Ask any Seattleite to meet at Pike Place Market on a Saturday afternoon, and the reply will likely start with laughter and end with a resounding, “No.” The thought of maneuvering through thousands of people snaking around tight hallways and crowded stalls is, for most, a turnoff. That’s not to say locals don’t inherently love the place. Sure, it’s a tourist trap filled with Starbucks groupies, buskers, and kids trying to ride Rachel, the giant bronze piggy bank under the neon Public Market Center sign, but for natives, it’s also where you went with your family as a kid, got into trouble as a teenager, had your first job, and sneaked your first sip of beer.
That’s to say, Pike Place is truly special. Beyond just guys throwing salmon across a counter, it’s a veritable maze of small businesses — more than 200 of them — that span 24 buildings and nine acres along the waterfront. Like Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, LA’s Grand Central, and Cleveland’s West Side markets, Pike Place connects Seattle’s past with its burgeoning future, and multiple visits are required to unearth all the true gems. But if you need, want, or crave it, it’s probably there: steaks and sausages, cheese and charcuterie, giant crabs and salmon, lots of beer, the freshest flowers, coffee, food from every corner of the globe, local honey and jam, vintage books and clothing, artists’ wares and jewelry, magic tricks, and Game of Thrones Pez dispensers.
Created in 1907 so local farmers could sell directly to Seattle’s growing population, fewer than a dozen merchants showed up on the first day with produce, dairy, eggs, and meat. That number grew to 70 by the end of the first week. Permanent stalls were built, and more buildings were added throughout the early 20th century, including the Economy Market, the Sanitary Building (the only place horses weren’t allowed), the Corner Market Building, and the Triangle Building. By the 1930s, Pike Place looked a lot like it does today: labyrinthine, hemmed in by car-filled streets, and interspersed with steep hills and brick-lined alleys.
There is some organization (and plenty of maps and info booths to keep you on track): The fish markets, butchers, produce, and flower vendors are generally found in the Main Arcade and Corner Market Building separated by Pike Place (the street). Go down the ramps or stairs in the Main Arcade to find two floors of unique shops that stand the test of time. There’s a hidden rooftop garden behind the butchers where you can sit and relax, and another big open public space at the MarketFront building. The latter — the newest addition, which debuted in 2017 — crosses Western Avenue and has magnificent waterfront views. Local artisans and craftspeople mostly sell their goods in the North Arcade and along the street. Food stalls, counters, markets, sit-down restaurants, and bars fill the rest of the nooks and crannies around the complex.
Seattleites can buy fresh, locally grown produce at year-round neighborhood farmers markets, and grocery stores in our own neighborhoods are more convenient. Go midweek, October through April, and it’s mostly locals hitting favorite haunts, escaping the weekend hassle. Mornings are best, especially before the lunch and tourist rushes. Not only can you watch the machinery of the market roar to life, but most food establishments aren’t crowded yet. As the day progresses, the wall of shuffling people feels almost impenetrable, but there are ways around them. When the main market closes, the nighttime-only spots emerge for dinner and drinks. Here’s a game plan, whether it’s for a few hours of mindless ambling or a blitzkrieg-style trip for something specific.
Even when the market is calm, Biscuit Bitch isn’t. Located on First Avenue, a border street for the complex, crowds swarm for buttery biscuits smothered with things like eggs, grits, sausage, and gravy. If that’s too much of a scene, an entirely different and delightful option is stopping for a spot of tea and an egg-and-ham crumpet from the Crumpet Shop a few doors away. Crumpets are the perfect vehicle for sweet or savory toppings like raspberry preserves, ricotta and lemon curd, or ham and cheese. The cheery cafe is the opposite of raucous, and a true locals’ favorite.
Breakfast is also the sweet spot for Lowell’s, a three-story institution located in the heart of the Main Arcade building. Order at the counter on the ground floor, grab a window table on the third floor (the second is table-service only), and watch ferries float in and out of the Sound. Linger over fluffy omelets filled with fresh Dungeness crab, properly crisped hash browns, and a spicy bloody mary with an oyster. There are DIY coffee refills, to boot.
The promise of hot mini doughnuts means a constant queue at Daily Dozen Doughnut Company in the Economy Market. It’s fun to watch the little pale blobs float along a river of hot oil in the automatic Donut Robot fryer, two by two — getting flipped halfway down the line — until they’re golden brown on both sides. Sharing a brown paper bag of sprinkle-topped or powdered sugar doughnuts with someone is cool, especially if the doughnuts are hot.
Out of the several bakeries around Pike Place, Le Panier and Piroshky Piroshky garner the longest lines, and rightfully so. At Le Panier, it’s the draw of flaky croissants, puffy brioche, and macarons — totally worth a short wait. The buttery aroma of Russian rolls and pastries is impossible to ignore when you walk by the streetside Piroshky Piroshky. Nimble hands shape and fill supple dough throughout the day to keep up with the demand for golden cardamom and cinnamon braids, cheese and garlic swirls, and pockets stuffed with apples, rhubarb, or potatoes. Know what you want ahead of time because that never-ending line moves fast. Ask for whatever came out of the oven last.
No need to battle crazed Frappuccino fans at the “original” Starbucks on Pike Place. It may be the oldest operating location in the world, but outside of the old-school decor, it’s just another Starbucks. People line up, block sidewalk traffic, and stand in oncoming traffic to take photos. Don’t be one of them. Instead, check out Ghost Alley Espresso under the Main Arcade building for coffee — you can be wowed/grossed out by the famous Gum Wall across from it — or the much splashier Storyville Coffee in the Corner Market Building.
