If you’re going to play tourist in Ballard, don’t go on a Monday.
Or do go on a Monday. Just pack a lunch.
The old Scandinavian enclave tucked between Phinney Ridge, Shilshole Bay and the ship canal was once a working-class suburb of Seattle. Now it’s home to condos, boutiques and trendy restaurants.
But Ballard still smells like salt air, and ships’ masts still outnumber construction cranes. Unlike new-from-the-ground-up Belltown or changing-by-the-minute Capitol Hill, a visitor can still recognize old Seattle in Ballard.
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For my day trip I met up with longtime Seattle resident Joyce Hansen, who lives in the heart of Ballard. If there’s one thing Hansen doesn’t stand for, it’s subpar coffee. We made a beeline for the Pico Café and Bakery, part of Ristorante Picolino’s (6415 32nd Ave. NW, ristorantepicolinos.com). The establishment has a large, multi-level patio in the back filled with plants, fountains and canvas awnings. And it has darn good coffee.
From there it was a short walk to the Nordic Heritage Museum (3014 NW 67th Street, nordicmuseum.org). Hooked on the History channel’s “Vikings,” my pace quickened when I spotted a Viking ship parked outside the museum. But my excitement faded when we discovered the museum was closed for the day.
Undaunted, we headed to the Ballard Locks. Officially called the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and The Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden (3015 NW 54th Street), they’re a favorite destination for locals and tourists. A small visitor’s center offers some information and trinkets for sale. But the real attractions are the locks themselves and the nearby salmon ladder.
On our visit, a tugboat and variety of pleasure craft were passing through the system of gates that raise and lower water levels to allow ships to travel between Lake Union and Puget Sound. The tourists stared up at the tugboat crew while the crew stared back.
On the south side of the locks and dam are the fish ladders that allow salmon to return to their spawning beds. An indoor viewing area with underwater windows lets humans have eye contact with the fish.
Guide Jay Wells was giving a tour when we stopped in. Sockeye, and a few Coho, were making their way up the ladder. The fish, 3 to 4 years old, were on their way to Lake Washington before continuing their journey in the fall.
“It’s either spawn or die trying,” Wells told the crowd.
At the visitor’s center, Stacey Gilbert was manning the information desk. She reminded me that the locks will mark their centennial in 2017.
The locks are popular, but the real draw are the salmon, Gilbert said. “When the salmon are coming in like crazy, people flock here in droves,” she said. The fish ladders are active all summer and through October. The biggest run, sockeye, is heaviest at the beginning of summer.
While boat traffic moves through the locks 24 hours a day, the grounds are open from 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Guided tours are held at 1 and 3 p.m. daily with an 11 a.m. tour added on weekends.
At lunchtime, Hansen took me to Paseo, a walk-up Cuban restaurant in a bright pink building (6226 Seaview Ave. NW, paseoseattle.com). It’s so popular, I’m told it has a line that stretches down the block.
Except on Mondays — when it’s closed.
All was not lost, though. We went across the street to Geo’s Cuban and Creole (6301 Seaview Ave. NW, geoscuban.com). The restaurant bakes its own bread and roasts its own pork, which was piled high on the pan con lechon sandwich ($8.50). We also ordered a Cuban sandwich ($9). Both were hearty and full of flavor.
During lunch on Geo’s patio, I noticed a steady stream of people exiting a surf shop and heading to the beach with large boards.
Crossing the street to Surf Ballard (6300 Seaview Ave. NW, surfballard.com), I came across Jeff Luebbe washing down standup paddle boards. The surf shop rents the boards ($30 for two hours) and also holds WASUP yoga sessions — yoga classes on paddle boards on Puget Sound.
Before I left, Luebbe urged me to come back and try Paseo. Best sandwiches in town, he said, and the line stretches down the block.
The Burke-Gilman Trail, arguably one of Puget Sound’s best urban trails, starts in Kenmore, skirts Ballard and ends at Golden Gardens Park (8498 Seaview Place NW). A steady stream of cyclists were headed to the park. Even on Monday I was barely able to find a parking place. A traffic cop was busy writing tickets for cars parked in spots reserved for boat trailers.
The park has plenty of beach. And it needs it. It looked a bit like Coney Island. Beachgoers had hung hammocks between trees, pitched tents and spread out blankets.
At the northern end of the park, a small wetlands area was teeming with dozens of turtles and a raft of ducks. Out on the sound, sailboats, tugboats, multi-million dollar yachts and freighters sailed in front of an Olympic Mountain backdrop.
Hansen wanted to show me her favorite French bakery, Café Besalu. But like most of Ballard, it was taking Monday off. Just next door, however, was Tall Grass Bakery (5907 24th Ave. NW, tallgrassbakery.com), which is open seven days a week.
