You know you're in a great Seattle neighbourhood - or just a bit geeky - when you can't decide whether to start with breakfast at a funky diner or with being first in the door at the nearby independent bookstore. It's a problem you'd best get used to in a city known for its number of quality bookstores, and a hot restaurant scene.
Fortunately, it's easy to take advantage of both. The bookstores are scattered among Seattle's distinctive neighbourhoods. They're as much a part of the community as the gastro-taverns, coffee houses, pie shops, record stores - yup, as in vinyl - and restaurants that surround them.
Maybe it's the rainy weather that draws people to bookstores. Or maybe it's that Seattle was rated the second most literate city in the U.S. in 2011 (Washington, D.C., was No. 1) in a study by Central Connecticut State University.
Another study found that Seattlites bought more books than residents of other cities. They also buy more rope. The latter might be the influence of the best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey, the so-called "Mommie porn" fiction trilogy based partly in Seattle. Let's just say bondage is almost a character.
Here's a wander through several of the neighbourhoods in the Seattle core where you can browse, have very tasty meals in all price ranges and feel like a local.
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The Elliott Bay Book Co. is the granddaddy of independent bookstores. It opened in 1973 in Pioneer Square but moved to Capitol Hill in the spring of 2010.
I loved the original store so much, I was first-date nervous walking up to the new location at 1521 Tenth Ave. It's a squat 14,000 square foot building, built in 1918 as a Ford truck service centre. How can it hold the ambiance of the old store, with its nooks and crannies and creaking floors? Not to worry. It's different - natural light streams in the skylights and garage-style front windows - but the things that matter are the same. The same wide selection of books in all genres. The same rows of staff-reviewed books. The fir floors even creak.
In the move, Elliott Bay gave up its used book department. But there are plenty of gently used books at the nearby Twice Sold Tales. Warning or enticement: there are cats here. Lots of cats. Lolling on the counter cats.
About 200,000 books are jammed into the brick building at 1833 Harvard Ave., but it's well-organized.
The Value Village at 1525 11th Ave. also has a large and bright used-book section on its second floor.
Capitol Hill has become a restaurant Mecca in the last decade. Most can be prefaced with the word "hip." But even with that vibe, they were welcoming to the decidedly unhip traveller.
The following spots are within a baseball throw of each other, and are just an example of the variety available.
The Skillet Diner started in an Airstream trailer but now has a bricks-and-mortar location at 1400 East Union. Be prepared for a line, but it goes quickly. The maple braised pork belly on a fluffy waffle and bacon jam risotto balls are worth it. A $6 cinnamon bun the size of a dinner plate is a nice treat to take back to your hotel.
Across the street is the more upscale Restaurant ZoÃ«, with a menu focusing on locally sourced food. You'll know where your pork chop grew up and your sturgeon swam. Any guilt will be gone with the first bite.
Just down the street is High 5 Pie, named one of the U.S.'s 10 best pie shops by Bon Appetit magazine. A slice of bacon and fig pie is $4. A lemon-blueberry mini-pie baked in a mason jar is $5. Both are delicious.
Capitol Hill isn't all chi-chi restaurants and cute cafÃ©s. The Comet Tavern has been providing drinks and live music for more than 100 years (the ashes of bartender Ethel are said to be buried underneath her favourite barstool). It's the definition of a dive bar, but like most Seattle bars, even it has several microbrews on tap.
Cal Anderson Park, at 1635 11th Ave., is a nice place to read one of your new books, and wait until you're hungry for the next meal.
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Ophelia's Books in Fremont (3504 Fremont Ave. North) is a great place for used children's books. The shop has three small floors of used books of all genres. Even though the space on each floor is relatively small, it feels cosy rather than crowded. The children's section, in a loft above the main floor, has comfy couches and chairs.
Go on a Sunday and you can also take in the Fremont public market. It's on all year, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 400 N. 34th St., between Canal Street and North Phinney Avenue.
A 20-minute slightly uphill walk up Fremont Avenue (there's also a public transit bus for $2.25) takes you to The Book Larder, a cookbook store run by a former Microsoft human resources manager.
Lara Hamilton wanted to open the kind of store she'd like to visit. The result is this bright space, with a demo kitchen that is often in use by guest chefs.
Hamilton encourages people to sit at the butcher block, rifle through the cookbooks and help themselves to a slice of almond cake made from a River Cottage cookbook.
The cookbook reading will work up an appetite. Across the street and down a block is Paseo's (4225 Fremont Ave.), pegged as one of the best sandwich shops in the U.S. There's no sign, and no credit - cash only. Look for the tin building with a huge lineup, and people sitting on concrete barriers with juicy Cuban porchetta sandwiches. The meat is marinated in a secret sauce, piled high on a chewy baguette and topped with cilantro, peppers and caramelized onions. All for less than $10.
