Emerald City Evolution

Twenty-five years of Seattle travel brings nostalgia and comparisons back home

A lot can Happen to a food scene in twenty-five years. Reputations can be built, and lost. Identities can be established, and changed. It’s even possible to become the genuine article.

We first visited Seattle, Washington, in 1987.

The beauty and diversity of the natural environment, the Pacific Northwest vibe, the glass artists, a burgeoning wine industry and the then-eighty-year-old Pike Place Market have brought us back at least once a year since then. It’s very simply one of our favorite places. When we were there a couple of months ago, we reflected on how much the Seattle food culture has changed in twenty-five years. And we made the inevitable comparisons to Madison’s food scene during those same years. Both evince evolutions we find at once interesting and instructive. 

In 1987 Seattle was already well known for its coffee obsession, although Starbucks had yet to expand beyond the city. There was plenty of seafood and good salmon available, but it would still be two years before Tom Douglas would open his first restaurant (he has twelve today and is number one on Seattle Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential people in the local food scene). Washington and Oregon pinot noirs were just starting to get recognized, and after spending some time in both Seattle and Portland, we wrote a piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the Pacific Northwest food scene highlighting hazelnuts and artisan eau de vie distilled from local pears.

We also remember the bread in Seattle. It was awful. (Almost as bad as the service.) There were no good bakeries and it seemed every restaurant served the same bread with the same rosemary butter. Today artisan bakeries are the latest big thing. But food expresses a city’s values as much as the vibrancy of urban living and Seattle’s food is very much a reflection of what it is. It’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t locally source a large portion of its menu and some are getting close to exclusive local sourcing. Even institutional settings, like the restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum, list the names of local growers and producers. For most of the last twenty-five years the farm-to-table component of the Seattle food scene played out daily at the Pike Place Market, where chefs would gather first thing in the morning to buy the freshest ingredients for menus they would create based on what was available. Interestingly, that dynamic is changing and it’s something to think about as Madison contemplates its own year-round farmers’ market. When we started going to Seattle there were ten farmers’ markets listed in the entire state of Washington. Today there are more then that in central and north Seattle alone. Pike Place Market has become even more of a tourist destination and chefs can get better quality ingredients at other markets. Still, from restaurant to restaurant, locally and sustainably grown, typically organic products—from bacon to beets to beer—are expected and demanded.

And then there are the restaurateurs. We mentioned Tom Douglas. There are a dozen others. On the last night of our July visit we ate at Tamara Murphy’s new neighborhood restaurant. In twenty-five years we’ve followed Murphy from Café Campagne to Brasa to the Elliott Bay Book Company Café to Terra Plata. Think Odessa Piper. Or Tami Lax. It was a lovely dinner and we struck up a conversation with two women sitting next to us. One thing led to another and one of the women, University of Washington professor Ginger Armbrust, asked if we know a colleague, University of Wisconsin professor Michael Sussman—the same Michael Sussman who was on the cover of this very magazine in 2004. We told Sussman of the meeting, and he told us his wife is now raising heirloom pigs at their new farm in Cross Plains. Madison chefs are apparently waiting in line for the pigs. There you have it, twenty-five years in food, Madison to Seattle and back.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food.
Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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