For years, people have speculated about the fate of Seattle’s oldest, most iconic neighborhood. The pandemic only made this more true. While everywhere suffered, both in terms of residential occupancy and commercial vacancies, Pioneer Square really suffered.
The pandemic shuttered a lot of area businesses, most noticeably Grand Central Bakery and the entire galleria it abutted, along with all the other businesses in that space. But the neighborhood also lost Mr. Saigon, E. Smith Mercantile, Cherry Street Public House, Zocálo, Casco Antiguo, Copal, i5 Pho, the Comedy Underground and the J & M Café and Cardroom. More recently, 7-Eleven and the neighboring restaurant on First Avenue and Cherry Street went down in a fire. Cafe Nordo is calling it quits on Christmas Eve. London Plane, one of the area’s most iconic restaurants, announced that it will also be closing on Christmas Eve, which could be construed as something of a coup de grace.
Suffice to say, things have not been looking good for what is perhaps Seattle’s most walkable, plaza-rich neighborhood for a while. While housing — at least of the market-rate variety — seems to be abundant here, the lack of open businesses can, at times, give the area a blighted feel.
However, seven new businesses are joining or have joined the area’s old favorites. Is it a revival? Being the most local newspaper to Pioneer Square, Real Change spent a week of lunch breaks walking around and trying to find out.
Hoot Beerdega/Heard Coffee/Cassette Club: 115 S Jackson St.
While it occupies only one unit in the northernmost arm of Denver-based Urban Villages’ three-building Railspur development, this new offering from fellow Denverites and hospitality partners Work+Shop contains multitudes. It’s a beer store that’s also a coffee shop that’s also a bike shop that’s also — oh, you thought we were done? — a bike commuter club, replete with bike valet and a swanky locker room.
The main floor is divided into tiers and rooms, making it somewhat of a tricky proposition to put a retail business or restaurant in. Work+Shop circumvented this by doing three separate concepts. Hoot Beerdega, the fancy beer store, is up front, followed by Heard Coffee, which straddles the space’s two levels in the middle. Cassette Club is all the way in the back but also in the space’s large basement, where its bike parking and shower facilities are. To avoid having muddy commuters tromp through the shop, there’s a semi-secret passageway from the building’s alley directly to the basement.
At a Nov. 15 soft opening, Work+Shop partner Mike Kraus stationed himself at a table in the back of the cycle shop and offered guests — a mix of Olson Kundig staffers, spandex-clad bike commuters and fashionable couples — pours of his favorite rare, large-format beers. Reached by phone in Denver after the event, he said he’d left Seattle feeling very optimistic about the new neighborhood.
“Everyone is excited to hear that things are happening and people are doing new things in Pioneer Square, which I think is the most positive sign for me,” he said, “because that means that the people who live everywhere else in the city are thinking, like, ‘Oh, I would love to go back to Pioneer Square for something. I just don’t know what’s happening there yet.’ So I think the opportunity is in the hands of the neighborhood.”
Kraus is so optimistic, in fact, that Work+Shop also plans to open a Mexican restaurant in the space directly next door, called Taco Listo.
“It’ll be not completely traditional Mexican, but very heavily guided by tradition. Handmade tortillas, fresh masa — the things you expect to see, maybe a few things you don’t. Great margarita program,” he said, also promising a large patio in the back and both lunch and late-night hours. The name is not terribly inventive, meaning just “ready taco,” but we are certainly ready for tacos. And we will get them, sometime around “Q1,” Kraus promised.
Long Brothers Fine & Rare Books: 400 Occidental Ave. S
“From incunabula to 20th Century literature, from journals of voyages to autograph letters, no book or manuscript is beyond our purview. We would be delighted to consider all printed or written materials. Discretion is our hallmark,” reads the Long Brothers Fine & Rare Books’ website. That, plus the erudite name, makes it sound like the type of shop that would appear in an old role-playing PC game — somewhere you’d pop into to find a Tome of Understanding. That’s not far from the truth: The books on offer do seem likely to grant you an extra point of wisdom.
Jeffrey Long has been running his bookstore on an appointment-only basis out of a private home in West Seattle. In the wake of the pandemic, he wanted to open a proper brick-and-mortar. In mid-January, he’ll do just that, in the former Starbucks space on the corner of South Jackson Street and Occidental Avenue South. With Arundel Books a block down on First Avenue South and the recently relocated poetry emporium Open Books just a few further north on First Avenue South and Cherry Street, Long’s arrival should make Pioneer Square the most densely literary neighborhood in the city. This is especially true if you count Peter Miller Architectural and Design Books behind the Bread of Life Mission.
“I’m excited about Pioneer Square and its prospects,” Long said, reached by phone Nov. 18. “I think people have been declaring a Pioneer Square renaissance for 50 years, but it kind of feels like it might be happening soon.”
He cited the Railspur buildings and the new waterfront park as signs of that. Somewhat surprisingly, he was “dead set” on opening in Georgetown and was even close to signing a lease there, but he was lured to Pioneer Square by lower monthly rent and a much more finished space.
“I like the vibe in Georgetown, the whole bohemian thing, but I’m in business, and there are a lot more people transiting through Pioneer Square,” he said.
One last bit of good news for the neighborhood: The bookstore has applied for a tavern license and will serve beer and wine to accompany all those rare and antiquarian books. It would probably be a nightmare to permit, but may we suggest a fireplace?
OHSUN Banchan Deli & Cafe: 221 First Ave. S
The owner of soon-to-open OHSUN Banchan Deli & Cafe, Sara Upshaw, said her Pioneer Square rental experience was also a pleasant one.
“Ours are amazing because they’re local,” she said of her landlords. “There’s so many people that are outside of Washington state that own around here. And that’s why we see so many of the empty storefronts.”
