From artisanal coffee to mouthwatering oysters, specialty apparel, and thrifted gems, Seattle’s Ballard Avenue is a feast for the senses.
Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood is something of an island. Separated from the city by a drawbridge over the waterway that connects Lake Union to the Puget Sound and far away from major highways, a journey to the area can be a trek if you aren’t a resident. I was lucky enough to call myself a resident for three years post-college, a time period when I adopted a dog to explore the streets with, learned to love oysters (and hit up all the happy hours), and spent Friday nights bar-hopping on Ballard Avenue and Sundays strolling the farmers market. I was young, starting my career and reveling in post-collegiate possibility; there was nowhere in Seattle more exciting for kicking off my adult life than the hip haven of Ballard.
Ballard Avenue sits at the heart of the neighborhood. Roughly a half-mile stretch that runs parallel to Salmon Bay, the Ballard Avenue Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Today, the street is undeniably charming, and dotted with boutiques, restaurants, and watering holes, many of which have come together to battle through the challenges of this last year. (Ballardites are known for looking out for each other.)
After moving away in 2015, I didn’t make the journey back as frequently as might have liked. I spent almost half of each year working abroad, rarely home for more than six weeks at a time—just enough to catch my breath before flying off again, but not quite enough to roam over to Ballard. If the pandemic has afforded me anything, though, it’s time. Docked in Seattle for over a year now, I’ve rediscovered my old stomping ground with a fresh appreciation for its allure and resilience, and perhaps for my own as well.
It might be that I love Ballard Ave a bit extra lately because many of its shops and restaurants remind me of Europe. The neighborhood was settled in the mid-1800s by Nordic immigrants who left their mark in the form of red-brick buildings and an annual Viking Days festival. Today, one of those historic structures houses vintage emporium Lucky Dry Goods, the neighborhood’s best place for a treasure hunt—my most recent prize being a 1980s forest green Filson trapper hat that I wore all ski season. You’ll find Victorian-era gowns alongside well-worn Levi’s from the ’60s, plus a jewelry case full of creamy pearls and a selection of sweaters our Nordic friends would feel right at home in.
2. Caffè Umbria
No guide to any street in Seattle is complete without a coffee stop. Caffè Umbria has roots dating to 1984 when third-generation roaster Emanuele Bizzarri opened the first Seattle location in Pioneer Square, carrying on a family legacy traced back to Perugia, Italy in the 1940s. They added the Ballard outpost 30 years later, pouring signature artisanal roasts and dedicated to the traditions of coffee. The cozy space is a perfect place to post up when working from coffee shops makes sense again (I personally can’t wait for this!). For now, the sidewalk tables are great for people watching, or you can grab a latte to go as you stroll the rest of the street.
Back when I lived in Ballard, every Sunday my then-boyfriend, my dog, and I would walk the three blocks from our apartment to the Ballard Farmers Market to shop for dinner. This was a targeted mission: pick up pasta from Sam and Sara Lucchese at the Pasteria Lucchese stall, then seek out whatever ingredients they told us would make a good sauce or side pairing. We’d score wild boar ravioli, saffron tagliatelle, or chestnut fettuccine, plus Sara’s famous rice pudding for dessert. As a bonus, I was learning Italian at the time and Sam (who is originally from Genoa) was a generous conversation partner.
For over a decade, the Luccheses have been manning their weekly stall, hawking handmade pasta to a dedicated group of customers like myself. They eventually grew, adding a wood-fire pizza stand called Vespucci Pizza and a crepe cart named La Crespella. Business was booming—but then the pandemic hit.
The Ballard Farmers Market closed in mid-March 2020 and opened again, with restrictions, in late April. The Luccheses offered some delivery and pickup options but didn’t return to their pasta stall until the end of May (it’d be a full year before they reopened the pizza and crepe stands for to-go food only). By then, they’d lost all but one employee and struggled to stay afloat as market attendance plummeted, but they carried on. “From the very beginning, we received an incredible amount of support,” says Sam Lucchese. “A lot of our customers stepped up to say, ‘Hey, I’ll order your lasagna. I’ll order cannelloni. What dessert can you make me?’ I was really touched.”
On a recent Sunday, I resumed my tradition and popped by the stall to buy duck ravioli from Sara. The market had a long line to enter and visitors were asked to shop quickly, yet there was a promising energy in the air as I weaved through the crowd, everyone trying to keep a safe distance. “I truly hope we can stay at the market and continue our adventure, our journey,” says Lucchese. “I’m staying positive, though the future is unknown. At least we’re selling a ton of lasagna.”
4. San Fermo
Looking for a dining experience that feels like you’re in the Scandinavian farmhouse of a very stylish Italian nonna? This confluence of cultures may sound conflicting, but set inside two of Seattle’s oldest residential properties—a couple of 1880s homes joined together to form the space—it just…works. A visit to San Fermo is as cozy and welcoming as it is delicious, a sort of hygge-meets-conviviality vibe. Order the Bolognese and the spot prawns (if they’re in season). Though they’ve packed away the two private igloos they built out front for winter dining, a seat on the porch with a Negroni in hand on a warm summer evening is about as good as it gets.
