Ballard in the News
March 24, 2002
New York Times
Nordic Knits And Lutefisk In Seattle
By Katherine Ashenburg
IN 1907, the largely Scandinavian fishing and lumbering town called Ballard became part of Seattle -- and the rest of the city enjoyed condescending to it, claiming you needed a passport to cross the Ballard Bridge, and the ability to speak ''Ballard-Norsk'' once you arrived. About four miles northwest of Pike Place Market, for decades Ballard remained a low-rise, hard-working area where folks drove slowly and fattened their savings accounts. A district whose distinguishing cue from the bridge was a winking neon sign for Bardahl automotive oil and whose biggest annual celebration was dedicated to the Norwegian constitution was not exactly a this-minute place.
The vast ad for Bardahl (founded by the Norwegian-born Ballardite Ole Bardahl in 1939) still illuminates the waterfront, and Syttende Mai (May 17, Norway's Constitution Day) is still marked by marching bands, floats, Nordic food and a dance at the Leif Erikson Lodge. But these days, Ballard, of all places, is becoming hip.
Anointed in Seattle magazine's ''Best Neighborhoods'' issue, last April, as the prime area for young families, Ballard has a vital waterfront, parks, a seasonal Sunday market for produce and crafts, and some of the city's last affordable housing. But there's more: in the same issue, the word ''chic'' was affixed to Ballard.
That's not as ominous (or unbelievable) as it sounds. The really good news about Ballard is that while smart restaurants and shops are briskly self-seeding, there is still plenty of the honest, original town left. Marine hardware stores and lumber shops redolent of sawdust and varnish live in close propinquity to cutting-edge art galleries and shops selling exquisitely frivolous French bibelots. Since history suggests that these magic moments of coexistence don't last long, this is the time to see Ballard.
Actually, for a neighborhood of about 50,000, there are quite a few Ballards. There's the waterfront, including the commercial fishermen's terminal, a 1,500-boat marina and the Hiram M. Chittenden locks. (The locks, which connect Puget Sound and Lake Washington and Lake Union, are one of Seattle's most popular tourist sights.) There's a burgeoning music scene, where bands with names like Jam on White Bread play at the Tractor Tavern and a good handful of other places.
The Scandinavians who settled here beginning in the 1880's have left their footprints all over the neighborhood. The ''metropolis in Lilliput,'' as The Seattle Post-Intelligencer of 1899 called the diminutive city to the north, has been preserved on Ballard Avenue, now a Historic Landmark District. And let's not forget the latest, gentrifying Ballard. Like a kaleidoscope, every time you shake it another pattern emerges.
With only a day and a half late last August, I had to make some choices. My 11- and 13-year-old nieces, Maddie and Kate, who live just north of Ballard, doubted I would find much beyond their favorite bookstore, The Secret Garden, but I ignored them, deciding to focus on Ballard's Scandinavian roots, historic district and fashionable new face. First I had lunch with Maddie, Kate and an 11-year-old visiting nephew, Ben, at a Ballard landmark, Hattie's Hat. The kids were probably too young to appreciate the grungy atmosphere, but we agreed that the fries and smoked-salmon club sandwiches were excellent.
After Hattie's, I was on my own. Spotting Olsen's Scandinavian Foods, a local tradition, I decided to look in, just for a few minutes. When I emerged about 45 minutes later, I felt as if I'd been to Stockholm or Helsinki. Presided over by two women who chat in Norwegian but can translate any Scandinavian language, Olsen's sells all kinds of Nordic baked goods; dried fruit soups and other mysteries in packets, and an anthology of marine things from Fiskepudding to the iconic lutefisk, dried cod reconstituted to something gelatinous (best not to inquire too closely). I brandished a green bottle, decorated with a picture of a little child facing a big fish, and guessed, ''Cod liver oil?'' The women blanched, but admitted it. I asked about the taste. ''It's not that,'' they said, shuddering, ''it's the texture.'' Still, it's so popular in Ballard they can't keep it on the shelves. I spent the rest of the afternoon on Market and Ballard Streets, wandering into a vintage furniture, gifts and collectibles shop called Re-Soul; a day spa and salon called Habitude; and the superb Lucca, which in spite of its name has wonderful French decorative objets.
The next day began early at Vera's, voted Ballard's best breakfast place by readers of The Ballard News-Tribune in 2000. The hand-lettered sign at the counter says ''No Credit Cards''; the banquettes are red leatherette; the clientele favors baseball caps. ''This is the real Ballard,'' my sister Carole told me, as we did justice to Vera's oatmeal and pancakes.
Or one of the real Ballards. An earlier incarnation is down the street, on Ballard Avenue, the neighborhood's main street from the 1890's to the Depression. A self-guided walking tour of the Historic Landmark District will transport you back a century, when Ballard's red cedar shingle mills made it ''Shingletown, USA'' and when the millworkers and fishermen supposedly supported more saloons than anywhere else west of the Mississippi.
