"You've ruined Fremont! " That's what a fuming diner told Bob Day after he purchased the venerable Still Life Cafe a couple of years ago and began making changes. But he persevered, giving...

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“You’ve ruined Fremont!”

That’s what a fuming diner told Bob Day after he purchased the venerable Still Life Cafe a couple of years ago and began making changes. But he persevered, giving the place a coat of paint, a sophisticated menu and bar. If, as locals claim, Fremont is the “Center of the Universe,” then Day altered the space-time continuum forever by renaming the restaurant the 35th Street Bistro.

People were horrified! People were shocked! People ate there anyway.

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Morphing the hippie-dippie Still Life into an urban bistro aptly symbolizes recent changes in this deliberately eccentric neighborhood on the northwest shore of Seattle’s Lake Union, where the blue Fremont Bridge crosses the Ship Canal beneath the soaring arches of the Aurora Bridge.

Why, even that master of marketing, Starbucks, seems dwarfed by newcomer Peet’s Coffee, a California outfit that now anchors North 34th Street and Fremont Avenue North, the very spot where the established Red Door Alehouse once stood, itself upgraded from a biker bar, the Fremont Tavern.

Looming over everything is the new, 6-story-tall Epi Apartments (“epicenter,” get it?), where a studio can cost more than a grand a month. As for the building’s Dr. Seuss design, one passerby noted, “Well, it’s different.”

If you can’t find it in Fremont, then any direction from the self-proclaimed “Center of the Universe” probably takes you in the right direction. Fremont’s eclectic mix of retail shops makes it a destination for holiday shopping.

Different for sure, but have “they” ruined Fremont?

Hmmm. The Troll is still there, ever crouching with his crunched VW under the dank end of the Aurora Bridge. The “Waiting for the Interurban” statue people remain, waiting for yet another set of “Happy Birthday, Mom” signs. The Fremont rocket hasn’t yet taken off in search of a neighborhood with more vegans.

Heather Nolting, 33, a recent shopper on a Fremont street, said she isn’t against all development. “But Fremont is growing fast,” she said. “They risk losing what it was.”

There is a cognitive dissonance here, like a Bohemian with a briefcase. You can feel it when you walk through. Something is not quite right in this universe, which is now “branding” itself with a trademarked slogan: “Far From Normal.”

Fremont lives in the shadow of the soaring Aurora Bridge. Whimsical artwork found throughout the district includes this metal gate on North 34th Street outside History House, a museum dedicated to Seattle’s diverse neighborhoods.

Co-owner of the Red Door since 1987, Alfa Zinkus calls change a mixed bag. His establishment had to move — building and all — a few blocks west to make room for the “new Fremont.”

“It’s been good for business. There’s more foot traffic, but something has to be done about parking.” And he’s no fan of new buildings housing Adobe Software and Getty Images, which clamp the Fremont Bridge between two giant brick blocks. The view-hogging office campus “has no ingenuity whatsoever.”

And what about residents? Sandra Driscoll, a Fremont homeowner for 20 years, wishes for basic amenities like a hardware store instead of another Thai restaurant. “You can buy an expensive painting here, but you can’t get the hook to hang it on.”

Joe Eagleberger seems like a throwback to a Fremont of earlier days. The owner of Spotted Owlberger Variety Shop makes and sells glassware including water-pipes — “because I have to eat” — and vases.

Even so, she loves her neighborhood. “Fremont is so alive. You walk down the street at almost any hour and there’s something going on. There’s art, dining, float planes overhead — it has a wonderful urban feeling.”

Come see for yourself. Visit Fremont for holiday browsing and shopping where the funky familiar co-exists with the so-hip-it-hurts. Fremont pulls out the stops this time of year, even draping Christmas lights on the grim visage of its Vladimir Lenin statue. Here’s a small sampling of Fremont sights and shops, new and old:

A holiday tour


35th Street Bistro: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30-10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, 709 N. 35th St. (206-547-9850 or www.35bistro.com).

Portage Bay Goods: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, 706 N. 34th St. (206-547-5221 or www.portagebay.com).

Port Co34: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, 626 N. 34th St. (206-545-9444 or www.port34.com).

PCC Natural Market: 6 a.m.-midnight daily, 600 N. 34th St. (206-632-6811 or www.pccnaturalmarkets.com).

Red Door: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily, 3401 Evanston Ave. N. (206-547-7521).

The Indoor Sun Shoppe: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday, 160 N. Canal St. (206-634-3727 or www.indoorsun.com).

Fremont Fine Arts Foundry: Gallery hours 4-7 p.m. second Saturday of each month, 154 N. 35th St. (206 632-4880).

Spotted Owlberger Variety Shop: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, 223 N. 36th St. (206-632-1611).

Sophia’s Fremont Coffee and Teas: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, 459 N. 36th St. (206-632-3633 or www.fremontcoffee.net).

Bitters: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday; Dec. 16-18 open till 9 p.m., 513 N. 36th St. (206-632-0886, 866-664-2488 or www.bittersco.com).

Fremont Antique Mall: 11 a.m.- 7 p.m. daily, 3419 Fremont Pl. N. (206-548-9140).

Simply Desserts: Noon-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, noon to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday, 3421 Fremont Ave. N. (206-633-2671).


In addition to on-street parking, look for six U-Park lots around Fremont that cost around $2-$3 for two hours. In addition, there are 90 spaces of free parking for patrons of businesses below the Epi Apartments (620 N. 34th St.); hundreds of parking stalls for a fee under the Getty Building (701 N. 34th St.); and free parking after business hours near the water in Quadrant Lake Union Center. Many businesses also have their own parking.

