Seattle is an intriguing city where the outside neighborhoods of its limits are indeed still part of Seattle, yet each so individually distinct that they really are their own city. Nobody says the Ballard “part” of Seattle or the “north” of Seattle when referring to Wallingford. Perhaps, it is because they are across the water from the center of the city, as opposed to Capitol Hill and West Seattle and Queen Anne. Bellevue and Kirkland? Not neighborhoods of Seattle, those are complete other cities, yet still referred to in the same style as Fremont and Ballard.
Along the Lake Washington Ship Canal that connects Lake Washington to the east (and Lake Union) with the Ballard Shipping Yards and the Puget Sound to the west, Fremont lies between the water, Wallingford and its quirky shops to the east, the steep Phinney Ridge to the north, and Ballard’s sprawl to the west. When I refer to Phinney Ridge as steep, I mean it. Accidentally asking a taxi to drop me off at 45th Street and Phinney instead of 36th Street and Phinney, the actual site of the restaurant I was going to, the ten block walk down (with a suitcase) was like trying to inch down Half Dome at Yosemite. Luckily, my brakes were working.
Fremont was often an eclectic forgotten outpost of Seattle, but thanks in large part to the wonderful food culture of Seattle, Fremont has become one of the densest concentrations of places to shop and dine in the city. Like Cambridge and Berkeley, neighborhoods or near urban suburbs that mingle gentrification with counter-culture, Fremont has quite the mix of urban chic with Woodstock. Case in point: the center of the neighborhood’s “Center of the Universe” sign. It’s certainly a quirky landmark pointing you in every direction including Taiwan and the Louvre, but also is in a beautifully landscaped island in the middle of N. 35th Street. Nearby is another peculiar sculpture known as the Interurban, featuring six expressionless figures and a dog waiting for the train to come (and the namesake for the excellent IPA at Fremont Brewing Company).
The heart of Fremont lies at the intersection of N. 34th Street and Fremont Ave., the latter which leads to the Fremont Bridge heading back across the ship canal. The Burke-Gilman Trail for bikers, joggers, walkers, and the like runs along N. 34th for miles between Ballard and Lake Washington. The road includes all sorts of rowing clubs, diving institutes, and anything else of the aquatic persuasion. Not aquatic, but liquid themed nonetheless, the Fremont Brewing Company crafts its superb Universale Pale Ale, Interurban IPA, Dark Star Imperial Oatmeal Stout, and numerous other brews at N. 34th St and Woodland Park to the far east of Fremont. Of course what goes best in the building next to the brewery? A yoga studio of course.
The Fremont Brewing Company is east of the tall Aurora Bridge, the main artery between Central and North Seattle. The shorter, smaller Fremont Bridge is just west of the Aurora Bridge. Between the two along N. 34th Street is one of the new, Third Wave coffee outposts that have made this coffee-crazy city goes even crazier, Milstead & Co. Not actually a coffee roaster, Milstead & Co. uses some of the best beans from across the country, including an espresso from Heart in Portland during my visit. As terrific as the coffee is, it’s the tranquil, sparkling sunlit room, with flowers adorning tables and tiny plants along the walls that makes you realize how brilliant every day is if you spend some relaxation time here. While other modern coffeehouses are all about attitude, funk, and noise, this is the meditative zone.
To the west is the central intersection of Fremont, anchored by an obnoxious looking Blue Moon Burgers, a Peet’s Coffee (why go there instead of Milstead & Co.?), and Baguette Box, the destination du jour for the stroller moms of the neighborhood. Of course if there is a Peet’s here, then there must be a Starbucks one block up Fremont Ave.
More yoga studios, vintage boutiques, and record stores (you get the idea) line Fremont Ave. and its intersecting streets to the west, while residential communities lie to the north and east. The culinary tour goes into full gear on N. 36th St. (after the Center of the Universe sign and the statue of…Lenin), Norm’s Eatery & Ale House, Pete’s Fremont Fire Pit, and Quazis Indian Curry House. The Fremont Coffee Company here roasts their own beans and is located in a very cute cottage, but unfortunately its watery espresso cannot compete with Milstead & Co. down the hill.
The destination for dining here is the loud, celebratory Revel, where yes, diners revel each day and night over the exquisite “urban style Korean comfort food,” by Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, owners of the just as exciting, elder, more upscale Joule in Wallingford. The short rib rice bowl with sambal daikon and the pork belly kimchee pancake are the standards, but this is a cuisine truly unto its own. A celery and fennel based salad gets a vivid technicolor and texture mash-up from salmon roe, lemongrass gravlax, and slivered purple potatoes so distinctly its color that you’d swear somebody colored them with a marker.
The stand out is a dish of seaweed flecked noodles tossed with Dungeness crab in a pleasantly spicy thai red curry broth that you stir crême fraîche into as a thickening agent. Everything clicks, leaving you in a breathless, wordless state of sheer delight. It’s the dish that perfectly represents the colorful mash-up that is Revel and Fremont, where no labels or cuisines can define the creativity and skill on display. Revel also happens to have some of the most gracious servers you’ll ever encounter, a rarity in today at popular restaurant that get nationwide attention. You will wait at dinner time, but it’s worth it. Just grab a drink next door at the terrific sister bar Quoin, or one of the sixty or so beers on tap at Brouwer’s, one of the city’s premier beer bars, just one block south of Revel.
Dessert? Just one block south of Brouwer’s the factory for the Seattle legend Theo’s Chocolates. You can take tours or just buy chocolate, or better yet do both. This is the closest thing you’ll find to winning the golden ticket for a tour with Willy Wonka. There may be no chocolate rivers or oompa-loompas, but Fremont is a pretty magical place in its own way. Willy Wonka would be lucky to have Revel in his factory.