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Ivar’s the Great

Bread bowls, folk songs, and acres of clams — one writer’s deep dive into the iconic seafood chain that anchored her childhood

On this sunny, 55-degree Tuesday in March it feels like the whole of Seattle is on vacation. There are moms with strollers and hot dog vendors and gaggles of teenagers crowded along the city’s waterfront. I hear seagulls in the distance, that faint soundtrack of voices and birds and cars inching past looking for parking — but I don’t see them. I keep walking, past the aquarium, some souvenir shops, and finally a candy store, before arriving at last at Pier 54. The gulls, I discover, have found the best place on the waterfront to converge: the seafood bar outside Ivar’s Acres of Clams.

A statue of Ivar’s founder Ivar Haglund feeding french fries to hungry gulls sits outside the restaurant. Decades ago, a neighboring business posted signs demanding people stop feeding the birds, which were becoming entitled and cantankerous thanks to tourists’ well-intentioned offerings. But Haglund posted a sign of his own near the outdoor seating area for the fish bar: “Seagulls welcome! Seagull lovers welcome to feed seagulls in need.” A variation of the sign is still there today (along with an admonition not to feed any pigeons or birds that come into the covered eating area).

The last time I was here, back when my mom still lived in Seattle, everything was dark and empty. But now, thanks to the beginnings of a $688 million project to make the waterfront more pedestrian- and tourist-friendly, the area is barely recognizable. The city is demolishing the old Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated freeway that separated the water from downtown Seattle and cast a literal shadow over the once-bustling area. Parking lots are being replaced by more green space, bike paths, and an easy way to get from Pike Place Market to the waterfront’s other classic attractions like the aquarium, Ferris wheel, and countless T-shirt shops.

Chowder, clam bellies, and fish and chips are staples at Ivar’s

The old and new sit together in an uneasy stalemate. People stand on the sidewalk, phones outstretched, recording the Viaduct’s demolition across the street. I stand there with them, watching machines crumble concrete like they’re taking bites out of the infrastructure. It’s rare that you see a city decide what it wants to be, and Seattle wants its residents to feel as though they have all the advantages of a megalopolis like New York without trapping them between hot slabs of concrete walkways and buildings. The tourism board even tried to coin a term for it — “Metronatural” — referring to “a blending of clear skies and expansive water with a fast-paced city life.” Residents mocked the slogan but people kept moving there anyway. Today Seattle is a tech city, a place where the water feels like little more than a photo opportunity. The canneries and fishing-supply companies that once leased spaces on these piers live on only in restaurants serving seafood by the water.

There’s a crowd underneath the large “Ivar’s Fish Bar” neon sign when I walk up to order. The menus are written in faux-chalkboard style, and someone has stenciled the word “SEAFOOD” onto the small tiles beneath the counter. I’m hungry and excited to revisit Ivar’s for the first time since childhood. Yet I can’t help but worry that this bowl of chowder might not be as good as I remember; things are sometimes better when you leave them in the past.

The original Ivar’s Acres of Clams, with acres of neon signage, in the 1940s

Ivar’s Acres of Clams has been here in one form or another since the late 1930s. It was the first of what’s become a statewide chain, complete with 21 seafood bars and two other sit-down restaurants throughout Washington. Over the last 80-some years, Ivar’s has earned its status as a Pacific Northwest institution but Acres, with its high prices ($25 for a salmon Caesar salad or $68 for a lobster tail surf and turf) feels like a place for tourists. Those in the know order food from the walk-up counter just next to the restaurant and eat at one of the many tables nearby (covered and uncovered, so no one has to worry about soggy food from the frequent Pacific Northwest rains).

People come to Ivar’s fish bar because they serve all the stuff you want to eat at the waterfront: chowders, seafood cocktails, and fish and chips. Ivar’s fish and chips are light and crispy, and the batter doesn’t separate from the cod fillets like so many subpar versions; one could almost imagine these cod swimming through the ocean with the crunchy breading for skin.