More information

See www.fremontseattle.com or www.fremontartscouncil.org

At the center of the Center of the Universe, at 34th and Fremont, view a panorama of the way it was and is. Head east a few doors down from Costas Opa Restaurant to poke around Portage Bay Goods — full to the rafters with quirky gifts for everyone.

They stock “Dirty Girl” soaps and bubble bath, and Paint the Wild sets for kids, which include a wood sculpture from Bali and non-toxic paint. For anyone needing an antidote to 24/7 holiday cheer, check out note cards and sticky-pads by Despair.com. An example: notes with a slick photo of a rowing crew with this message, “Get to work: You aren’t being paid to believe in the power of your dreams.”

Going west on North 34th, there’s an entire block of new Fremont, including the tiny Port Co34 shop that features contemporary furnishings and accessories. For the holidays, pick up ornaments, cards and post-modern stockings that can be stuffed with Shea-butter lotion from France.

Nearby is the roomy PCC Natural Market, which boasts an extensive olive bar, piles of exotic cheeses, pots of homestyle soups-to-go and a gourmet deli. Perhaps most coveted, though, is its parking garage.

Across the street to the west, find the Red Door, still offering good food and drink in a convivial atmosphere. On Sundays, out front, is the famous Fremont Farmers Market. This Sunday, the Red Door hosts its third annual photo-with-Santa events. Families and their kids attend in the afternoon (2-5 p.m.). Then in the evening, it’s grown-ups only with Santa and his sexy helper (9-11 p.m.). Beer lovers choose from among five winter brews available this month: Snowcap (Pyramid), Ebenezer Ale (Bridgeport), Cabin Fever on cask (Boundary Bay), Jolly Roger (Maritime Pacific), and Snowplow (Widmer).

Continue west. If the weather is chilly, slip into the Indoor Sun Shoppe on Canal Street across from the Burke-Gilman Trail. Inside is a humid, tropical respite from the cold with greenery everywhere and a nod to the holidays: poinsettias. An idea for the green thumb who has everything: a box of bat guano, apparently the next big thing in soil amendment.

Around the corner on North 35th Street, don’t miss the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, a rich inheritance of the 1980s art renaissance (look for the “Studio 154” sign). Next door is a vacant lot transformed into a garden guarded by iron sculptures. Hammered to the nearby telephone pole, a metal sign sums it up: “Free Fremont.” Outside the foundry studios are enormous African masks, one with dreadlock braids made from heavy cables.

The Epi Apartments epitomize the “new” Fremont. A steel sculpture, “Mon Sruang,” by Fremont artist Mark Stevens, climbs the building. The artwork is named for Stevens’ wife; the name translates from Thai to “jewelry of heaven.”

Go north to North 36th Street, highly concentrated with shops. For Fremont funky, try the Spotted Owlberger Variety Shop, a glassware business that also sells tobacco and espresso. Owner Joe Eagleberger seems like a throwback to old Fremont, with his long blond hair and deep Barry White voice. In addition to vases, Eagleberger produces a glut of glass water-pipes. “I make pipes because I have to eat,” he smiled sweetly. For $50, he offers two-hour lessons in which students learn to make a vase and several kinds of marbles, like the highly prized cat’s eye.

Also on North 36th, Sophia’s Fremont Coffee and Teas combines old-fashioned comfort in a 1904 home (check out those curlicue door handles) with high-tech: free wireless Internet. Owned by longtime Fremonster — the locals’ term for themselves — Chris Webb, the house also serves as a distributor for trendy soda pops like Leninade, Moxie and the nostalgic favorite, Bubble Up.

Not far from the Lenin statue, a shop called Bitters is upscale but not self-consciously so, a place designed for easy browsing. The Carson sisters, Amy and Katie, sell unusual items they discover in world travels, this year to Portugal, Mexico and the Philippines. When you find something curious, ask about it because each object has a story. Some affordable holiday ideas: hand-stamped wrapping paper from Nepal, small boxes made of cinnamon wood from Vietnam, colorful ornaments from around the world.

Real Soda’s Leninade has earned notoriety around the world, most recently being written up in the Russian edition of Maxim magazine. You can find it at Sophia’s Fremont Coffee and Teas.

Back on the main drag of Fremont Avenue North, don’t miss the Antique Mall, where Marc Salo has operated for 30 years. “I was here when you could actually park outside,” he laughed. With more than 40 dealers using the space, the mall focuses on Americana, especially popular with Japanese tourists. “We’re in two Japanese tour books,” Salo noted. Boomers also feel at home here. “We sell their childhood memories back to them.” During the holidays, Salo plays vintage Christmas music from the ’50s and ’60s.

Enough shopping! Time to eat. Upstairs from the Antique Mall, Simply Desserts, a Fremont institution, continues to make life difficult for the calorie and carb conscious, thank goodness. A suggestion: Buy a luxurious slab of cake, take it back down to the Burke-Gilman and stroll. Go east and the path takes you under the bridges with an up-close view of lake traffic. Check out the Christmas lights, an extra sparkle this time of year. Or head west on a tree-lined lane with benches where you can watch the water-world chug by.

In the end, you’ll likely decide that Fremont is not ruined. It’s more like a friend you haven’t seen for a long time, familiar though clearly altered. “When I came down Fremont Avenue, it looked the way I remembered,” said 35-year-old Jason Sherrett, now living in Portland and here for a recent visit. “But it has changed. A lot.”

Outside the Priceless Works Gallery at 619 N. 35th St., he was reading a “Notice of Land Use” billboard announcing yet another Fremont development — hotels, casinos, a project that “includes demolition of all existing buildings, structures and culture.”

It’s a joke. Sort of. Get down there before someone with money goes for it.

Connie McDougall is a Seattle-based freelance writer.