City Portrait: Seattle's Coffee Culture

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Two events herald my approach to Seattle from the north on Interstate 5. First, the ominous coalescence of scattered clouds quickens as I'm leaving the Olympic Mountains' rain shadow, proof that Seattle's soggy reputation is richly deserved. Second, the smattering of cars turns into a packed, four-lane steel stampede as I approach Everett, Seattle's northern outpost. Avoiding the evening rush hour, I turn west off I-5 into Lynnwood and check into the Rodeo Inn on 99. Among the amenities, the roaring from the Interstate provides an incessant aural backdrop.

In the middle of the last century, Seattle pondered a critical decision: Should Interstate 5 run through the city center? Deciding in favor of an urban freeway has shaped the city's growth, spawning "Pugetropolis," a sprawl of communities along the I-5 corridor around Puget Sound including Everett, Tacoma, and Olympia. Already numbering three million people (more than half of Washington's population), futurists expect the corridor to extend 500 miles north to Whistler, BC, and south to Eugene, Oregon. But Seattle and its increasingly sclerotic artery, Interstate 5, will remain at Metro Cascadia's core.

Like most great seaports, Seattle has a superb natural harbor. Shielded by the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound forms a deep-water basin of islands, inlets, and promontories. Seattle sits on an isthmus between Puget Sound and Lake Washington.

And although fishing and ocean freight are still important, Seattle's modern character is shaped by three totally unrelated industries: aerospace, it's home to the world's biggest plane maker, Boeing; software, thanks mostly to Microsoft; and, perhaps to ward off the chill of all those wet winter days - coffee.

It's the first Wednesday of the month, so I have another good reason to be in Seattle. At 7 pm the Vintage Motorcycle Enthusiasts club meets in Teddy's bar on Roosevelt Way at 65th Avenue in the university district. I point the Sprint south on I-5 to exit 170. The pleasant summer evening guarantees a sizeable turnout and the avenue is lined with bikes on both sides for at least two blocks, with the added sideshow of impromptu burnouts. Though nominally a vintage club, the VME attracts interest from the broader biking community, too, and the curiosities cover everything from the wartime Harley WLA parked outside Teddy's door to modern sport bikes and cruisers. It's a great place to hang out and watch the show - with a coffee of course.

Although many outlets in Seattle blend their own coffees, three players dominate the market: the ubiquitous Starbucks, Seattle's Best (with its up-market spin-off, Torrefazione Italia), and Tully's. Merging the largest two retailers, Starbucks announced the purchase of Seattle's Best from AFC Corporation on April 16, 2003. The remaining competition, Tully's, is only distributed in the Pacific Northwest.

Coffee has its own lingo, especially in Seattle. Ordering a Skinny Harmless on a Leash will get you a decaffeinated café latte made with no-fat milk in a cup with handles. Also known as a Why Bother with Wings...

Even the unbranded drip coffee I drink with my breakfast muffin the next day tastes exotic. Back on I-5, I take the Mercer Street exit and follow signs for Denny Way. I'm looking for the statue of Chief Seattle, who was neither a chief nor named Seattle, and he probably didn't write the prophetic discourse about the demise of North America's aboriginal peoples credited to him. Sealth (SEE-alth) was a tyee - an elder of the Duwamish people, but not their chief. And his supposed speech is now thought to be a creative paraphrasing by newspaperman Dr. Henry A. Smith for the Seattle Sunday Star of October 29, 1887 - though based on an address Sealth gave during treaty negotiations in 1854.

Denny Way comes to a sudden dead end in a parking lot. In the 1920s, the city planners decided Denny Hill stood in the way of growth, so they simply removed it. The hill was washed away with high-pressure water (a technique developed during the Yukon gold rush) and the soil loaded on to self-dumping barges and emptied into Puget Sound. The Denny Regrade was completed in 1930. I circle back to 7th Avenue, which brings me right to Sealth's monument. The "Chief" stands ignominiously on his plinth surrounded by construction.

Nearby one finds the Science Center, home of Seattle's 1962 World's Fair and its best-known structure, the Space Needle. I wander through the complex, which looks dated and a little shabby, though Seattleites are very proud of it.

Seattle's waterfront, like San Francisco's, is dotted with the piers from which ships once transferred cargo now mostly restaurants and tourist shops line the way. A trolley line runs along the waterfront, and though Seattle had many of its own trolleys at one time, these streetcars come from Melbourne, Australia! I sit outside the Bell Street Deli sipping, what else, a coffee. An Americano this time - espresso with hot water.

I cruise the waterfront to the renowned Pike Place Market and find "motorcycle only" parking. Great! The main attraction here is the Pike Place Fish Company. Sal-mon and whole halibut soar through the air every time a customer makes a purchase. A gimmick, perhaps, but effective and entertaining too. The show is popular with audience and staff, so much so that the company is the subject of a number of training videos.

A short ride along 1st Avenue takes me to Pioneer Square, Seattle's symbolic birthplace. The famous cast-iron pergola (originally a canopy over what were said in 1910 to be the most ornate public washrooms in the western US) was rebuilt in 2001 after being demolished by a careening semi-truck.

Heading south, I join Rainier Avenue and try to find a route to the top of Beacon Hill. I'm looking for a viewpoint over the two new stadiums built to house the Seahawks NFL and Mariners baseball teams. Seattle's famous Kingdome started to disintegrate some years ago and was demolished. I follow Rainier Avenue to Orcas Street and head east to Lake Washington Way. Riding north, the road winds along the lakeside past parks, boat ramps, and swank mansions. I pause at a Starbucks in the tiny community of Leschi, a nouveau riche village of joggers, SUVs, and art stores.

Further north, I loop round onto 520, the Evergreen Point Bridge to Bellevue. Two floating bridges join Seattle city with the eastern shore of Lake Washington, the other being the Lacey V. Murrow Bridge on I-90, which sank while undergoing renovation in 1990, but is now back in operation.

I cruise north on Lake Washington Boulevard, admiring the expansive opulence and tony malls of Seattle's affluent eastside communities - Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, and Bothell. Seattlites call this hi-tech corridor Billville - a mildly grudging reference to the economic prosperity created by Microsoft and its support industries. The Bill, of course, is Microsoft founder William H. Gates III.

I pick up I-405 and point the Sprint north to Totem Lake Boulevard. I'm heading for Café Veloce, a decidedly motorcycle-friendly restaurant where the interior features evocative motorcycles, art, and artifacts from the golden age of Italian street racing. It's time for a tasty pasta meal topped off with - what else - a steaming Seattle espresso.