Two figures with human bodies and cat heads stand under an awning, busking. One of them plays the violin, the other the accordion. Their cartoon-esque masks bop up and down, and an evergrowing crowd taps their feet to the beat of the music. To their left, a fishmonger in a pair of bright orange overalls hollers “King Salmon, huh!” before lobbing, underarm-style, an enormous fish 50 metres into the hands of his colleague. I am not, as you might suspect, tripping on some kind of hardcore hallucinogenic, although it might feel that way. Instead, as I discover over the next few days, this is just Seattle at its quirky best.

While central Seattle may have a population of just over 733,000, Greater Seattle – known as the Seattle Metropolitan Area – is home to 4.1 million residents. This has created a city that, while only technically home to less than a million people, seems to punch well above its weight, and cater to far more.

Gastronomic kudos is built into the bones of the city, too. Pike Place Market, where the cat buskers and fish throwers are just a small part of its vibrant daily life, opened in 1907 and is the longest continuously running market in the USA. Born from an increase in onion prices that led to locals wanting somewhere to source affordable produce, the market is now home to more than 500 traders. Stretching beyond just the market proper, the venue also encompasses the businesses between 1st and Western Avenues, plus five community enterprises that give back, including a retirement home, food bank and preschool. Pike Place is the beating heart of Seattle, a place where tourists and locals alike mingle in its rabbit warren of corridors, buying produce, sitting down for lunch or simply wandering and soaking up the abundance of life. 

Opened in 1907, Pike Place is the longest continuously running market in the USA

Crucially, the market is a place that fosters independent businesses. Spots within both Pike Place proper and the surrounding streets are unsurprisingly hard to come by and go through a rigorous vetting process. Only the first of any business is given permission to open here, allowing it to remain an incubator for new ideas, and you only need to look at the original Starbucks (yes, that Starbucks) at 1912 Pike Place to see that it’s been a fairly successful process over the years.

Lobsters, Pike Place Market
Seattle waterfront

One of the newer spots in the market is Lands of Origin, an Ethiopian bakery and speciality goods store on the corner of Pike Place and Pine Street, across the road from the market’s iconic sign. “I applied for the space, but I didn’t think I’d get it,” owner Meeraf Mamo tells us over plates of sambusa (a kind of lentil samosa), Jamaican meat pie and saffron orange cake. “I would visit Pike Place Market and see the vendors hustling behind the scenes and the calm customers, and the juxtaposition of that was like magic.” Not that you see any of that at Lands of Origin, where Mamo’s calming presence is almost hypnotic, and the food is superlative. She gets up every day at 2am to begin baking the goods that will be sold once the market opens, a rigorous timetable that she says is absolutely worth it for the joy of selling her food here.

Across the road, inside the market proper, you’ll find Market Grill, a series of seats set around an open kitchen where chefs sling out gargantuan sandwiches – the most famous of which being the blackened coho salmon. Those fish are, surprisingly, not sourced from the wide expanse of Puget Sound, just a stone’s throw from the grill itself. “The Puget Sound salmon is food for orcas,” Drew Zarba, manager of Market Grill, tells me. “We don’t want to take from their food chain, so we get our salmon from Alaska.” We chat about an article I wrote last year about the issues with sustainability in the fishing industry, and he echoes my thoughts, making it clear that provenance and regenerative practices are key to their sourcing. I spot a map behind him, littered with pins from visitors pointing to the location they herald from; the New Zealand icon is empty. He jumps at the chance to tick off one of the few countries not yet covered, and conversation moves on. But his words stick with me for days afterwards, and are indicative of a pervasive movement that became clear throughout my time in Seattle; namely that residents seem intensely aware of the fragility of our world, and the things we should all be doing to ensure its survival.

I don’t have long to contemplate the finite nature of our existence, however, because all of a sudden we’re descending the stairs of the market to its lower level to visit what may just be the best drinking den in all of Seattle: Jarr Bar. When I enquire about the nature of the name, assuming it’s a reference to the bar’s lengthy selection of tinned fish on the menu, owner Bryan Jarr shrugs and answers “My last name’s Jarr, and this is my bar,” before returning to the drink he's stirring – a play on the classic dirty martini, using the brine from piparra peppers, topped with the spicy little morsel itself wrapped in a slice of chorizo.

