The vibrant dining scene along Seattle's Union Street has gotten even livelier with the arrival of Four Seasons Hotel Seattle's ART Restaurant and Lounge and a revamped TASTE Restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum.

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Eighteen years ago, with Bo-Bo the cat nesting in his carrier, my husband Spencer’s upright bass carefully stowed in cargo and my jewelry and grandmother’s silver set securely stashed in our carry-on bag, we took the 6 a.m. flight from Dallas to Seattle to start a new life.

Lured by the Pike Place Market and the ease of downtown living, we rented a condominium at the corner of First Avenue and Union Street. With Spencer’s office just four blocks away, a hundred restaurants outside our door and the downtown retail core a matter of blocks, we thought we were in heaven.

Not everyone agreed. My husband’s colleagues thought we were crazy; our parents feared for our lives. And, granted, at times life in the ‘hood could be a little crazy.

Panhandlers, prostitutes and drug dealers were common sights. Occasional gunshots and frequent sirens competed with the cries of the seagulls and mournful drone of ferry horns. During the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999, we were accidentally tear-gassed when we stepped onto our balcony to witness the action below.

But location is everything, and things started to change from 1991 to 2003, with the arrival of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the Harbor Steps complex, Benaroya Hall, The Triple Door and Musiquarium and The Islander and Union restaurants.

In 2004, the SAM expansion began construction, and The Seattle Hotel Group announced plans for a $150 million, 21-story, mixed-use development anchored by a Four Seasons Hotel directly across the street.

In 2006, The Pike Brewing Co. was repurchased by original owners Charles and Rose Ann Finkel and Vital Tea-Leaf launched. In 2007, the newly expanded Seattle Art Museum and TASTE Restaurant at SAM opened.

But we hadn’t seen anything yet.

In June 2008, TASTE, which had initially been criticized for its chilly interior design, reopened with a warmer ambience and a new executive chef, Craig Hetherington. His dishes are simultaneously playful and sophisticated. Chardonnay Chicken Salad, Farro Risotto with Chanterelles or an Inside Out Sassafras Float, anyone?

The Pike Pub has seen an impressive rebirth, with refreshed menus incorporating organic foods, new beer offerings, an expanded wine program and upgraded décor. Don’t miss the veggie- and seafood-filled Dungeness Crab Chowder, the Ale-Battered Halibut and Chips and the warm-from-the-oven Pike XXXXX Brownie served with Stout Cream Sauce (yum!).

After lunch, sample Asian teas at Vital Tea-Leaf, sip a latte at Café Ladro or try a Polynesian cocktail at The Islander (which will morph into Thoa’s Restaurant & Lounge, serving contemporary Vietnamese cuisine, in early 2009). Soak in the sweet smells at Fran’s Chocolates while deciding which hot chocolate, espresso drink or port to pair with your handmade chocolate truffles and caramels. For dinner, try Union restaurant, which rated 3 ½ (out of four) stars from The Seattle Times in May. Union’s $50 Meal Deal is a veritable steal. Diners get two appetizers/sides, an entree and dessert. Outstanding recent offerings have included the Potato Gnocchi with Lobster, Bacon and Rosemary (a signature dish), Venison with Morel Mushrooms, Carrot Purée and Blackberries and Frozen Chocolate Paté with Cherry Soup and Pistachio Brittle.

Of course, a stop at the new kid on the block is a must.

In early September, I took a hard-hat tour and discovered that the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle is among the hotelier’s most contemporary properties, with 36 condos above 147 guest rooms. Designed by Seattle architecture firm NBBJ, the facade incorporates glass, aluminum, stone and wood to simultaneously embrace earth, water and sky.

The hotel’s interiors are designed to bring nature inside with water features and fireplaces, natural stone, light-colored woods, infinity walls and rich-toned fabrics. A polished, 300-year-old, hollowed-out tree trunk serves as the host station, while a 12-foot wine wall displays the ART Restaurant and Lounge’s 100-plus bottle list.

The restaurant/lounge has four “zones” that flow seamlessly and share sweeping views of Elliott Bay. The lounge, open for morning coffee or evening cocktails, seats 45 people. The interactive counter (where guests can talk to the chef who prepares their sushi or dessert) seats 25 and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The same meals are offered in the main dining room, which seats 72. The private dining room holds 20.

The Four Seasons tapped longtime Seattle chef Kerry Sear as executive chef and director of food and beverage. He’s the perfect choice, having worked at Four Seasons properties in Toronto, Vancouver and Seattle for 12 years before opening his own restaurant in Belltown — Cascadia — in 1999.

“We chose the name ART because of the natural beauty of the Northwest, our proximity to SAM, the contemporary artwork throughout the building and the art of food and wine,” he explains.

The perfect blend of cuisine and culture. Not unlike Seattle’s hottest new neighborhood.

Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining” and writes a column for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Visit her blog at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.