I'd been trading emails with Maggie Savarino, soon to be ex of the Seattle Weekly, and I have no doubt that she sensed that thirst in me--the need to find a place to center myself, to gain a toehold on a city that, in the best of circumstances, is not exactly an easy place to get to know.
"You name the place," I told her. "Somewhere that's classic Seattle, you know? Somewhere you love. I'll be there."The place that she picked? The Athenian, inside Pike Place Market--a 100-year-old fixture and just about as suggestive of place and temper and history as any place in this city can be. We sat side by side at the old bar in the back, surrounded by fish-mongers and produce guys from the market just coming off work, by locals and tourists checking out the view, by bartenders grabbing a quick pick-me-up before heading for work elsewhere and cooks still in their whites clumped together at tables by the windows.
It was at the bar at the Athenian that my vision for this project, Seattle's Essential Dishes, really came together. Granted, I'd been told by my bosses that I had to do something to get my head around the massive amount of action happening in the city's restaurant scene. I'd been told to do some kind of Top 100 list of the city's best meals, or maybe an all-city wrap-up of the top-end eateries for a what's-hot-now sort of project. As a newcomer to the city, I wasn't in any position to say what was best (or worst, or even middling), and I wasn't comfortable with the notion of swanning around a bunch of fancy-pants dining rooms, eating a bite of this or that, then bailing out for the next place, and the next. I wanted something more moving, more affecting. And since I do truly believe that a city, a state or an entire country can be defined as much by the food that it eats as it can by the arts it supports, the work that it does or the ideals its people embody, I wanted a project that went a little deeper than "look at this yummy cheeseburger I ate!"
Thus, we have this--the very beginning of a list of the dishes which define and exemplify the city of Seattle; which, through their history, their ingredients, their preparation or the love that people have for them, each say something about the city itself, where it has come from and where it might be going in the future.
It's a list that came largely from you, the people of Seattle, the starving, opinionated and adventurous hordes. It's a list that comes partly from me, including dishes that have opened this city's restaurant scene up to me, one bite at a time, over the past few months. It's a list that, when completed, will hopefully offer a picture--a snapshot of the Emerald City at this moment in time envisioned solely through what we eat and why.
And for me, it all began one afternoon about three months ago, with two beers at the Athenian--sitting there on my stool, sipping cold lager through the ice crystals forming along the edges of the frozen head, and wondering what I was going to find when I finally went out into the city on my own and started eating my way through it. This list? Hopefully, it'll be an answer to that one elemental question, and a proof of the old Brillat-Savarin line: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are..."
For a more thorough definition of what I'm going for with this project, you can click through to my original Essential Dishes post from a month ago. Here, you'll also find a lot of the best suggestions that have come in from you--the people of Seattle--when I asked what dishes you thought defined the city you live in. And keep an eye on this space in the coming days and weeks as we (finally) get things rolling.