If the lineup is too much, Dot's Delicatessen at 4262 Fremont Ave. also offers tasty sandwiches. The house-smoked footlong hot dog is gussied up with Dijon and coleslaw, but there's French's on the table. The collard greens are thick with bacon but still qualify as vegetable, and the reuben is "amazing," says the fellow elbow close beside me. It's friendly, tasty and named for the owner's grandma.
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The Queen Anne neighbourhood, walking distance northwest of downtown, has hills and views that rival San Francisco. It's the perfect excuse to fuel up on beignets dipped in chicory cream at Toulouse Petit Kitchen and Lounge, a Louisiana-themed restaurant at the bottom of the hill. Or save it for the end of the day, when 250 votive candles light the large room.
A half-hour walk uphill is Queen Anne Books at 1811 Queen Anne Ave. North. A carefully curated selection of new books fills the one-level store, tucked down a vine-covered walkway. The manager is a former customer. She knows most people coming in by name, in addition to a 250-pound English mastiff whose wagging tail almost knocks over the "local author" collection. It's a calm kind of store, with a good selection that isn't overwhelming.
Walk a block off the main avenue with its many bistros and cafÃ©s and you're among the stately 19th-century homes that gave the neighbourhood its name.
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The Secret Garden in Ballard has a well-deserved reputation for its selection of new children's books. There's some adult fiction too, but the focus is kidlit.
There are plenty of handwritten staff reviews in the small store at 2214 NW Market St. and child-sized places to sit and read.
A few blocks away is the popular Walrus and the Carpenter at 4743 Ballard Ave. It's known for its oysters, but also has house-smoked fish and other seafood. It doesn't take reservations so expect a wait.
A $7 cab ride away are Delancey and Essex at 1415 Northwest 70th St. I'm a fan of owner Molly Wizenberg's blog Orangette (orangette.com). There, she writes about cooking, and opening Delancey in 2009 and then Essex this past summer, so I feel I know the places already. At Delancey's, thin-crust pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven are the stars. Essex has lighter nib-blies, including a pickle plate with blueberries and fennel, homemade pretzels and mustard, and a chocolate chip cookie made even tastier with a sprinkle of sea salt.
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Downtown Seattle has a good mix of independent bookstores that make for a nice day of walking and browsing.
Start at the south end of First Avenue by Pioneer Square with The Seattle Mystery Bookshop (117 Cherry St.) I just missed an author signing by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo. A three-block detour up to 1000 Fourth Ave. is worth it to see Seattle's Rem Kool-haas-designed public library. Eighty per cent of Seattle residents have a library card.
Back down to Metsker Maps at 1511 First Ave. Don't be deceived by the name. There are maps galore but also a great selection of travel books. Need to know the transit system of the second largest city in the Ukraine? Kharkiv's transit plan is just one of dozens included in the book Transit Maps of the World. There are also many globes, including ones of Mars and Venus.
Around the corner at 92 Pike St. is Left Bank Books, run by an anarchist collective for almost 40 years. It's a small store with a sunny window seat upstairs looking out at Pike Place Market. It wears its politics clearly on its shelves, but also has a nicely edited fiction section and fun T-shirt and button collection. It even stocks 50 Shades of Grey. But it has to be kept behind the counter; people keep stealing it.
If you'd like a pint with your books, the White Horse Trading Company is a little find at 1908 Post Alley. Owner Joe Gilmartin describes the basement bar as a "late night antiquarian collectible bookstore with a tavern-like setting."
You're encouraged to grab a book, curl up in a chair and figure out how you're going to pack all your books home.
Kim Westad, a former reporter at the Times Colonist, was a guest of the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
MORE PLACES TO EAT, SLEEP AND READ
Half Price Books: This U.S. chain has about 100 stores, with several in the Seattle area. It's a hybrid between a used bookstore and new and offers great deals on many recently released books (readers consign them). There are loads of more obscure used books for the book hunter. Stock up on reduced-priced stationery, games and cards while you're there. It's almost as nice as Russell Books in Victoria, but our Fort Street gem is hard to match. hpb.com
Cinema Books: Small, cluttered treasure trove of almost everything you could want to know about the movies. The shelves are packed to the ceiling with screenplays and how-to books. Vintage postcards are 85 cents. Owner Stephanie Ogle looks like she was a 1940s film star but was a professor of American history before opening the shop in 1977. The store attracts many wannabe film makers as well as movie lovers. A 71-year-old man, who pops in most days, was thrilled to show me the new Betty Grable paper doll book. "This is the première," he said. He was serious. Colin Firth has also been in. 4753 Roosevelt Way. cinemabooks.net
Third Place Books: Two locations, although the store at 6504 20th Ave. NE, just north of the university in the Ravenna neighbourhood, is more accessible from downtown. The second is in the Lake Forest Park Towne Centre at 17171 Bothell Way NE. Both have become almost community centres, hosting everything from magic shows on Mondays to knitting classes, plays and live music. The name refers to the third "place" people need in their lives after home and work or school. The Greek restaurant Vios serves food throughout the day, while a pub on the bottom floor at the Ravenna location opens in the afternoon. It's a must stop for authors on tour. There are more than 200,000 new and used books. thirdplacebooks.com
PLACES TO EAT
Le Pichet: an authentic and casual 32-seat French restaurant with excellent roast chicken for two. Daily specials are usually good too. 8 a.m. to midnight. 1933 First Ave. lepichetseattle.com
CafÃ© Campagne: nice brunch/lunch and dinner spot near Pike Place Market. It takes brunch reservations, handy when you're travelling and don't have time to spare for line-ups. The croque monsieurs are excellent. 1600 Post Alley. www.cafecampagne.com
Wild Ginger: Asian food from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Small tasty dishes perfect for sharing. 1401 Third Ave. Lunch and dinner. wildginger.net
Pike Place Market: Build a picnic from the food stalls and walk about one kilometre to the Olympic Sculpture Garden at 2901 Western Ave. Particularly nice at sunset.