OHSUN began as a pop-up, inspired by Upshaw’s years spent blogging about and teaching classes on Korean food. But when she went to look for a space near where she lives (she’s also local), many landlords wouldn’t even show her one. However, the same open-minded folks who seem content to let us run a street newspaper out of their building decided to take a chance on a first-time restaurateur, and so we finally have a replacement for the dearly departed Berliner döner kebab shop.
Upshaw, for her part, is optimistic about opening in Pioneer Square.
“We also just believe in what it’s going to grow into now,” she said, sitting next to Taylor Marmie, her beverage director, in the mostly finished dining room. “We are not supporters of changing the neighborhood at all. We just want to be a part of it. And I feel like it’s just been interesting to see how it’s trying to grow and how it’s trying to survive and bounce back from the main pandemic time.”
OHSUN will be contributing to that with a counter-service, gluten-free Korean deli, obviously driven by banchan, but with traditional bowl options like bibimap and an ample deli, pantry and grab-n-go section. Marmie’s beverage menu is similarly gluten-free, consisting of wine, cider and soju. The goal is to offer quick lunches for those of us deadline-pushers who like to eat at our desks but also create a welcoming space for people who want to hang out a bit longer.
The team’s passion for food is evident, so we’re eager for the health department to hurry up and inspect the place. Both left pretty good money in tech and marketing — Upshaw did photo editing work for Nordstrom — and Upshaw said it was not a hard choice.
“I think the pandemic just ... made us all realize what we actually wanted to do. And I thought about it and I was like, ‘You know what? It’s not photoshopping. It’s actually food.’”
ʔálʔal Café: 122 Second Ave. S
ʔálʔal Café, located in the Chief Seattle Club’s eponymous 80-unit building for low-income and formerly unhoused Indigenous people, opened Nov. 29. ʔálʔal’s tagline is “Indigenous Foods, Decolonized Space,” and both sound great. The bison barbacoa tacos in particular. They’ve also got blue corn mush, grain bowls, bagels and assorted pastries, plus all your regular espresso offerings. The space is absolutely full of art, as Crosscut’s Brangien Davis recently reported, including a three-dimensional mural with a rendering of Chief Seattle himself. The name, Davis informed, is Lushootseed for “home” and is pronounced “all-all.” The website’s “Values” page lists four: reclaiming traditional foods, redistributing wealth, food sovereignty empowerment and decolonizing the food industry. We’re all-all in.
P.S. We’ve been in now, and the tacos are amazing.
Luigi’s: 211 First Ave. S
Luigi’s comes with a lot of lore. Per the website, Luigi De Nunzio, the namesake, was involved in some way in about a half dozen of Seattle’s classic Italian restaurants before opening Al Boccalino in 1989. He added Denunzio’s in 1997, Café Bengodi in 1999 and Che Sara Sara in 2014, all in Pioneer Square. The site is a little out of date, as it reads, “Today, these various restaurants, all in Pioneer Square, provide a completely unique and different Italian dining experience for those wishing to embellish their tastes.” None of those restaurants are currently operating, but the point is that Luigi’s biggest dream was to create something of a culinary district in Pioneer Square. He used the phrase “Little Italy” across his mini-empire and in speaking with the press. Luigi has passed, but Little Italy lives on in present day Luigi’s, which originally opened in 2016.
“Covid19 has taken its toll on Pioneer Square and the small businesses that have made the square their home. [Luigi’s wife and co-owner] Angela and her son Ben have kept the doors open throughout these trying times and are looking forward to moving to their new location spring of 2021,” the site reports. That move was in fact completed this year. While Luigi’s doesn’t technically count as a new business, the company does believe in the Pioneer Square project enough to move even deeper into it, which is a good sign.
Lune Café: 107 First Ave. S
Full disclosure: The journalist writing this has Type 1 diabetes. Crepes covered in sweet whipped cream, syrup, strawberries and chocolate sauce are not really on the menu. Neither are smoothies and other sweet drinks. However, a lot of other people love those two things, which are the bulk of what Lune Café offers, and so a lot of people love Lune Café. It’s been open since early October. The space is bright and airy, with super high ceilings and lots of white subway tile, and it’s given life to an empty restaurant space that previously had its most exciting moment when Gordon Ramsay rented it out for a few days to shoot a show.
Muse Lounge: 224 Occidental Ave. S
While Muse Lounge is easily the most intriguing of the new arrivals, our schedules never really lined up. Therefore, all we’ve got to go on is the “vibes,” of which Muse has plenty. The lounge’s Instagram uses the specifically nonspecific word “vibes” so much. There are “unbeatable vibes”; there are “good vibes”; there is an Instagram highlight reel titled “vibes.” Fortunately, there are no bad vibes, which, quite frankly, is a total vibe.
While we’ve gotten into specific varieties, let’s talk about the overall vibes. Aphorisms like “Be your own muse” and “Turn down for what?” are rendered in neon nearly everywhere. The entire back wall of the large, sickle-shaped bar is covered in what is surely fake foliage, with one big screen poking out. The restaurant’s columns are similarly wreathed in imitation ivy. There are plants elsewhere, and they could be real. Either way, there are a lot of posting opportunities here. So many that one might even say it was designed with Instagram in mind. Anyway, after this journalist unsuccessfully attempted to make a Tuesday visit and ended up at Good Bar instead, the chef there reported that Muse had some of the best bone marrow he’s ever had. Not what you would expect from the place’s general oeuvre, but the cardinal sin of criticism is judging a book by its cover. Either way, Muse will bring more people and more life to the neighborhood. That’s good news.
Update: We made it in at the last minute. No bone marrow in sight, but we had easily the best michelada we've ever sipped in Seattle. The vibes, by the way, were immaculate.
Read more of the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2022 issue.