Sipping it while perusing the bar’s lengthy liquor selection and chatting to Jarr about his travels and mixology is the perfect introduction to a city that takes its drinking equally as seriously as its eating.

After a tour of the flagship Starbucks and a quick happy-hour pint overlooking the Puget Sound at the bar made famous by Sleepless in Seattle, we head over to White Centre for dinner at Tomo, the city’s coolest new restaurant from Brady Ishiwata Williams, the former head chef at historic Seattle restaurant Canlis, the grand dame of the city's culinary scene. Sitting next door to an adult film store and around the corner from a roller rink that moonlights as a karaoke bar (more on that later), the restaurant is a departure from Canlis where, high above the dazzling lights in the hills of the Queen Anne neighbourhood, classic luxury is a given.

Tomo is a restaurant that would look right at home in Hackney

At Tomo, things are a little rougher around the edges – it’s a restaurant that would look right at home in Hackney – but the food is exceptional, marrying Pacific Northwest classics with the Japanese flavours of Williams’ heritage (the restaurant is named after his grandmother, Tomoko). Our meal kicks off with spot prawns with salsify and mustard greens, covered in an unctuous grenobloise, crescendoes with dry-aged beef rib and caramelised leeks, before finishing off with kakigori (a kind of Japanese shaved ice) topped with yuzu coffee and vanilla, and is paired with a flight of exclusively Washington State wines. In keeping with the modernity of the food and the room, the focus is unsurprisingly on the newer gen, organic local vineyards; Smockshop Band with its blend of gruner veltliner, chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot blanc fermented on skins for a hint of orangey funk and a long, fresh finish; while the Cayuse Vineyards God Only Knows grenache blend is juicy and spicy with a mindblowing underpinning of umami. The restaurant – and the accompanying wines – feels like a distillation of what it means to eat and drink in Seattle; quirky yet serious, fun and entirely sure of itself.

If Tomo feels like the essence of Seattle bottled in culinary format, then Southside Roller Rink is its late-night equivalent. After dizzying ourselves skating loops of the rink (or doing as I do and clumsily picking your way around the edges before watching everyone else from a safe distance), we move into the front room, where hardcore regulars belt out an array of tunes that ranged from the crowd favourite to the hardcore and Jell-O shots are readily available, turning everyone's tongue a candied hue. It seems so indicative of the city that I could be having one of the best meals of the trip in one of the city’s most-hyped restaurants and then easily find myself ten metres down the road after it ends, building a legion of fans for my squeaky yet enthusiastic ABBA renditions.

While I'm partly there to discover a city that is known as much for its lows (say, a Jell-O-strewn roller rink and karaoke bar) as its highs (a fine-dining restaurant from a James Beard award-winning chef ), my reason for visiting Seattle is its annual Taste Washington festival; three days of celebrating the region’s burgeoning food and drink industry, and the country’s largest single-region wine and food festival, with a particular focus on the spectacular wines that come from the arid land on the other side of the Cascade Mountains.

You wouldn't guess it in drizzly Seattle – it rains on average 156 days a year, making it one of the wettest cities in the US – but east of the city, on the other side of the peaks that define its skyline almost everywhere you look, sits a climate that couldn’t be more perfect for winemaking. Most of Washington State's grapes are grown in the east; a land of rolling hills, warm days, cool nights, basalt bedrock and natural irrigation that makes it a vegetative wonderland. Before winemakers discovered this fertile region (while grapes in the area date back to the late 1800s, the area’s industry only really began to take off in the late 1960s), it was home to rolling orchards, so it’s no surprise that vines have proliferated here, too.

It’s a region you might not be so familiar with; I certainly wasn’t. Aside from the big players like Chateau Ste. Michelle that you can find in wine merchants in the UK, much of Washington’s best wine hardly makes it out of the state, let alone the country. In order to get us aux fait with the offering, we head to Maiz Molino for a tasting with Nelson Daquip, James Beardwinning wine director and the former wine and spirits director at Canlis.

