I LIKE LEANING on counters. Usually there's a reward for doing so: being able to lean in and order a cocktail, leanin' over to get

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Counterculture

Stool-hopping at local countertops.

I LIKE LEANING on counters. Usually there's a reward for doing so: being able to lean in and order a cocktail, leanin' over to get a view of the ice cream options, leaning up to see what's inside ("Don't lean on the glass!"), leaning against it to brace yourself against the crush of the crowd, or leaning on the rail to take the weight off your aching feet. Bellying up to counters with stools is even better—an opportunity to hunker down and order steak and eggs, a place to lay out the newspaper, a spot for an endless cup of coffee, or, on a really bad day, a place to lay your head, praying someone in a mustard-colored dress and apron will put her hand on your shoulder and sweetly offer a cup of tea and a hot meal. Counters are also social, shoulder-to-shoulder, slide-the-sugar, hey-where- are-you-from?, borrowing-the-A-1 kinda places—the grown-up equivalent of sitting in a high chair, feet dangling, waiting for a slice of cherry pie. Seattle has some great countertops, from Pioneer Square's grizzled J&M saloon (careful not to get counterpunched) to the hip-happening Vivace coffee counter (the caffeine counteracts the sleepiness) to Ivar's oyster bar (seating there is counterclockwise). Here are four more we thought you might want to know about, should you need a little counter space, counterintelligence, or just a place to be counterproductive. 13 COINS

125 Boren N, 682-2513

The first things you notice about the counter at 13 Coins are the 23 curved, high-backed swiveling chairs. Swinging into position, you feel like the Romulan leader seen on the big screen in every Star Trek episode ever broadcast—powerful, in charge, and hungry for a pepper steak. On earth, these boothlike chairs protect you from harm and passersby, and, along with your own overhead-lamp dimmer, add a wonderful layer of privacy. Most of the food is designed to give you a heart attack: Witness the vats of butter and parmesan behind the counter being tossed into eggs Benedict, manicotti, Italian sausage, beef Stroganoff, and bacon frittatas. (They will go out of their way, however, to accommodate special health requests.) The bread is soft, the butter balls plentiful, and the antipasti that greets each diner a welcoming touch. It's fun to watch the four chefs fill orders ranging from the ordinary (Denver omelette, $9.25) to the deluxe (veal scallopini alla marsala, $18.75). Beware: In seats five and six you might have your eyebrows singed by saut饤 shrooms or flaming wine sauces. (Fire in the hole!) Still, I've learned more about cooking at the Coins' counter than I ever did watching the Galloping Gourmet. Best of all, at 13 Coins it's 24-7. Countertop that. HARVEST VINE

2701 E Madison, 320-9771

Friends said, "When you go to Harvest Vine, you've got to sit at the counter." I thought they meant it would be a better dining experience; in reality, you pretty much HAVE to sit at the counter, as there are only three small tables but 12 fabulously rickety wicker stools for patrons. The great thing about being at the copper-top counter is that you can ask for all sorts of stuff all the time: sherry (Tio Pepe, like paint thinner, an acquired taste), Rioja Alta wine, bread, olives, water, another napkin, and tons of tapas, the specialty of the house. This is a social experience—there's no hiding in a booth here. At Harvest Vine you find yourself talking to your neighbors about wine, then real estate, then dot-coms (of course), and then the grilled shrimp ("Delicious! Want to try one?"). It's generally a positive experience; then again, when the ignoramus next to you shouts at the chef that the squid being delicately prepared in your honor looks like an alien fetus from the movie, you want a private table. Watching the chefs prepare tostadas de Queso Azul Asturiano (blue cheese and pears), chorizo, Gambas al Ajillo, or chuletas de Cordero Lechal (grilled baby lamb chops) will make your mouth water, and the ordering of food will be a feeding frenzy. Beware: Two of us rang up a bill of $125, and we barely scratched the surface. Then again, chef Joseph Jim鮥z de Jim鮥z's Black Bottom Espresso Flan is worth a month's salary all by itself. THE ATHENIAN INN

1517 Pike Place Market, 624-7166

Forget the pie counters of deco diners. The best counters are bar counters, serious boards used for sliding lagers, moonshine, brewskies, and shots of whiskey on down the line. The Athenian (est. 1909), in the heart of Pike Place Market, is one of those places: classically seedy, all business, with a historic bonus enabling drinkers to hearken back to the days of the Gold Rush. With a smashing view of the Olympics and ferry traffic on the Sound, the Athenian is as happening a spot as Rainville holds; one of the first restaurants in Seattle to get a liquor license (in 1933), it has a diverse menu, friendly staff, and a counter not to be missed. Get there during workin' hours, as it's a 6:30am-7pm establishment, emphasizing Bloodies in the early hours and half-price draft beers (20 on tap) before noon (75 cents a schooner!). At happy hour, well drinks are $2 (5-6:30pm). Don't go in expecting a yuppified postrehab chichi lounge like Chez Shea or Place Pigalle. Instead, step into a bit of authentic old-time reality—the Athenian's scuffed floors and craggy regulars are as much a part of Seattle's historic market as the Pig or the produce stalls ever were. There's simply no other place like it. NIKKO

Westin Hotel, 1900 Fifth, 322-4641

At Nikko's elegant sushi counter in the Westin Hotel, you can watch a veteran sushi master named Steve (according to the nametag) slice and prepare a gorgeous meal of fresh salmon (sake), yellowtail (hamachi), tuna (maguro), or exquisite sushi rolls. "Steve" is actually Shigeo Taniguchi (now you know why they call him Steve), a Seattle sushi icon for 30 years who started at the now-extinct Mikado. Herewith, a few pointers: *Sushi chefs are not bartenders; ask your waitperson (usually someone in a kimono) for all beverages as well as grilled items on the menu. Sushi chefs do sushi. *Sushi is raw fish. Some of it comes on little beds of rice two at a time like Noah's Ark (nigiri), some of it is served in roll form (six to an order), and some comes in a big pile of sliced, raw freshness (sashimi). But you knew that. *Don't order all at one time; pace yourself and linger. Talk. Sample. And feel free to point in the case and ask, "What's that?" *Drink Kirin beer and sake (traditionally served cold) with your dinner. *You can eat sushi with your hands, dipping the ingenious edibles in soy sauce and wasabi (unless it's sashimi, in which case, use the sticks). *The Sushi Master is wise. If he suggests something fresh, try it. If he really likes you, you might find yourself eating an amazingly artistic swan created entirely out of raw fish, carrots, and seaweed.

 
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