Monday, January 31, 2011

Exploring Seattle: Columbia City Afternoon

Sometimes I like to play tourist in my own city and stray into districts beyond my normal haunts. How about you?

With our plentiful hills, ridges, lakes, and Puget Sound creating natural boundaries, Seattle’s varied geography divides the city into distinct neighborhoods with unique flavors.

I haven’t been to Columbia City in a few years, and today I’m lured there by Columbia City Bakery and the novelty of riding our new light rail line. Seattle is a latecomer to light rail compared to ├╝ber-progressive Portland. But the first link in our light rail system makes it much easier and quicker to get to south Seattle without battling traffic on I-5.

It’s a classic rainy, gray Northwest winter day when we catch Link in the downtown Seattle transit tunnel. After we emerge from the tunnel and make a few stops, the route takes an eastward turn and rises to an elevated guideway before plunging into a tunnel through Beacon Hill. Great view of downtown.

After only about 10 minutes, we hop off at the Columbia City station on MLK Way. It’s a 3-block walk to the core Columbia City business district. Oh well. I wouldn’t live here if I couldn’t handle walking in the rain.

Columbia City lies in one of the more ethnically diverse parts of Seattle, Rainier Valley, and started “gentrifying” over a decade ago. It was a big deal when the Starbucks opened here, and they even brought in Magic Johnson for the grand opening. Since then, the main two-block stretch of businesses has morphed and is now lined with hip eateries and pubs, gift shops, an art gallery, an indie bookstore, meat shop, and of course that fabulous bakery. In the summer the local farmer’s market draws fans from around the city.

We wander past La Medusa, the first destination restaurant to open here, but it’s not open for lunch. Julie suggests Geraldine’s, a busy, warm diner-type spot, but I’m craving Asian, so we end up at The Spice Room, a Thai restaurant.

We’re enveloped in a sleek, modern, dimly lit setting inside the Spice Room, which seems more suited for an evening out than a lunch break. Our food is good, but to be honest, ever since I had Thai food in Thailand, American Thai restaurants pale a bit in comparison.

We start with fresh veggie spring rolls, nicely presented, and then split a very spicy green papaya salad and a chicken garlic stir-fry with veggies and brown rice. After tip, we each spend a little over $17. (More than I’d really like for lunch, but next time I need to pay attention to the prices on the menu, not just the food.)

Across the street, Tuttabello’s Pizzeria is packed as we walk past. Same with Geraldine’s.

Inside the Columbia City Gallery, the brightly lit whitewashed walls are a welcome contrast to the gray afternoon. Instantly I see about 10 things I’d like to take home. This gallery has an eclectic offering of paintings, mixed media, ceramics, prints, framing services, hand-crafted jewelry, and lower-priced, artsy knick knacks for easy gifting.

For things African, Baol’s African Imports is a cozy, narrow shop stuffed with wooden masks, baskets, beads, and more. This neighborhood, after all, is one of the more African-American in Seattle. We pop in and pop out, overwhelmed with the quantity of merchandise in here.

Of course I have to spend time in the Bookworm Exchange, the neighborhood indie bookstore. Tall shelves are lined with used and new books, and I see some great deals on recently released, slightly used books. It’s with considerable restraint that I walk out without a book purchase. Too bad I didn’t buy anything because I just read that the owner is considering closing in a few months due to slow sales.

“Is it bakery time yet?” I ask Julie as we near the end of the business strip.

Yes, ‘tis bakery time. Even on a damp winter day, people are willing to eat at the sidewalk tables because the Columbia City Bakery is packed and hopping.

Good bakeries make me happy. Everybody seems happy in this good bakery. Beautiful cookies, pastries, cakes, pies, cupcakes, sandwiches, homemade granola, crostini, interesting artisan bread…oh my!

We split a poached pear/frangipane tartlet, which we both ingest quickly. But not without savoring the crumbly buttery crust and perfectly poached pear topped with crunchy toasted almonds. For the road I grab a refreshingly small chocolate chip cookie and a peanut butter thumbprint cookie stuffed with raspberry jam. These small treats are exquisite, as expected.

Within a couple hours of our arrival, we’re ready to head back north to downtown. Lucky for us, we only have to wait about 3 minutes for the next train.

When You Go
Columbia City lies about 5 miles south of downtown Seattle, east of the Beacon Hill ridge that lines Interstate 5. Besides the places I mentioned, for nightlife, try Lottie’s or the Columbia City Ale House and then catch a movie at the historic Columbia City Cinema, “Seattle’s Coolest Neighborhood Theater.”


Anne said...

Wonderful as always, thanks for introducing us to neighborhoods you normally just whiz by on the freeway.

Lindsey said...

Yum those spring rolls look very delicious. I will have to check out Columbia City, i have not been yet. nice to know there are new places to check out so close.

Barry said...

Go back to Geraldine's - worth a trip!

And the bakery! Oh, I'm so glad that it's located in Columbia City and not in Green Lake or the U-District!

Anonymous said...

ya sure:

Columbia City via the light rail is a good way to spend some time. There are some interesting spots to visit and a variety of cafes and restaurants. In addition, if there is time, you can stop off at the International District-Chinatown on the way back to the Westlake Station in downtown.