Seattle — THE choice wasn't easy: ostrich jerky or octopus-chickpea bruschetta? While my hungry friend tried to decide, I listened for corks popping at a wine tasting half a block away.
We were at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market -- not to be confused with Pike Place Market, where fishmongers toss salmon around like Frisbees. That midtown bazaar, on the Seattle itinerary of tourists from Tombstone to Teaneck, is three miles south of Ballard, an enchanting, self-contained neighborhood that's an alternative to the big city for any day or weekend.
Seattle has dozens of neighborhoods spread across its 90 square miles, connected by bridges spanning freshwater lakes and the saltwater sound. Each has its own vibe, its own heartbeat and its own hardware store.
None, however, has been transformed in the last decade like Ballard. Its triangle-shaped hub nestles at the edge of Salmon Bay, where fishing boats and pleasure vessels parade by on their way into Puget Sound. On the easily navigable streets, you'll find art galleries, alehouses and clothing stores, two of Seattle's top live-music clubs and more than 25 restaurants.
Ballard, settled by Scandinavians in the mid-19th century, got its soul from the generations of fishermen who docked here, built homes and toasted 18-hour days in its many saloons. When Seattle annexed Ballard in 1907, residents cried, "Free Ballard!" -- an expression that survives today on bumper stickers and T-shirts.
These days, the Nelsons and Andersons still attend weddings at the Sons of Norway Lodge, eat Swedish pancake breakfasts at the Nordic Heritage Museum and carry home gravlax from Olsen's Scandinavian Foods. But when Seattle home prices began skyrocketing in the 1990s, Ballard laid out the velkommen mat to artists, shopkeepers, musicians and others fleeing the city's pricier areas. The renaissance has prompted much head scratching by those who remember it when.
WHEN I took my friend Shannon, visiting from Minneapolis, to the Sunday market in late September, the sea-sweet aroma of the sound wafted through the morning air and the white-capped Olympic Mountains beckoned from the west. We joined Seattle-ites of every age, sexual orientation and ZIP Code filling their canvas bags with heirloom tomatoes, pastries from Little Prague European Bakery, newly caught oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms -- even worm tea concentrate "for healthy, vigorous plants."
We arrived early enough to nab a table at Hattie's Hat, a century-old diner known for its late-night comfort food, a persuasive Bloody Mary and all-day weekend brunches. The Hattie's Hash -- corned beef, potatoes, red beets and green peppers topped with two poached eggs -- did well in soaking up the happy hour we had enjoyed the night before, bellied up to Hattie's 1904 hand-carved French bar.
Hattie's is a pit stop nearly seven nights a week for those heading to the Tractor Tavern, Seattle's most eclectic club. The Tractor's intimate setting -- featuring a crystalline sound system and cowboy boots hanging from the ceiling -- can be a jaw-dropping place to catch bands that often play larger venues in other cities.
The market was an ideal place for Shannon to get her bearings and feed off Ballard's independent energy, as hundreds of Washington state farmers, craftspeople and street performers overran Ballard Avenue. The street is closed to cars during the six-hour fair, except during the winter months, when the market shrinks by half and moves to a nearby parking lot.
After Shannon polished off Bruschettina's crunchy toast coated with sauteed octopus (her eventual choice), we were off to Portalis Wine Bar. The store's facade opens to the market, reeling in new customers every Sunday. The sweet cherry finish of the 2003 Allegrini Valpolicella was a tonic to wash away the potent garlic from the aforementioned snack.
With a niece's birthday in mind, we followed the parade into the children's shop Clover, where thought-provoking toys are geared to art and science. Children turn the front room into playtime central, often sending one parent fleeing across the street to Camelion Design's home and garden furnishings shop or down the block for a pint of Pacific Northwest at the Old Town Alehouse, which is in a 107-year-old building that one saloon or another has occupied since Day One.
Other two- and three-story brick Italianate structures along Ballard Avenue house lawyers, architects and artists. A century ago, these were banks and hotels, but many businesses moved to nearby Market Street in the 1920s.
Over on Market, locals complement their caffeine buzz at Verite Coffee with built-from-scratch snacks from the adjoining Cupcake Royale. Shannon called the vanilla butter-cream cupcake "criminally good." Lingering customers took comfort in the high ceilings, cushioned couches and Wi-Fi technology.