In the shadow of the Space Needle, just steps from Pike Place Market, the Belltown district is Seattle's Cinderella story.
Traveling at 13 feet per second, you've just shot to the top of Seattle's Space Needle, the iconic tower built for the 1962 World's Fair. From the observation deck you have panoramic views of Elliott Bay, Mount Rainier, and the revolving globe atop the Post-Intelligencer building. But take a moment to consider a less arresting sight: If you stand on the Needle's southern side and peer almost straight down, you'll see a nondescript, 63-square-block neighborhood caught between downtown, Pike Place Market, the bay, and the 74-acre Seattle Center. This is Belltown. And this is where the traveler who wants to see as much as possible, preferably on foot, should be staying.
No one would ever call Belltown beautiful, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for in location. The area is increasingly recognized as an ideal base camp for walking trips to many of Seattle's premier attractions, among them the Experience Music Project, Pike Place, Pioneer Square, the stunning new public library, and ferries to the San Juan Islands.
Belltown also happens to be a terrific place to stay put. In the last decade, the enclave has become a magnet for boutiques, sleek hotels, nightclubs, and, above all, restaurants. "Like car dealerships, restaurants group together," says celebrity chef Tom Douglas, who opened Belltown's Dahlia Lounge in 1989 and has since watched dozens of new eateries appear, including three more of his own.
Let's say you head to Douglas's newest venture, Lola, for wine-braised octopus only to find the place packed. After a few minutes' walk, you could be ensconced at Cascadia enjoying crab ravioli or at Marjorie tucking into fried chicken and waffles from the truly eclectic menu. You could be savoring Lampreia's truffle tagliatelle or chowing down on garlicky prawns before playing a few rounds at Belltown Billiards, where dinner is served until 2 a.m. "There are 20 restaurants here serving full menus until midnight or later," Douglas says. "I'm not sure they have that many in all of San Francisco."
The reason: Belltown has a vital late-night scene. The now legendary Crocodile Cafe opened on Second Avenue in 1991 and has presented live rock and roll virtually every night since. Though the Croc looks like an undersize greasy-spoon diner, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and REM have performed there. Nearby Tula's books jazz acts seven nights a week, while Club Medusa's DJs spin on weekends till 4 a.m.
For a tamer night out, catch a movie at the Cinerama, which opened in 1963 to showcase Cinerama-format spectacles like How the West Was Won on a curved wall-to-wall screen. Today, the magnificent theater only occasionally features a Cinerama film, but you can enjoy the engulfing space and red mohair seats almost as much while watching Star Wars: Episode III.
Although a few high-end chain stores such as the luxury bath shop Waterworks have opened here, the neighborhood is best known for its idiosyncratic boutiques. From a minuscule storefront, Darbury Stenderu sells groovy hand-painted gowns, each velvet-and-silk frock a vibrant work of art. A store called Fancy carries iPod holders crafted by local artists, and one door down, sister shop Schmancy specializes in unusual toys, including stuffed felt doughnuts.
A word about doughnuts. Seattle is currently doughnut mad, a trend Tom Douglas traces to Belltown's Top Pot, which does a brisk business in Ovaltine lattes and 30 kinds of superfresh doughnuts. And in Seattle, doughnuts aren't just for breakfast anymore: At Douglas's Dahlia, they've become a signature dessert, arriving in a paper bag to be devoured, steaming hot, with mascarpone. But the finest doughnuts in Seattle (and, sadly, the author has become an authority) are found at the Pike Place Market's Daily Dozen, a funky stand where they fry the miraculous, cakey delicacies right before your eyes. And like so much that's wonderful in Seattle, it's just steps from Belltown.
Photography by John Granen
This article was first published in September 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Seattle map and Oregon & Washington TourBook. All phone numbers are area code 206.
TO SEE AND DO
Nightlife: Cinerama 2100 Fourth Ave., 441-3080. Club Medusa 2218 Western Ave., 448-8887. Crocodile Cafe 2200 Second Ave., 441-5611. Tula's 2214 Second Ave., 443-4221. Shopping: Darbury Stenderu 2121 First Ave., 448-2625. Fancy 1932 Second Ave., 443-4621. Schmancy 1930 Second Ave., 728-8008.
Belltown Billiards 90 Blanchard St., 448-6779. Cascadia 2328 First Ave., 448-8884. Dahlia Lounge 2001 Fourth Ave., 682-4142. Lampreia 2400 First Ave., 443-3301. Lola 2000B Fourth Ave., 441-1430. Marjorie 2331 Second Ave., 441-9842. Top Pot Doughnuts 2124 Fifth Ave., 728-1966.
Ace Hotel $75–$199. An urban-hipster retreat with 28 rooms, some shared baths. 2423 First Ave., 448-4721. Hotel Ändra $149–$309. Stylish boutique hotel with 118 rooms. 2000 Fourth Ave., 448-8600.