Black Bottle: Trendy and tasty tapas draw downtown hipsters to this gastro-tavern. Known for its "blasted broccoli" - broccoli and garlic roasted at very high heat, and sprinkled with red pepper flakes and sea salt. 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. 2600 First Ave. blackbottleseattle.com
Spinasse: Gorgeous food and setting at 1531 14th Ave. Sit at the marble bar and watch your hand-cut pasta with butter and sage come together in the open kitchen. Marvel at how something so simple can be so delicious when done this well. A plate of heirloom tomatoes is actually worth the $22. Dinner. spinasse.com Sitka & Spruce: This is the restaurant the manager of Spinasse goes to for a nice meal out. Locally sourced Pacific Northwest food in a sunny space in the Melrose Market. Their pantry sells many of the restaurant staples. 1531 Melrose Ave. Lunch and dinner. sitkaandspruce.com
Bluebird: Fancy a beer float? This funky little microcreamery has teamed with the adjacent Elysian Brewing Company, one of Seattle's first brewpubs, and serves up a pint of Dragontooth stout with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. More traditional ice cream flavours - organic strawberry, peanut butter and even beet with a chocolate ribbon - are popular too. 1205 East Pike St.
Cupcake Royale: Although pie might be the new cupcake, this chain is still popular. And it has a great tagline: "Legalize Frostitution." Several locations, including one at 1111 East Pike St. cupcakeroyale.com
5 Spot: Funky, fun and self-proclaimed kitschy diner at 1502 Queen Anne Ave. North. Most of the menu changes every three months to reflect a different part of the U.S. Recently, the focus was Washington, D.C. Try the Super Pac'd Pork Treat appie or the Lame Duck Confit dinner. The chef also recommends starting the day with the Marion Barry Crack Cakes. chowfoods.com
Le RÃªve: Pretty bakery and cafÃ© in a historic house at 1805 Queen Anne Ave. North. Good people-watching from the verandah. lerevebakery.com
How to Cook a Wolf: One of star chef Ethan Stowell's five restaurants in Seattle. Like the others, the dishes are simple and inventive takes on quality ingredients. Rustic Italian is the concept. Pasta is a mainstay. 2208 Queen Anne Ave. North. ethanstowellrestaurants.com
PLACES TO STAY
Grand Hyatt: A large, comfortable downtown hotel in a great location at 721 Pine St. There's a roomy standalone shower and a separate deep tub, perfect for a soak after a long day of sightseeing. Each room comes with a book featuring Seattle area writers. For $15, it's a nice souvenir. Good deals can be found by booking in advance ($135 a night) and there's a special three nights for the price of two on until the end of the year. GrandHyattSeattle.com
The Ace Hotel: Sleep in a minimalist room with funky artwork, make your own waffles for breakfast and drink as much Stumptown coffee as you want. That's the Ace Hotel. "Everything you need, nothing you don't" is its mantra. Rooms at the back are quieter. It's dog friendly. The Ace's standard rooms with a shared bathroom are a deal at $109. Deluxe rooms are $175 at this Belltown location. 2423 First Ave. acehotel.com
The Maxwell Hotel: You have kids but you're still a cool urban traveller. Or you really are a cool urban traveller. The Maxwell Hotel will suit you either way. It's well-located between downtown and the Queen Anne area at 300 Roy St. The rooms are relatively large with clean lines, hardwood floors, eclectic art and free water, coffee and popcorn. Help yourself to cupcakes in the lobby. Bikes are complimentary as is the vehicle parking. Rooms range depending on the package but some are $160 a night for two. www.maxwellhotel.com
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