With the abundance of PNW clams and seafood, there is definitely chowder flowing here. Almost every restaurant offers their own version, some more nuanced than others. If you’re going to fight the crowds at Pike Place Chowder — and there will be a crowd — go for the earthier, super-flavorful oyster and crab chowder. Don’t be offended by the designated line barker explaining where to stand so passersby can get through the Post Alley crowds: It’s part of a well-oiled machine designed to get you in and out. For traditional New England-style clam chowder, Jack’s Fish Spot in the Sanitary Building is the move: It’s richer, thicker, and more peppery than others, with a big bread bowl that makes a nice prelude to crispy fish and chips there.
At the Market Grill in the Main Arcade, the chowder is more herbal, every bite chock-full of clams, potatoes, and dill. The small counter is a great perch for people-watching. Signage says the sandwiches are TV-famous, and the blackened salmon, cooked medium-rare, slathered with sweet grilled onions and rosemary mayo on a chewy baguette, is fantastic in its simplicity.
Walk deeper into the Corner Market, and you may stumble across a wall filled with handwritten signs screaming various messages of etiquette: “Do not embarrass yourself by asking for a discount”; “If you’re on your cell phone, I’m not going to help you”; “Wifi password? Talk to each other.”; “Don’t ask me to do anything, I’m cooking!” A favorite of everyone from office workers to Seattle cops, plates at Oriental Mart overflow with traditional Filipino staples like homestyle pork adobo, tangy longanisa sausage with rice and pancit noodles, and salmon sinigang soup. The menu changes daily and everything is made in limited quantities. When it’s gone, it’s gone, which can be as early as 1 p.m.
Another storefront too hidden for its own good is Country Dough, a wonderful find for hand-shaved Sichuan noodles. The thick strands are tossed with ground pork in chile oil or served in a chile-spiked soup in portions generous enough to share. The huge curry beef-filled pies and dumplings are equally sought after. There are a few stools around the windows inside, and tables in the secluded courtyard, which it shares with Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar, the oldest of its kind in Seattle — open since 1979 — which shows wear but has its charms: a no-frills menu, fresh Washington oysters with little garnish, cans of Rainier, and just enough friendly attitude.
Open since 1946, DeLaurenti Food & Wine is where longtime regulars shop for dynamite cheeses and charcuterie (the selection is far superior to Quality Cheese across the street), and peruse shelves stocked with everything from dried pastas to every olive oil under the sun. But the real secret here is the deli, where you’ll find a small menu of Italian sandwiches and square pizza, plus daily specials like Monday’s meatballs soaked in marinara.
Free samples aside, there are myriad handheld snacks to nibble as you walk: empanadas from El Mercado Latino, sausage or bacon on a stick from Bavarian Meats, conchas and tacos from the Mexican Grocery, pides and baklava from Turkish Delight. Do not pass Mee Sum Pastry without getting a giant puffy hom bow — the fluffy baked bun filled with bright-red barbecue pork is the best — or an order of supersized shu mai.
You can always turn to ice cream when a sweet craving hits, but Ellenos Real Greek Yogurt is more satisfying. Located across from the iconic neon sign and clock, the thick, tangy yogurt is served like gelato, mixed with fresh fruits like Pacific Northwest marionberries or raspberries and ginger. Rachel’s Ginger Beer is another offbeat spot. In addition to its namesake beverage, stop for super-refreshing draft cocktails — get a classic Moscow mule or the Porch Swing, made with gin and Aperol — and boozy ice cream floats.
DINNER & DRINKS
Full-scale restaurants are woven into the history of the Pike Place community, from the Athenian Seafood Restaurant and Bar, which opened in 1909 and continues to be a favorite for seafood and icy-cold mugs of beer at happy hour, to Sushi Kashiba, heralded as one of the best omakase and sushi experiences in the city. Some require reservations, others are walk-in only. It’s incredibly difficult to get a seat at Kashiba — people line up two hours before opening for a chance to sit at Shiro Kashiba’s sushi bar, and they’re rewarded with exquisitely prepared Edo-style nigiri. The fried catfish sandwich on potato bread at Matt’s in the Market is almost as iconic the neon signs visible through the massive arched windows. Anything seafood steals the show at the always-bustling lunch and dinner spot, especially clams with chorizo and stewed corona beans.
There are more places to drink around Pike Place than you could possibly hit in one day (unless you’re walking or carpooling everywhere). The cave-like Il Bistro tucked under the market has a stellar spirits and cocktail list, including a wide array of amari. Neighborhood restaurant workers in particular are drawn to the dimly lit bar like bees to the reasonably priced Honey Stinger. Craft beer is brewed and served all around the complex; some notables include Bitter Lake IPA at Pike Brewing Company and a highly quaffable hazy IPA at Old Stove Brewing. The latter is particularly good on the wide-open patio facing the Sound.
JarrBar, the clandestine little pintxos spot at the base of the main building on Western Avenue, is the best way to end a day at the market. Teensy and fabulous, the few tables and small bar fill quickly, with a menu that beckons grazing into the night. Tinned seafood, house-made pickles and conservas, and charcuterie are the main attraction: things like anchovy-stuffed olives, and Matiz sardines with crackers, a sprinkle of Jacobsen sea salt, and espelette. Cocktails are heady and balanced, like the Brownstein made with Cynar, gin, and sherry. Time easily passes here. Eventually the bartender will throw some vinyl on the record player, and you’ll inevitably order glass of Txakoli and plate of jamón ibérico before the night is done. The blend of Seattle grooviness and laid-back San Sebastián vibes on the surface don’t go hand in hand, but at Pike Place, it’s just right.
Lesley Balla is a food writer who splits her time between Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest.
Edited by Lesley Suter