The bar offers a choice of white chowder (with just enough bacon to impart flavor but not so much that you feel like you’re eating bacon chowder with a sprinkle of clams), smoked salmon chowder, or a red chowder made with tomatoes. I’m a chowder purist; I always choose classic white. Though most people associate chowder with New England, the West Coast has done plenty to keep the chowder flowing. San Francisco may have added the sourdough bread bowl but the Pacific Northwest, with its damp winters and proliferation of shellfish, inspires thick sweaters and bowls of hot chowder — whether made from clams or the similarly abundant smoked salmon. There are plenty of other places to get chowder at the waterfront. But for me, the Ivar’s version is the taste of home.

When I was 9, my family and I moved to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, an hour’s drive and a ferry ride from Seattle. Our house was covered in shingles and wisteria vines. We had a pasture with sheep and a peacock that liked to sit outside my mom and stepdad’s window at 6 a.m. and do his loud mating call. The acoustics, I guess, were fantastic.

The three years there were the longest I ever stayed in one house as a kid. And the house on Whidbey felt like a magical place, full of memories entwined like a patch of ivy, thickening with time. I have a terrible sense of direction, which I’ve always attributed, at least in part, to all the moving around throughout my childhood — the result of divorce and the dot-com boom and bust. I never had the time to get my bearings before we were off somewhere else again.

The takeaway window at Ivar’s
The walk-up fish bar at Ivar’s on the Seattle waterfront

The waterfront Ivar’s seafood bar is short-staffed today, and the employees ask people to step forward and order first the fried food, then everything else. It’s a confusing system but it works out in the end. I order something called “clam nectar,” imagining it served like an oyster shooter. The guys behind the counter shout out my order, “Three-piece cod and chips! Cup of chowder!” then fall into a whisper to add, “and a clam nectar too.”

In the 1970s, Haglund advertised the clam nectar by announcing that men needed permission from their wives to order more than three cups. Clam nectar, it turns out, was an uncontrollable aphrodisiac. Are clams, which don’t have sex to reproduce, just two shells containing a lifetime of frustrated libido?

The nectar comes in a paper cup, the kind of thing one usually has with coffee or a scalding tea. The nectar, which is essentially clam broth, spices, and butter, is light and rich, full of umami but without the heavy mouthfeel of a fatty pork broth. It’s delicious. I try it multiple times after multiple fishy palate-cleansers like chowder and chips, to be sure it was the nectar I was tasting.

Ivar Haglund among his “acres of clams”

Advertising clam nectar as an aphrodisiac was the kind of stunt Haglund pulled all the time. In 1947, a railroad tank car of corn syrup ruptured, sending a sticky-sweet slide out onto the waterfront. Haglund put on a pair of hip boots, ordered up a large stack of pancakes from his kitchen, and waded into the streets. When the newspapers came, they found him surrounded by syrup, spooning it onto his breakfast. A photo of him was passed through the newswires and found its way into papers around the world. A couple days before the Viaduct opened, Haglund hired a brass band to play outside Acres of Clams and invited everyone to help him give thanks to the city for building “acres of covered parking” outside his restaurant.

Haglund also often accidentally stepped into local politics. In 1976, he purchased the Smith Tower, Seattle’s first skyscraper, and flew a custom 16-foot windsock shaped like a salmon on top of it. When the city tried to have him take it down for a code violation, he protested in the form of bad poetry. Supporters (and even city officials) made their arguments in verse. When it was Haglund’s turn to talk, he urged the city not to make their decision too quickly “in light of all this free publicity.” The board approved the salmon.

Ivar’s is the only restaurant I’ve been able to develop much nostalgia for at all. Growing up, going out to eat was for special occasions — vacations or birthdays — but at Ivar’s I became a regular. Every time we left Whidbey Island to go shopping or watch a movie at the Seattle IMAX, we took the ferry, which let us off about an hour’s drive from the city at the Mukilteo Terminal. I was usually ravenous by the time we were on our way home, and if there was a line to get back on the ferry — something that could take up to an hour on a bad day — my parents would give me some money and let me walk down to grab something quick at Ivar’s. Then, as now, the Mukilteo Ivar’s, which has a restaurant on the waterfront with a view of Whidbey Island and a seafood bar, has one thing that no other location offers: soft serve ice cream. Soft serve and chowder may seem like strange bedfellows (my god, the cream), but not to a hungry 10-year-old.