Over the course of a few hours we work our way through a series of wines that Daquip believes best personify what it means to drink in Washington. From the Columbia Valley-based Piolet Vintners' Le Blanc, which celebrates the tropical fruit notes of the sauvignon blanc grape without the prolific grassy elements that have become associated with it, to the Elephant Seven Blue Mountain Vineyard grenache, a personification of the grape that seems to flourish in Washington State's wine regions, or even the Kiona Red Mountain lemberger (known in Austria as blaufränkisch), which proves how a grape most commonly associated with Central Europe can find success in this New World region. “This city will never stop evolving,” Daquip says, when I ask about his perception of the culinary scene. “I feel that same way for Washington wines. You’ve got the classics, and then younger vineyards in areas like Walla Walla that are raising the bar.”

East of the city is a climate that couldn’t be more perfect for winemaking

That evening, Daquip’s work and thorough knowledge of wine is put into context at Canlis. Opened in 1950, the restaurant quickly became one of the most significant culinary institutions not just in the city, but in the entirety of the US. It helped to carve out a new definition of American fine dining, and it continues to do so today. Daquip may have moved on now, but in his 15 years as wine director, he built up one of the most impressive wine offerings in the country. Wandering through the subterranean wine cellar, it’s easy to see why the restaurant has won so many awards: the selection spans not just local Washington bottles, but drops from all over the world; even as far afield as New Zealand, with one of my favourite Auckland chardonnays on the menu.

After snacks and drinks at the restaurant – including an impeccable COR Cellars AGO sparkling chardonnay – and a quick jaunt to the secret roof terrace (a spot that one lucky table a night is invited to for an after-dinner drink), past special-occasion glasses gifted to regulars each year and passed down through generations, we head back out into the night, coming down from the sparkling bastion of good hospitality that is Canlis to the quintessentially Seattleite and entirely terrifying Shorty’s. 

Chef Aisha Ibrahim
Mussels poached and chilled, with kohlrabi and wrapped in brassicas

Not for the coulrophobic, the bar is decorated in an almost unbelievable amount of clown paraphernalia; almost everywhere you look Pennywise, Krusty or one of their friends stare back at you. It ranges from the ridiculous to the outright horrifying, and yet as with most places in Seattle, it is a riotously good time, not least because once your night comes to an end, you can sneak next door to Rocco’s to grab a piping-hot pepperoni slice that'll soak up the evening’s liquor. Because, really, that's just Seattle: starting the evening at one of the country’s most significant restaurants, and finishing it a little more than half-cut, wolfing down a pile of grease and cheese.

Our time with Daquip might have raised my knowledge about what’s possible from this multifaceted wine region, but it’s at the Grand Tasting the following day that this is really cemented. More than 200 wineries offer tastings, ranging from the small and largely locally distributed to the international powerhouses making a name for Washington State wines around the world. It's a revelation. Classic, Old World blends and bold, boastful reds sit alongside funky new-age natural whites and delicate effervescent brut natures.

Classic Old World blends sit alongside funky new-age natural whites

My enduring sensation continues that afternoon with a trip up the iconic Spaceneedle; the towering display of modernism built for the World’s Fair when it came to Seattle in 1962. From the revolving bar sitting a pretty 500 feet in the air, the city stretches out before you. Punctuated by the Puget Sound on one side and its series of expansive lakes on the other, with snow-capped peaks in almost every direction, it’s a topographical example of what’s going on on the ground; highs and lows. In a city that doesn’t take itself too seriously, there is joy to be found at every end of the cultural spectrum – something that's made evidently clear across my week in Seattle. It was perhaps best represented both literally and metaphorically that evening: from world-class cocktails in the sky to $3 burgers from Dick’s Drive-In on the flat ground, it became impossible to ignore that Seattle is a city of contrasts; a place where fine dining sits shoulder to shoulder with gritty bars; where you’re as likely to have the most delicious meal of your life in a market as you are to encounter a spellbinding performance in its aftermath.