Pike Place Market, a true urban gathering spot, is not only the heart and soul of Seattle but a lively tourist magnet that fits into any group travel itinerary.
One of the nation’s oldest farmers markets, the historic expanse of stalls, kiosks and shops invites visitors to browse, buy, eat, take pictures, listen to street musicians and just soak in the festive atmosphere.
“You’ve got fishmongers, cheesemongers, mongers of all kinds,” said Tim Primeaux, a guide with Savor Seattle Food Tours. The company offers two-hour market tours that include plenty of chances to nibble and nosh. There were 16 people on my tour, a full house.
Conveniently located in downtown Seattle, on a hill overlooking Elliott Bay and the tourist-friendly waterfront, Pike Place is, above all, a food bazaar. Seattleites know their food and wine, and many are serious foodies. They value fresh local ingredients, appreciate ethnic cuisines and prize the Pacific Northwest’s bounty of fruits and vegetables, seafood, and artisan cheeses and baked goods.
A collection of 600 businesses occupying a nine-acre historic district, Pike Place Market dates from 1907. In the 1960s, when the market was partially abandoned and deteriorating, the city wanted to demolish it and use the site for a hotel, office buildings, a hockey arena and parking garage. But the people rose up and voted in 1971 to “Keep the Market.” If you look down at your feet, you’ll see floor tiles inscribed with names of residents who’ve made donations to ensure the market’s future.
At the main entrance, anyone can donate to the market’s charitable foundation by dropping coins into Rachel the Pig, a bronze sculpture that brings in the bacon. Tourists pose next to this working piggy bank, a fixture since 1986, and even sit on her back. Steps away, camera-toting visitors congregate at the Pike Place Fish Market to wait for “flying fish.” Well, the fish may not have wings, but when someone orders a whole king salmon or another variety of fish, a fishmonger in slick coveralls and rubber boots removes it from the mound of ice and tosses it to the counter attendant, calling out the order in a time-honored ritual. Besides all varieties of fish, you’ll see artfully arranged stacks of crabs, lobster tails and shrimp.
On our tour of Pike Place Market, Tim Primeaux arranged for the fishmongers to demonstrate their tossing technique and let us ask them questions. Then we got samples of smoked salmon. Some tour members went back later and ordered seafood to be shipped home.
For sampling at other shops, our group crowded into tight quarters, gathered in an arcade passageway or stood outside in the cold.
The Savor Seattle tour met in a modern Starbucks across from the market’s main complex. Over caramel lattes, we went around and told where we were from. (Another Pike Place Starbucks is reputed to be the first store in the worldwide chain, which originated in Seattle. Our guide, however, disputed that claim and said the first store was elsewhere in town.)
Tim not only kept us well fed but, with his wit and comedic timing, entertained as well. We never had a problem hearing because each of us was given an audio device that ensured his narration came in loud and clear.
At Daily Dozen Doughnuts, our first stop on the tour, the group passed around a greasy bag of piping-hot mini-doughnuts. Just as fun was watching the old-fashioned machine drop the dough in bubbling oil and see the finished product get shaken up in a bag of powdered sugar.
Then we headed to MarketSpice and were given a cup of signature cinnamon-orange-clove tea. Filling orders while our guide filled us in, shop clerks transferred spices and teas from large jars into small plastic bags. Cooks can find everything they need, from sea salt and cayenne pepper to cardamom, curry powder and even butterscotch powder.
One of my favorite stops was Piroshky Piroshky, a tiny bakery that turns out Russian pastries filled with meat, cheese or sweets. We sampled the ground beef and cheese and the cheese-garlic-onion varieties. A top-selling piroshky has smoked salmon pate. The marzipan and rhubarb also looked tempting.
At Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, I wolfed down a small portion of the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had. The penne pasta was topped with liquid Beecher’s Flagship, its signature cheddar-gruyere combination ($24.95 a pound). Beecher’s customers can view the cheese-making process from behind glass.
Another tour highlight was crowding behind the counter at Chukar Cherries, where we tried the company’s dried-cherry candy. Along the way we also sampled fresh fruit, chowder and crabcakes. As the Savor Seattle Food Tours brochure states: “Please remember, tours are meant to serve as a meal.”
My two-hour “Greatest Hits” tour was $37.65. Savor Seattle also does an “Off the Beaten Path Tour” of Pike Place Market. This latter offering (also $37.65) spotlights hidden gems, ethnic cuisines (African and Swedish), food artisans new to the market and the labyrinth of 100 little shops “Down Under,” located beneath the market’s main level.
The next day I went back to Pike Place Market to explore on my own. I visited with vendors who offered samples of jams, dried apples and berry-flavored honey. The All Things Lavender vendor table lured me with soap, bath oils, candles and candy made from lavender grown in Washington State.
Down Under, with its polished wood floors and heavy timber posts and stairways, is another world. The maze of eclectic shops includes places specializing in everything from Egyptian arts and crafts to magic tricks and used books. At Golden Age Collectibles you can pick up an Elvis Presley lunch box, a life-size Elvis or Marilyn Monroe cardboard cut-out or Star Trek bobblehead figures, along with Harry Potter and other more current movie memorabilia. Pipe Palace Smoke Shop has lava lamps, tie-dyed shirts and other reminders of the hippie era.
The Market Heritage Center, just down the hill from the Down Under section, is a an outdoor area with exhibits and videos that tell the history of Pike Place Market, including stories of immigrant contributions and the counterculture phenomenon of the 1960s and ‘70s.
The environs of Pike Place Market abound with restaurants. Ethnic choices range from Copacabana (Bolivian) to Turkish Delight. Enjoy a spot of tea at The Crumpet Shop, a cozy outpost of England where you can watch them make the soft, English muffin-like rolls filled with nooks and crannies. Crumpet toppings include English cheeses and marmalades.
At Pike Brewing Company, a popular pub, you can indulge in a variety of ales made on the premises, including amber, wheat and a reddish black extra stout. The “Pike Sampler” offers six pre-selected four-ounce glasses. The menu lists entrees like ale-battered Alaskan halibut and chips and Kilted Mac n Cheese, blended with the Scotch-style Pike Kilt Lifter ale. One room in the multi-level establishment displays a museum-quality collection of beer glasses and steins, serving trays, matchbooks and labels from around the world.
After a visit to Pike Place Market, groups undoubtedly will leave well fed and loaded down with souvenirs, edible and otherwise. Most important, they will come away with a taste of Seattle history and a feel for the Great Northwest. Pike Place is the heartbeat of downtown Seattle. It’s where the casual traverler can best feel its pulse.
By Randy Mink
(Pike Place Market: 206-682-7453, www.pikeplacemarket.org)
(Savor Seattle Food Tours: 888-987-2867, www.savorseattletours.com)
(Seattle’s Convention & Visitors Bureau: 866-732-2695, www.visitseattle.org)