Chains like this, that have been around for decades, give us the luxury of repetition — the experience of eating the same thing as you grow up into a different person. It’s why even a meal as simple as a bowl of chowder with ice cream can become a barometer for personal change. It’s also why I’m a sucker for clams.

The Mukilteo Landing Ivar’s is the only branch serving soft serve ice cream

It’s been 10 years since I’ve been to Whidbey, despite having moved back from the East Coast to Portland three years ago. From where I live now, the island is just a four-hour drive away. My mother recently moved back to Whidbey, years after she and the stepfather who raised me stopped speaking. I was 17 when they divorced. Today he lives in Seattle; she, another hour away. When I talk about him with other people, I still call him my stepdad, even though it’s not strictly true. There are so many words for family and so few to describe the people who stick around even when they’re not related to you by blood.

Hanging onto a relationship with him has sometimes felt precarious, a loose knot that I don’t want to test by pulling too tightly. I’ve never visited both him and my mom in one trip, even when they both lived in Seattle. I knew I’d feel guilty for taking time away from one by visiting the other. And when they lived so close, going to Seattle without seeing both of them felt like a snub, too. So instead, I didn’t go at all — not to Seattle, and not back to Whidbey Island, either.

An assignment to report a story about Ivar’s seemed like an excuse to see them both. Sure, I could have woken up early, driven to Seattle, eaten my fill of fish and chowder, and been back to Portland before bedtime. But instead I made a week out of it. I asked my mom if I could visit her on Whidbey after I stopped for a meal at the Mukilteo Ivar’s. Then I asked my stepdad if I could stay with him in Seattle while I visited Ivar’s on the waterfront. Of course, he said, anytime.

When I arrived, he seemed glad to see me even though lately I’ve noticed there’s often been a month or more between our phone calls. Am I overstaying my welcome by not doing my reporting then heading out the door? I offer to meet him for lunch at Ivar’s but he doesn’t eat much meat or dairy anymore and he has to work. “I understand,” I say. I’m surprised by my disappointment. I join the gulls at the Ivar’s Pier 54 seafood bar, a party of one.

Today, like many other days at Ivar’s, kids throw sanctioned food to the gulls, which swoop down to grab fries and fish out of small hands. It’s hard to tell where the shrieks from children end and the sounds of hungry seagulls begin. Surrounded by kids doing the same, I toss out my remaining french fries one at a time, even holding out a fry to feed the birds by hand, and a strange sense comes over me, like the past and present are colliding. When I used to visit my dad once a year growing up, he’d show up at the San Francisco airport with a sack of bread in his bag and take me straight to the Palace of Fine Arts to feed the ducks. I’ve since learned feeding bread to wildfowl is a good way to make them sick. Whether I stopped feeding the birds because it could kill them or because I wanted to leave it in memory, I’m not sure. The gulls at Ivar’s open their giant mouths and screech at me, though not too loudly. Sometimes I can feel one hovering over my head, wingtips rustling my hair. I do not get pooped on once.

The dining room at the Mukilteo Ivar’s abides by the brand’s nautical theme

After my solo trip to Ivar’s, I return to my stepdad’s place to spend the night and leave the next morning for Whidbey. Before I board the ferry, I stop for a bite at the Mukilteo Ivar’s. Not the seafood bar this time, but the sit-down Ivar’s restaurant next to it. I never went there when we lived on the island — there was always food waiting at home and a hurry to get there.

In a lot of ways, the Mukilteo Ivar’s is like every old-school seafood house. The walls are covered in wood and the bathroom doors have porthole windows. I hear smooth jazz playing over the speakers and the occasional clink of ice water pouring into someone’s glass. The air has a tang of sourdough from the fresh rolls that servers bring to each table. My server, a friendly woman who looks the same age as my mom, brings out six Hood Canal oysters on the half shell and is delighted when I tell her they’re delicious. She tells me that she’s purchased a house on the same river that she plans to retire to in a few years. It’s the Pacific Northwest Dream: a home in the woods, a bed of oysters in the backyard.