Over four short, well-preserved blocks, I got a sense of a straight-ahead place lined with bordellos, saloons, pool halls and banks. There are occasional decorative outbursts, such as the metal cornice at 5000-5004 20th Avenue NW, but in general, the mostly two-story brick buildings come with minimal frills, like Ballard itself.
Maddie and Kate rolled their eyes when I mentioned the Nordic Heritage Museum -- too many school trips -- so I expected a semiamateurish exercise in Old Country nostalgia. The museum turned out to be sophisticated, highly diverting and already outgrowing its capacious, three-story former school building.
Founded in 1980 and claiming to be the only museum in the country covering immigration from all five Nordic countries -- Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden -- it begins at the beginning with ''Dream of America.'' This interactive journey from the poverty of post-1860 Scandinavia to the boom town on Salmon Bay tells a good story while walking the museumgoer from Nordic fishing sheds to steerage compartments to Ellis Island to Ballard. The soundscape is particularly fine, and the noise of the wailing child in the Ellis Island section is one I haven't forgotten.
The second and third floors display the material culture and community life of the Nordic settlers. The painted chests, carved wooden ale bowls and crimson weavings you might expect are here, but so are odd, exceptional items, such as the pale blue folkloric pleated skirt and vest designed in 1947 by an Oslo department store as an ''urban folk costume.'' (It didn't catch on.)
On my way back down to Market Street, I zigzagged across Ballard's residential streets, appreciating the doughty frame houses built as Victorian styles gave way to Craftsman bungalows and other ''modern'' looks. Fifty-eighth Street NW, between 28th and 30th Avenues NW, is a particularly pleasing block rich in overhanging roofs, porches and verdant Northwest gardens.
Thank goodness for Vera's hefty pancakes. After a very late lunch at Dish Urban Market, one of Ballard's modish new eating places, I indulged myself, imaginatively anyway, at Kristy's Scandinavian Gifts. The trolls and dolls in folk costume didn't tempt me, but the black-and-white Norwegian sweaters did. With my Scandophilia running dangerously high, I decided the book section was a safer place for me and ultimately settled on a guide to traditional Nordic knitting patterns.
That night, my sister, nieces and I dined at Le Gourmand. Regularly judged one of Seattle's best restaurants, it has been hiding its rosy, intimate dining room behind the blinds of a forgettable corner building on a residential Ballard street for 16 years. The chef, Bruce Naftaly, devises classic French food from organic ingredients, and we feasted on blintzes filled with sheep's cheese, Whidbey Island mussels, salmon poached in champagne and salad studded with flowers. Kate describes Le Gourmand as ''fancy but friendly.'' It was the girls' first French restaurant and they behaved with panache; the sommelier behaved equally well, asking Maddie if her milk should be regular or skimmed, and bringing the skimmed milk in a perfect little glass bottle. I asked her how often she gets an order for milk: ''Maybe once a year.'' But Le Gourmand was ready for Maddie, and she and her sister are looking at Ballard with new eyes.
Down-home cafes and chic boutiques
Hattie's Hat, at 5231 Ballard Avenue NW, (206) 784-0175, charges $7.50 for a smoked-salmon club sandwich; its legendary hamburgers are $6.50; most draft beers are $3.50. It is open from 3 to 11 p.m. on weekdays and until midnight on weekends (brunch is served weekends from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
Vera's down-home cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on weekdays, from 8 a.m. on weekends. It's at 5417 22nd Avenue NW, (206) 782-9966. Pancakes with bacon and eggs cost $7.50.
Potsticker salad in ginger-soy dressing, iced tea and a shortbread cookie will cost you about $8 at Dish Urban Market, at 2052 Northwest Market Street, (206) 297-1852. Open 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday.
Le Gourmand, at 425 Northwest Market Street, (206) 784-3463, serves dinner Wednesday to Saturday. Dinner for two with wine, about $130.
A pamphlet outlining a Ballard Avenue walking tour is available free at the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, 2208 Northwest Market Street, Suite 100, Seattle 98107; (206) 784-9705; www.ballardchamber.com.
The Nordic Heritage Museum, open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., is at 3014 Northwest 67th Street, (206) 789-5707; www.nordicmuseum.com. General admission $4.
Olsen's Scandinavian Foods, at 2248 Northwest Market Street, (206) 783-8288, is closed Sunday.
Lucca, at 5332 Ballard Avenue NW, (206) 782-7337, has a buyer with a flair for the stylish and unexpected, such as 19th-century silk banners advertising French fetes at $300, as well as more affordable writing paper, calendars and garden bric-a-brac. Open daily.
Kristy's Scandinavian Gifts, at 2205 Northwest Market Street, (206) 789-3010, sells classic Norwegian black-and-white sweaters for about $225 and Swedish clogs for $96. Closed Sunday.
The Secret Garden, at 2214 Northwest Market Street, (206) 789-5006, one of Seattle's oldest children's bookstores, has recently expanded to adult books. Open daily.
The Ballard Sunday Farmers Market, selling produce and crafts, will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting May 5 in the US Bank parking lot at 22nd Avenue NW and Northwest 56th Street. The location may change later in the year. Information: (206) 282-5706 or (206) 782-2286.