Grunge was the soundtrack of my Gen X college life. We knew every word to Nirvana’s 1991 album, “Nevermind.” And the day we learned Kurt Cobain had died, April 8, 1994, there was a candlelight vigil in the quad.
I’m feeling nostalgic for the alt-rock style that got its start in Seattle with bands such as Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, many of which were first signed by local record label Sub Pop.
Indeed, grunge seems to be making a comeback. Brett Morgen’s documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” will be shown May 4 on HBO. Seminal L.A. girl grunge band L7 plans a reunion. And the Montclair (N.J.) Art Museum has mounted a survey of 1990s art titled “Come As You Are,” after the Nirvana song.
It seemed like an interesting time to revisit ground zero of grunge, so I booked a weekend trip to Seattle. The end-of-the-continent isolation and blue-collar attitude that were groundwork for grunge are now distant memories. For the last 20 years, Seattle has been booming.
The influx of money from Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco and other Seattle-area corporations has led to a proliferation of luxury condos, high-rise office buildings, farm-to-table restaurants and craft cocktail bars. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a new visitor center, and the sparkling Chihuly Garden and Glass museum have enhanced the city’s sheen.
In search of what’s left of the grunge experience, we checked into the boutique Hotel Max downtown, which has a floor of rooms dedicated to Sub Pop Records. . The Sub Pop floor has cheery, striped carpeting and action-packed shots of Nirvana, Hole and other grunge bands before they hit it big.
Furnishings in our room were modern and spare, but with fun touches, including a Crosley record player, a collection of vinyl Sub Pop records and a special TV channel that plays current and classic Sub Pop videos.
The hotel is a short walk from Pike Place Market. We snacked on macaroni and cheese from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, sampled Cabernet chocolate cherries from Chukar and ginger pepper pickles from Britt’s. Then we settled in for happy hour at Radiator Whiskey, which serves barrel-aged, smoked maple Old-Fashioneds.
For dinner, we called Uber and headed to Canlis, one of Seattle’s old-school dining institutions, open since 1950. The food was nothing special but the to-die-for views of Lake Union were worth the pricey tab. And the peanut-butter-and-jelly chocolates to take home were a nice touch.
On the way back to the hotel, we hit Bathtub Gin & Co., a speak-easy in the basement of what was once an old brick hotel, now the Humphrey Apartments, that you enter through a back alley. (Look for the silver plaque near the entrance – and the line of people waiting to get in.) The place was cool without trying too hard, with cozy tables and friendly service.
The next morning, we drove by the house where Cobain died. His century-old, four-bedroom house looks small compared with most of the other mansions. Two benches in nearby Viretta Park serve as de facto memorials, with graffiti messages carved into the wood and love notes tucked between the slats.
A light rain put us in the mood for something warm, so we headed to Ba Bar, a Vietnamese noodle shop and bakery. But before we turned our attention to sightseeing at Seattle Center, we wanted to check out one of the city’s newly legal recreational pot shops – merely for research purposes. Uncle Ike’s, in the Central District, is the most slickly merchandised shop, with a security guard and velvet rope out front, and TV monitors inside displaying the day’s flavors. The clientele was upscale, and represented a variety of ages.
It was a strange leap from Uncle Ike’s to the the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundationmoving from self-indulgence to boundless generosity. . Its visitor center explains the foundation’s work through a series of interactive exhibits. There are heavy buckets to lift, so visitors can get a sense of how hard it is for people in developing countries to walk miles every day for clean water, and new inventions to explore, such as coolers that keep vaccines cold for 30 days. And don’t miss the bathrooms, which may be the best part. The door to each stall is disguised to look like a latrine in Africa, India or elsewhere, to highlight the need for sanitary facilities around the world.
Afterward, we walked to the nearby Chihuly Garden and Glass, which showcases the colorful glass sculptures of Northwest artist Dale Chihuly. The views of the Space Needle through the suspended sculpture in the greenhouse-style Glass House space were unforgettable.
It was still drizzling when we arrived for dinner at Westward, chef Zoi Antonitsas’ Mediterranean seafood restaurant. On the north shore of Lake Union, it boasts a dock and outdoor seating for better weather, and campy seafaring-themed decor inside. The oysters were delicious, as were the wood-fired trout and Greek wine.