Haglund graduated with a degree in economics a year before the Great Depression. Instead of going into finance, he relied on the income he got from renting a house he inherited from his father, and became a folk singer. He performed around Seattle, often wandering around the aquarium he opened on the Seattle waterfront (his cousins had a successful aquarium in Oregon and suggested Haglund give the business a try) with his guitar and an impromptu song. Later, Haglund would get his own 15-minute radio show on KJR and eventually became a regular fixture on a local children’s program, Captain Puget.

He started writing songs about sea creatures like “All Hail to the Halibut” or “Run, Clam, Run” that are really about people catching and eating them. (One verse of the halibut song goes, “Bake it, boil it, fry it, any way you try it it’s a gastronomical riot.”) He sung these and other songs about the Puget Sound, but Haglund’s favorite was always “The Old Settler” — a gold miner’s song he allegedly learned from visiting musicians he befriended by the names of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Haglund with his guitar at the aquarium in the 1930s

Seemingly Haglund was content with his aquarium and musical career until he noticed an untapped market. Aquarium visitors, perhaps smelling the fish in the air from the boats that brought their wares to the waterfront, regularly asked Haglund where they could get a bite to eat. So he launched a fish and chips spot in 1938, and eventually expanded it into his own full restaurant he called Acres of Clams, after a line from “The Old Settler,” in 1946. People called him “King of the Waterfront” because of his clever capers and generosity. When the city almost cancelled its 4th of July display in 1964, Haglund stepped in to sponsor it and continued to do so every year through 2008. When he died in 1985, giving his company to trusted employees and donating his estate, the Smith Tower salmon flew at half-mast.

Like at the Seattle waterfront, going to Whidbey I have memories of a place that doesn’t exist anymore. I wonder whether it’s only the parts I remember that have changed or if everything has. Decades are long, especially for places on the route between Seattle and South Whidbey. The former keeps getting wealthier thanks to companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and the tech boom they’ve brought to the city. South Whidbey is getting more expensive, everybody says, increasingly a retreat for Seattleites with money to buy second homes. I remember a restaurant called Neener Neener Weiner that we never ate at, but is indelible because of its sign which you could see from the Mukilteo Speedway. My 10-year-old friends and I always snickered about its name. It’s gone now, long gone, but I could see the carved statue of a man eating a giant hot dog still leaning outside on my way to Ivar’s.

The menu at the sit-down Ivar’s restaurant features more upscale seafood dishes, like seared scallops and steamed mussels and clams

For now, I’m still sitting at a table inside the Mukilteo Ivar’s, picking at the remnants of fried fish on my plate. I decline the dessert menu and instead walk outside to the seafood bar. Compared to the Pier 54 fish bar, this one is drab and utilitarian and could be a counter service stand at a ballpark as easily as at a ferry. If anything has changed here in the 20 years since I lived on the island, I can’t tell. I order a kid’s cone, a swirl — my regular order, though I’m not a regular here anymore. The air by the waterfront suddenly swarms with seagulls and I wonder if maybe the ferry has churned up fish in the water. What do these gulls eat when they’re not hunting for human scraps, anyway? In the midst of the pandemonium, I spot a chef dressed in his whites, throwing something from a bowl into the water. He’s feeding the seagulls, even here. It’s an Ivar’s tradition, and some things thankfully never change.

In two hours, I’ll be on the island again. The first thing my mother will ask me when I see her is, “What do you remember?” I feel overwhelmed by the question, by her desire to share something with me. Instead of answering, I tell her it’s not a very good one. “How would you feel if someone asked you to remember every single thing you remember from three years of your life?” I’ll say. “I remember lots of things.” And I do but I don’t tell her many of them. I don’t even know where to begin.

When I was 10, a few years before we left the Pacific Northwest for the last time as a family, I performed at the Whidbey Island talent show. I don’t remember how the song was chosen or why I decided to sing it a capella in a cavernous auditorium, but I belted “The Old Settler.” It’s about a weary gold miner who’s seen many a fellow prospector wind up destitute a long way from their families. “I made up my mind to go digging for something a little more sure,” the song says. So he leaves his mining gear and walks to the Puget Sound where he’s finally happy, “no longer a slave of ambition,” surrounded, not by gold, but by acres of glorious clams.

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist and former New Yorker who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter, @TKDano.
Lauren Segal is a freelance photographer based in Seattle.
Edited by Lesley Suter

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