coupled with those long, dark winters - we're one of the most northern cities in the continental US - means we need things that are pick-me-ups. Coffee was a natural fit."
Food writer and cookbook author Cynthia Nims agrees. "Sitting down over some great coffee was one of those things you could do easily on a misty winter day," she laughs. Lowry goes further, suggesting that Seattle's warm, unfussy vibe is also meteorological. "In so many cities, there's the option to sit outside. But here, there's a dearth of outdoor cafes and a cozy feel to a lot of Seattle's restaurants," he says. The city is as ingredient obsessed as San Francisco, yet without its showoffish snobbery - chanterelle mushrooms or Dungeness crab, both staples here, were foraged casually rather than farmed and marketed to foodies. Nims sees the influx of Scandinavians as underscoring that understatement, in all aspects of local life.
Read on about Seattle's coffee, salmon and more, after the jump...
But the sole culinary influence isn't European, unlike in many American cities. Rather, Nims suggests, early residents in a city like Seattle -- isolated both geographically and culturally from the East Coast or England -- looked to the Native Americans for inspiration as they cooked. Tribes like the Duwamish and Suquamish (led by Chief Seattle, in whose honor the city was named) were rich in tradition and equally isolationist. "They were one of the best off of all native populations, with all this food at their disposal -- they weren't worrying about being on the plains in the middle of winter," Nims observes. Native American tribes fished for plentiful salmon that could be cured or stored to provide reliable year-round supplies. "And they didn't need to interact to get proteins, fat-rich foods to keep them healthy." The fish-heavy and foraging menus here, Nims believes, are one of the more lasting legacies of Puget Sound's original inhabitants -- long before Seattle and Starbucks became synonymous.
COPPER KING RIVER SALMON
Each year in May, salmon becomes the dominant ingredient on Seattle's menus. "The salmon get incredibly fat to make that journey along the long [Copper] river to Alaska and they're the most delectable, juiciest fish you can eat," Lowry raves, "When the supermarkets hang up their signs the season has started, everyone runs out to get their salmon."
"Even in dismal weather, you see crowds huddled around the windows of this place," notes the meteorologically minded Ethan Lowry. This burger chainlet, founded more than 50 years ago, operates five retro-style diners in a local riff on In-n-Out burger -- order the Dick's Special, with lettuce, mayo and chopped pickles, but don't dare try to customize it. These burger recipes are non-negotiable.
Originally a Canadian company, founded in the 1980s, this boutique cola marque decamped to Puget Sound a decade ago - though its quirky spirit was long grunge-endorsed. It's known for the offbeat photos on its black & white labels and a Ben & Jerry's like sense of humor in its limited edition flavors, like a Turkey & Gravy for Thanksgiving or a Barack-boosting "Orange You Glad For Change" citrus cola launched last year.
PIKE PLACE MARKET
The downtown foodie hub has birthed a slew of must-try local brands. "20 years ago, it was pretty decrepit, the city had given up on it. But somehow the local merchants banded together to revitalize it," Ethan Lowry recalls. Starbucks, of course, named its house blend after its original outlet here while current upstart tenants include Chukar Cherries and Beecher's Cheese, both of which Nim touts as unfussy locavore icons. The dried, additive-free cherries are grown in Yakima Valley while Beecher's processes it curds on-site in full view of shoppers, to make a slew of house specials, from cheddar to a jack-like milder cheese. Nims recommends the lunch counter. "You can buy cheesey treats to take away right there -- the macaroni and cheese is amazing."
This Italian charcuterie was founded by Armandino Batali -- father of Falstaffian foodie Mario. Now, it's run by Mario's sister Gina, who still makes and sells the family's Italian-style cured meats at the Pioneer Square storefront, as well as online. Try the odd but delicious lamb "prosciutto".
SEATTLE'S BEST COFFEE
SBC is now a subsidiary of Starbucks: snapped up the monolith seven years ago, it's being aggressively marketed as a lower-priced alternative via Burger King and convenience stores. Its heritage, though, is artisanal -- the roaster was founded on Whidbey Island, west of Seattle, more than 40 years ago by one man, Jim Stewart, who home-cooked raw beans for sale at his ice cream store.
The fiercest rival to Starbucks is barely 20 years old and was founded as a direct response to the local roaster's dominance, a more lingering, European-style alternative. Namesake owner Tom Tully O'Keefe was a caffeinated real estate investor who'd helped Starbucks find many of its sites -- he recycled that savvy into his own business. There are now 100 stores in and around the Pacific Northwest.