We skipped the olive oil cake in favor of liquid dessert at Canon on Capitol Hill. The sixth best bar in the world must be one of the most exacting too. But it was worth the 45-minute wait in the rain for the Milk N’ Cookies cocktail in a ceramic milk carton filled with Cognac Landy, Ardbeg, chocolate, milk, Angostura bitters and Fernet-Branca. It was served in a Betty Boop lunch box, with a straw, a cookie and a comic book.
The next day, I wanted to check out the Ballard and Fremont neighborhoods. Ballard is now hipster central. Strolling along Ballard Avenue, we stopped into the Anchored Ship Coffee Bar for locally brewed Herkimer coffee and salted Rice Krispies treats. Women’s boutique Horseshoe has clothing and accessories with a nod to Americana style (dresses by Prairie Underground, earmuffs by Pendleton, boots by Frye). Lucca Great Finds has just that (ceramics by Astier de Villatte; embroidered pillows and accessories by Brooklyn’s Coral & Tusk; teas from Mariage Freres, as well as custom cards). And Prism has modern arty jewelry, clothing and objets (marble necklaces by Rill Rill, Wonders of Washington patches, Herbivore Botanicals beard tonic and the like).
Once the center of Seattle’s counterculture, Freemont is filled now with vintage stores and high-end boutiques such as Les Amis and Essenza. Both are owned by Becky Buford and have a French country vibe, with Isabel Marant, Rachel Comey and Giada Forte clothing, delicate earrings by RockStella and Tai, fragrances by Parfums DelRae and others.
I had a flight to catch, but not before visiting the Sub Pop store at Sea-Tac Airport. It’s one part record store, one part upscale Northwest gift shop. Not only are there albums for sale by Sub Pop’s indie bands of old (Nirvana, Soundgarden) and new (Sleater-Kinney, the Shins), there are also cool Sub Pop logo T-shirts, knit caps, Lighthouse Roasters Sub Pop coffee beans and more.
I left with a sweatshirt – and memories of a Seattle that’s about grunge and so much more.
If you go
Where to stay
Hotel Max 620 Stewart St. Doubles from $129. 206-728-6299 or hotelmaxseattle.com
Where to eat
Anchored Ship Coffee Bar 5306 Ballard Ave. N.W. 206-484-5143
Ba Bar 550 12th Ave. 206-328-2030 or babarseattle.com
Beecher’s Handmade Cheese 1600 Pike Place. 206-956-1964 or beechershandmadecheese.com
Britt’s Pickles 1500 Pike Place No. 15. 253-666-6686 or brittsliveculturefoods.com
Canlis 2576 Aurora Ave. N. 206-283-3313 or canlis.com
Chukar Cherries 1529-B Pike Place. 206-623-8043 or chukar.com
Westward 2501 N. Northlake Way. 206-552-8215 or westwardseattle.com
Where to drink
Bathtub Gin & Co. 2205 2nd Ave. 206-728-6069 or bathtubginseattle.com
Canon 928 12th Ave. canonseattle.com
Radiator Whiskey 94 Pike St., Suite 30. 206-467-4268 or radiatorwhiskey.com
Where to shop
Essenza 615 N. 35th St. 206-547-4895 or essenza-inc.com
Horseshoe 5344 Ballard Ave. N.W. 206-547-9639 or shophorseshoe.com
Les Amis 3420 Evanston Ave. N. 206-632-2877 or lesamis-inc.com
Lucca Great Finds 5332 Ballard Ave. N.W. 206-782-7337 or luccagreatfinds.com
Prism 5208 Ballard Ave. N.W. templeofcairo.com/prism
Sub Pop at Sea-Tac Central Terminal, 17801 International Blvd.
Uncle Ike’s 2310 E. Union St. 844-420-4537 or uncleikespotshop.com
What to see
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center 440 5th Ave. N. 206-709-3100 or gatesfoundation.com/Visitor-Center
Chihuly Garden and Glass museum 305 Harrison St. 206-753-4940 or chihulygardenandglass.com