When I walked in, worker Robert Smythe asked me if I’d been there before. When I said no, he handed me a fresh baked brioche. It practically melted in my mouth.
Smythe said he was a customer of the bakery for five years before he began working there. He got hooked on the bakery’s sourdough. I tried some. It’s not quite San Francisco style — but it’s close.
Hansen decided to call it quits and I headed alone to downtown Ballard, roughly where Northwest Market Street meets Ballard Avenue Northwest. It was there that I ran into a gang of local toughs, loitering in a vacant lot.
Mamas with Cameras, they call themselves — a photo club for moms. They soon put me at ease and even asked me to take their picture. They were in Ballard for an urban photo op, attracted by the neighborhood’s architecture.
One of the mothers, Meredith Olson, was also getting in touch with her adopted culture.
“I married into a Norwegian family,” Olson explained. “I’ve been fully incorporated into the Norwegian culture. My husband’s grandfather went to Ballard High.”
Olson likes the mix of old and new in Ballard. “There’s this neat balance, and it’s becoming a vital community again.”
I parted ways with the photo moms and headed across the street to Bastille, a French-themed restaurant (5307 Ballard Ave. NW, bastilleseattle.com). Passing by the lively restaurant, I made my way to the dark back bar which has a steampunk-meets-Windsor-Castle vibe. I was alone there with only the bartender and a charmingly soccer-obsessed bar-back.
The Northwest’s locavore movement — where every morsel of food is stopped and asked for its papers — reaches a fever pitch in Ballard. Up on Bastille’s roof is the restaurant’s garden. It’s not open to the public but a sympathetic employee gave me a quick tour. It was a verdant garden of Eden up there, complete with beehives maintained by the sous chef.
I didn’t stay for dinner — those Cuban sandwiches were going to be with me awhile — but I did have the Improved Whiskey Cocktail ($10), a bourbon drink with orgeat and absinthe. It lived up to its name.
On Tuesday afternoon, I decided to try Ballard again. I thought 4 p.m. would allow me at least an hour at the Nordic Heritage Museum. But it turns out they close at 4 p.m. These folks really know how to put the No in Nordic.
The good news is that 4 p.m. is the start of happy hour in Ballard. But before I hit Ballard Avenue again, I took a quick drive by Paseo. The rumors are true: Even at 4:30 the line was down the block.
Back on Ballard Avenue I made my way to The Walrus and The Carpenter (4743 Ballard Ave. NW, thewalrusbar.com), which bills itself as an oyster bar. The restaurant is co-owned by chef Renee Erickson, who also has a restaurant called The Whale Wins, among others.
I took a seat at the bar in the small restaurant. Large wire baskets held oysters on the kitchen’s counter. The bartender explained the staff makes frequent trips to the basement to get fresh ice.
I refreshed myself with a Check & Turn ($10), the restaurant’s version of a Pimm’s Cup. On this evening the restaurant had seven types of oysters ($3-3.25 each) from various Washington and British Columbia locales. Summer spawning season isn’t the best time of year to order the bivalves, but I couldn’t complain about these. Ranging from briny to sweet, the raw oysters were a delight.
In just a few minutes I had racked up a $25 bill. That, combined with the claustrophobic space and perfunctory service, prompted me to cut my stay short. I paid my bill, walked down a short corridor without leaving the building, and found myself in Staple & Fancy (4739 Ballard Ave. NW, ethanstowellrestaurants.com/locations/staple-fancy).
The two restaurants might share a wall of windows, but the similarity ends there. I might as well have just taken a trip through the Chunnel.
Staple & Fancy pursues Italian-inspired food, not ornate office supplies. It’s owned by Ethan Stowell, who has half a dozen eating establishments in Seattle with names like Chippy’s, Mkt. and How to Cook a Wolf. I am not making these names up.
Staple & Fancy is spacious with lots of exposed brick and rafters. With more elbow room, I instantly felt relaxed. From the friendly bartender to the engaging head chef, the staff exuded calmness and charm.
That chef, Brian Clevenger, urged me to try the $50 tasting menu on my next visit. On this night all I had room for was a bowl of small ravioli with a pea filling. The rustic pasta was tossed with carrots, potatoes and the season’s first chanterelle mushrooms, all in a buttery sauce. I savored every bite.
Chippy’s (fish and chips) is next door to Staple & Fancy. Erickson also owns a small bar, Barnacle (cured meats and digestifs), that is also a part of the building.
As Clevenger placed apple wood in his grill, I asked him if he ever has “Top Chef”-style smack downs with his Walrus neighbors. No, he said. They all support each other. “Earlier tonight they came over and asked for parsley.”
When I stepped onto the street after dinner, I thought about something Meredith Olson had said to me the night before.
“When I was a kid growing up, no one went to Ballard except the old people and fishermen,” she said. “Now Ballard is young families and people of all kinds of cultural backgrounds coming together.”