With its walkable streets, quirky shops and inviting restaurants, Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has long been a great place to spend the day. Now, with the addition of an upscale hotel on Ballard Avenue Northwest, it’s also an appealing place to spend the night.
Whether you’re a visitor from out of town or from just the other side of Phinney Ridge, the neighborhood makes an ideal in-city getaway.
As soon as my husband and I saw that Hotel Ballard had opened last May, we started planning our own urban sleepover. We live on Beacon Hill, and while the restaurants in the Northwest corner of the city are a strong draw, we rarely visit them because of the long drive home. Here was our chance to eat and drink our way from one end of Ballard Avenue to the other, and then stay the night.
We came, we saw, we ate. Of course it would take a solid week to eat in every dining establishment on Ballard Avenue … and by then, at the rate things are going, there might be a few more. So we focused on the newer spots on the street. However you craft your own shopping/dining/nightclubbing tour, it’s doubtful you’ll be disappointed.
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We arrived on a perfect fall afternoon, and Ballard Avenue couldn’t have looked lovelier; golden light filtered through leafy trees as shoppers crisscrossed the cobbstone street, drifting from one chic storefront to the next.
History is everywhere here: The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and many of its original 19th-century buildings have been preserved. But Ballard’s hardscrabble past as a fishing outpost can be hard to discern among the tony boutiques and music-filled nightclubs that now line the avenue.
Hotel Ballard embodies some of the neighborhood’s contradictions. The exterior is designed to mimic the shape of some of the historic buildings in the area, but it’s larger than most (five stories) and looks outsize compared to its neighbors. Inside, its scale is more modest: It has just 29 rooms and its lobby is more functional than grand.
In the hallways and rooms, the eclectic gold and gray décor evokes a French provincial estate, an English country manor and a Wild West brothel all at once. But some of the detailing is exquisite: Gracious tile-and-marble bathrooms are nearly half the size of a standard room; the windows are solid enough to completely extinguish the noise of the Tractor Tavern across the street; and the beds are divine.
Perhaps nothing tells the story of Ballard’s meteoric rise to fashionability more than the price of Hotel Ballard’s rooms: A Saturday night stay there in late November will run you $239 to $329, depending on whether you want a standard room or a suite. On days with less demand, rooms start at $189, and discounts for AAA or AARP members are available through the hotel’s website.
A less expensive option is just down the street. The Ballard Inn, operated by the same obliging proprietors, costs about half. One key difference: It’s European style, which means you’ll likely have to cross the hall to get to the bathroom.
Whether you stay at the hotel or the inn, the location could not be better. We checked in at 3 p.m. and were out strolling the avenue at about 3:05.
We started with some window-shopping. With its two-and-three story brick
buildings and rows of street trees, Ballard Avenue’s charms can hold their own against any quaint shopping district in the country.
One of our first stops was an old favorite, Lucca, which carries an odd-lot of curios, gifts and stationery, as well as vintage furniture and garden art. Nearby is Ballard Home Comforts, a trove of quirky, colorful accessories for yourself and your house, and , a clothing collection perfectly calibrated to the Northwest woman who likes to wear cowboy boots with dresses.
That’s just the fin on the fish when it comes to retail on Ballard Avenue Northwest, and more stores of all kinds (think food and books) line nearby Market Street. To find out more about what’s in store, visit
ballardchamber.com and click on IBMA.
After poking around a bit, we ran into friends on the Avenue who led us back to our starting point: Hotel Ballard, where the new restaurant Stoneburner occupies the first floor. We took a table in the bar, ordered a glass of wine and admired our surroundings.
Owners James Weimann and Deming Maclise, who specialize in restaurants that look like movie sets (Bastille, Poquitos, Von Trapp’s), have done it again at Stoneburner. A curvy bar, tile floors, tin ceilings and starburst lighting fixtures give it a European bistro feel similar to nearby Bastille. Executive chef and namesake Jason Stoneburner, also borrowed from Bastille, presides over an open kitchen that emphasizes handmade pasta, pizza and local ingredients.
We didn’t eat at Stoneburner because our game plan was to sip or nosh in as many new bars and eateries as possible. Next on our itinerary: Ballard Annex Oyster House, the briny brainchild of Nathan Opper and Zak Melang (the duo behind Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen and The Matador).
We made a beeline for the long, polished-wood bar — not to drink, but to sample some of the half-dozen varieties of raw oysters nestled in ice there. The winner of our personal taste test: the diminutive Kumamoto, famed for its tenderness.
The saltiness of oysters always stokes a thirst, of course, so we moved onto Percy’s & Co., one of the trendiest new bars on the avenue.
Open since summer in an1889 building previously occupied by the Old Town Alehouse, Percy’s & Co. bills itself as an apothecary-style bar. That means the bartenders put a lot of vaguely medicinal stuff in the cocktails — herbally infused liquors, puréed fresh fruit and tinctures from Dandelion Botanical Company two blocks away. If that sounds like adding vitamins to your ice cream, so be it; we weren’t about to quibble with the results.
My cocktail, made with a combination of lemongrass-infused vodka, Lillet Blanc, fresh pineapple juice, ginger, cilantro and sour mix, was aptly called Awakened One. If ever a cocktail was designed to take you to a higher plane, this is it.
We were in a state of grace, therefore, as we made the longish walk down Ballard Avenue toward Renee Erickson’s seafood mecca, The Walrus and the Carpenter. Unfortunately, the place was packed tighter than a sardine can — and Erickson’s new Barnacle Bar, designed to handle some of The Walrus’ spillover, wasn’t due to open for a few more days.
We left, and had to console ourselves at Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy Mercantile next door.
Would that all consolations in life were so rewarding. We ordered the tasting menu, a steal at $48 per person. Widely considered to be one of the best tasting menus in the city, it’s a parade of courses that the kitchen invents on the spot. Ours included (among other things) a smoked prosciutto appetizer and house-made ravioli, leading up to an apotheosis of roast pork.
After all that it was hard to imagine we would ever be hungry again, but once we’d had a good night’s sleep at Hotel Ballard, we rallied.
A Good Morning
Breakfast options abound on Ballard Avenue, but keeping with the notion of trying the newest spots, we ventured over to Northwest 56th Street to the Skillet Diner’s latest outpost.
Skillet’s comfort-food formula, which has worked so well in roving food trucks and at its first permanent home on Capitol Hill, seems tailor-made for Ballard. The menu spans the clock, from house-made biscuits and sage gravy in the morning to a French dip sandwich at lunch to Mama’s meatloaf for dinner.
We dug into a huge breakfast and then decided to walk it off at the Ballard Farmers Market. Open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday, along Ballard Avenue between 20th and 22nd Avenues Northwest, it proffers everything from locally grown fruits and vegetables to cheeses, handmade pasta, preserves and fresh baked goods.
Not yet hungry again, we settled for some excellent people-watching before heading home — regretting only that we had to leave so many great Ballard dining establishments unvisited.
So long, Volterra, La Carta de Oaxaca, Bastille and so many others. We hope to see you next time.
Lynn Jacobson: email@example.com or 206-464-2714