“Is anybody ready to buy a fish?" barks the man called Bear. The onlookers are stone silent, looking now at the slippery floor rather than through the camera viewfinder. Moments before, with a headless salmon flying over ice, they clicked and clapped, oohed and aahed.
"We don't throw 'em unless you buy 'em," says Bear, a 20-year fishmonger whose real name is Keith Bish. He wears Creamsicle waders and a couple of layers of shirts, just the way everyone says you should dress for the Pacific Northwest drizzle. The layers, not the waders.
With that simple declaration, it is clear that one of Seattle's most popular tourist destinations exists for more than the amusement of visitors. The fish market is a business, and to see a 3-foot salmon tossed, somebody has to want one for dinner.
The flying fish routine started as a way to save a few steps. By chucking the fish over the elevated counter, the guy working the front doesn't have to walk around. It's pure geometry: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The thrower yells, the catcher behind the counter hollers back and the fish is launched.
There are other fish markets at Pike Place Market, though Pike Place Fish gets the most TV time. Bear & Co. seem to be a fixture before every nationally televised Seattle Seahawks game.
The fish market is just one of 10 stops on the Savor Seattle tour of Pike Place Market, a 9-acre warren of food, drink and flowers that sits on a hill above the city's waterfront. Each stop includes a little history and a taste.
Seattle has much to keep visitors busy; among the attractions are ferry rides to bucolic islands, the Space Needle, funky neighborhoods and the Experience Music Project with its Jimi Hendrix memorabilia. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, built the music project to house his extensive collection of Hendrix guitars, clothes and handwritten diaries and lyrics. Hendrix was born and raised in Seattle.
The city is famous for lots of rain, though tourism promoters are quick to point out that Miami is wetter. South Florida may get more rain, but it surely enjoys more sunshine, too. The gloomy skies are a fact in the Pacific Northwest but for Floridians who want a break from humidity, they are a lovely sight . . . for a few days.
Seattle's hip vibe is not hype. Dripping with java and oozing environmentalism and computer savvy, it still draws young people and mid-career dropouts looking for nirvana. On a June weekend, a group that "cultivates community sustainability" holds a workshop on raising chickens in the city. Why city chickens? For fresh eggs, of course. How Seattle.
A stop at Pike Place Market is a compact introduction to Seattle, its eccentricities and green-haired alt kids. Whether you go on a tour or go solo, go hungry.
The history of a city
For more than 100 years, Pike Place Market has fed Seattle's hunger for unique, affordable and fresh food while giving farmers, fishermen and other merchants a place to make a living.
Besides Pacific Ocean seafood and Washington produce (wild porcini mushrooms! Rainier cherries in the shadow of Mount Rainier!), you'll find artisan cheeses, organic spices and teas, award-winning New England Clam Chowder (hah!), baked goods hot from the oven, flowers so brilliant they'll make you weep, and coffee, lots of coffee. Seattle, after all, is the home of Peet's and Seattle's Best and Starbucks.
The world's most famous coffee shop got its start near the market in 1971, not at the market as some spin doctors like to say. It moved to the market in 1976 and a sign at its current location erroneously boasts that you're standing in the first store. Still, that was a whole lot of lattes ago.
Starbucks is one of the most popular spots for street performers. A musical note on the sidewalk signifies a busker-welcome zone. Heavy foot traffic ensures good tips. The musical notes are scattered about the market and serve to corral singers and jugglers and the guy who plays the guitar while hula-hooping.
Like the Lexington Market in Baltimore and Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis, Pike Place is a living history of the evolution of a city. In a world of super-marts and mammoth parking lots, there is no reason it should still exist, except that people insist. Concerned citizens rallied in the 1960s to save Pike Place from developers and city officials who saw big bucks rather than continuing big drain. The market's prime spot overlooking Elliott Bay would provide great views for high-rise offices and condominiums. That's what the skyscrapers that surround the market today look out on. The city has literally grown up around the market.
Pike Place is always in need of funds to keep up appearances and hold down rents. Not all the tenants, especially the day vendors who sell handcrafted jewelry and homemade aprons, have the benefit of free TV publicity. Individuality is at the core of the market's philosophy and, Starbucks aside, this is the sole outlet (this and the Internet) for most purveyors. Rachel the Pig, a large cast bronze piggy bank near Pike Place Fish, contributes $9,000 a year to the upkeep.
About 10-million people browse the stalls and eat at the restaurants every year. That includes locals who still shop — and live — here. About 500 low-income apartments are upstairs in the various buildings that make up the market; some renters are also employees. On weekends, the aisles are nearly impassible as streams of people squirm along like those legendary salmon swimming upstream. Even at the most crowded times, a tourist can't help but be jealous of locals who get to shop here whenever they want, carrying home $10 spring bouquets wrapped in butcher paper.
In summer, there are weekly organic markets on-site. The market-within-a-market is an embarrassment of riches, but that's what the Pacific Northwest is all about, physical beauty and the good life.
Watch out for hungry tourists
Tim Primeaux, our Savor Seattle guide, knows what happens when he holds out a tray of handmade cheese nibbles from Beecher's or smoked salmon pieces from Pike Place Fish. He prepares us early in the tour.
"Get close. Elbows up," he says. That's our cue to form a tight circle around the food, warding off the curious who nudge forward like greedy seagulls. A deal between Savor Seattle and the vendors provides us with a taste or two of their specialties; there's not enough for everyone who spies the action. In return, the merchants hope we'll return with a 10-percent-off card to shop after the two-hour tour.
(We came home with alderwood smoked sea salt and a savory heart-healthy spice mix from MarketSpice, the tea and spice shop that's been at Pike Place since 1911. Oh yeah, and there was another stop for the world's best mac-and-cheese at Beecher's and more than just a sample of the clam chowder at Pike Place Chowder.)
Everyone on the tour has their favorites, but folks linger longer over the smoked salmon pate piroshky at the Polish bakery and chocolate-nut-dried-fruit treats at Chukar Cherries. The politeness of strangers at the first stop has each of us demurely declining the last warm pillow from Daily Dozen Doughnuts. Manners are gone as the tour winds down at Etta's Seafood. Triple coconut cream pie will do that to a traveler. "You gonna finish that?" someone asks.
After the tour ends, we strut back through the market, feeling a bit like we own the place. After all, we were behind the counter at Chukar and we know the guy at Pike Place Fish by name.
We want to get a closer look at the nests of handmade pasta at Pappardelle's and sniff the scones at Three Girls Bakery. Crepes sound good and there is a French place that makes them. Thoughts of those doughnuts that we so politely declined taunt us.
Back to where we started, the line at Daily Dozen Doughnuts is 20-plus people long. So we keep walking, but return the next day.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.