5. Percy’s & Co
Remember craft cocktails? Garnishes? Obscure ingredients you don’t have on your home bar cart that are mixed so perfectly and served in the glassware they’re meant for? Walking into Percy’s feels a bit like déjà vu for all of that now—in part, I’m sure, because many of the nights I’ve spent here have ended in a haze. For my birthday in January, two of my girlfriends and I perched on stools at a back-patio communal table split up by plexiglass dividers. We drank sage-infused bourbon and an herbal gin cocktail dubbed the Honey Bee with lavender bitters and a sprig of rosemary. A few months before that, I broke up with someone over fried pickles and nutmeg-chai brandies served hot on the picnic tables out front. Looking forward, I’m hoping for much more of the former activity than the latter.
During last summer’s puzzle mania, Prism couldn’t seem to keep any in stock. The light-filled boutique that’s been my go-to gift spot for years carried a surprisingly chic selection of puzzles worthy of framing once you’d finished, and the whole city was after them. My friends and I managed to secure a few and we traded them around, putting the boxes in quarantine for a couple of days before we were sure how long the virus might live on cardboard. Now, we’re back to visiting Prism for its beautifully curated selection of handmade jewelry, geometric candles, art books, and clothing by independent designers.
In the past year, I’ve made several purchases for the first time in my life: a Yeti cooler, a hammock, a packable stove, a paddleboard, a flannel button-down. I’ve always loved to camp and will hike if someone asks really nicely, but I’m now at a level of preparedness that would shock pre-COVID me. And I’m not alone—Seattleites have been rushing to stock up on outdoor gear as the pandemic pushed us further into the spectacular Pacific Northwest wilderness that surrounds us. They don’t call it the Emerald City for nothing.
It’s a trend Ascent Outdoors owner Sandeep Nain watched spike as he’s worked to keep the store in stock of snowshoes, tents, and climbing gear. “No one has been able to travel. Combine that cabin fever with extra time and, perhaps, the extra money they were otherwise planning to spend on a vacation, and you can see why people are looking to try new things outdoors,” he says. Nain, who also runs a guide company that leads climbing and backpacking trips around the world, took over Ascent Outdoors and reopened it in the fall of 2019 after a sudden bankruptcy closure that April. His first year was quite the ride, going from a successful grand reopening in August through the typically slow winter months only to get hit by a pandemic when things should have started picking up. “Ballard is a unique community. The locals care a lot about their small businesses,” he says.”People bought gift cards and sent emails of encouragement. That kind of love and warmth was really amazing.” By the time June rolled around, online sales and curbside pickup had helped sustain the business so they could carefully reopen.
For outdoor newbies, Nain recommends popular area hikes like Mt. Si or Poo Poo Point on Tiger Mountain where the trails may be busy but you won’t lose your way. First-time climbers might want to try routes off of Exit 38, but he advises caution no matter where you go. “If you’re new to climbing, make sure you take some classes or go with experienced friends,” he says. “And for any backcountry skiing or snowshoeing, I recommend an avalanche class.” As for me, I’m taking my setup to backpack on the beach this summer, but if I’m feeling even more adventurous, I know just where to get some more gear.
A tiny jewel-box of a restaurant, The Walrus and the Carpenter has always been a place of celebration, and this past year didn’t manage to change that. Last summer, when my best friend announced her engagement to a small group of girls, it was while sitting in a decorated tent in the converted back parking lot. And I think I fell in love when a date ordered two of every oyster on the menu while we occupied a cozy corner of the petit covered patio in January.
The state mandates shuttered the restaurant last March, but they were able to reopen in June when restrictions allowed limited indoor and outdoor dining capacity. “Obviously there have been some adjustments, but in a way, it almost feels back to normal,” says Chef de Cuisine Breckin VanRaalte. The restaurant set up a reservation system for the first time (walk-in spots are now hard to come by), adjusted seating as needed, upped their to-go game, and started a surprisingly affordable take-home Sunday Supper program. VanRaalte, an Illinois native who came to Seattle by way of Chicago (where she worked at the Michelin-starred Spiaggia), started running the kitchen at Walrus in 2018. “I’ve never been exposed to so much amazing produce and seafood,” she says. “In the Midwest, it’s all meat and potatoes. I don’t think I ever had a truly good mussel until I moved here.”
Dishes like the grilled sardines and scallop crudo are standouts, as well as the steak tartare with crunchy rye toast. Ingredients are sourced close to home, and VanRaalte is grateful that the restaurant’s success can be passed on to local farmers. “If I’ve learned anything from the last year, it’s that coming together as a community is more important than ever,” she says. “I hope it stays that way.”