On Feb. 9, 2020, the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopened after a three-year, $56 million dollar renovation and expansion that transformed the look, feel and reach of the venerable institution. Five weeks later, the first round of statewide COVID-19 lockdowns shuttered the place. “It was heartbreaking for me and my colleagues,” said Foong Ping, the Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at the museum. “It was shoulder to shoulder in the newly imagined galleries — then silence.”
This July, the museum, which reopened in May 2021, launched a new exhibition curated by Foong called “Beyond the Mountain,” which showcases contemporary Chinese artists, including Zhang Huan, Yang Yongliang and Lam Tung Pang. It’s a knockout show, with bold, tech-enhanced, multimedia works playing off traditional images and themes. And it’s also a fitting symbol of Seattle in the aftermath of the pandemic. “Ink Media #4,” by Chen Shaoxiong, with its full-wall projections of drawings based on photos of political protests, is one of the most exhilarating works currently on view in the city, but museum hours remain limited to three days a week and the number of visitors has yet to reach prepandemic levels.
In short, Seattle is back, but not all the way. The pandemic left gaps and tears in the urban fabric, especially downtown, and locals still mourn favorite restaurants that did not make it through: Boat Street Kitchen and Dahlia Lounge downtown, Il Corvo in Pioneer Square, the Paragon on Queen Anne Hill. But the city’s defining cultural institutions remain healthy, new restaurants and coffee places are popping up all over town, and the communities ringing the center are more vibrant than ever.
Capitol Hill — the neighborhood where the Asian Art Museum stands on the crest of the Olmsted Brothers-designed Volunteer Park — is a good example of the city’s recovery.
At the start of June 2020, less than a mile and a half south of the museum, the so-called CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest) transformed the neighborhood’s commercial heart into a zone of fierce protest ignited by the murder of George Floyd. Protesters filled a local park with tents and murals, did their own policing after the local precinct was abandoned, and distributed free food, though by the end of the month a series of shootings in the area precipitated the clearing of the CHOP protesters. “At first it was beautiful,” said Pietro Borghesi of the action swirling around the Capitol Hill restaurant, Osteria La Spiga, which he and his wife, Sabrina Tinsley, own. “Then it became like the Wild West.”
But the CHOP had barely unraveled when new bars and restaurants began appearing on the site. The airy, plant-filled wine bar, Light Sleeper, opened in 2020 in the courtyard of the stylish Chophouse Row urban mini mall. Around the corner on East Union Street, Overcast Coffee, touting “bikes, beers and coffee,” sprouted under the same roof as the Metier bike shop (which also offers rentals).
Ballard, Central District
Another classic Seattle neighborhood, Ballard, north of downtown, where generations of Scandinavian fishermen resided, was flourishing prepandemic. The 2018 opening of the dazzling new home of the National Nordic Museum, designed by the Seattle-based Mithun architecture firm, added new luster (and parking). Local culinary standbys like San Fermo, Sawyer and Indian Bistro came through the pandemic in good shape, with outdoor seating options continuing, but there are some outstanding new additions. Ballard’s branch of Spice Waala, a 10-minute walk from the museum, is a typical pandemic startup: small, fast, nimble, focused on just a few zesty dishes to eat in or take out (aloo tikki fried potato roll, $7.50; spicy chicken tikka roll, $7.50; Masala aloo, fries with a twist, $3.50). Need a shot? Refuel at Papa Chango Cafe a tiny, new, Miami-themed coffee place serving Panther coffee (cafe con leche, $4.75; chocolate caliente, $3.50), less than 10 minutes by foot from the museum.
The Central District, Seattle’s historically Black neighborhood east of downtown, was gentrifying fast even before the pandemic. Communion, Kristi Brown’s sumptuous soul food restaurant that started serving at the height of the pandemic, has turned the district into a dining destination. New twists on old favorites like watermelon salad with shaved onions and feta ($14), grilled okra ($14) and jambalaya ($32) have sent critics swooning — and diners flocking. If you can’t score a dinner reservation, try lining up for Sunday brunch (cornbread French toast, $24; hush puppies and grits, $18). While you’re waiting, grab a Jebena-brewed Ethiopian coffee ($4.50) at the 4-month-old Avole Coffee next door, or a raspberry-ginger doughnut at Raised Doughnuts and Cakes across the street.
Farther south, in the emerging Hillman City neighborhood, Archipelago has been scoring high marks for its harmonious meldings of Northwest ingredients and Filipino cuisine.
There is no question that the pandemic hit Seattle’s downtown hard, and the area continues to struggle with homelessness, crime and vacant buildings. It didn’t help that tourism fell off a cliff with total visitation (day trips and overnight stays) plunging to 22 million in 2020 from 41.9 million in 2019, before edging back up to 26.6 million last year.
But John Boesche, the senior vice president of tourism at Visit Seattle, reports that the city “finally saw meaningful recovery this spring and summer, fueled by pent-up demand.” Cruise ships are back with a vengeance; the Mariners, enjoying their best season in years, are drawing crowds to T Mobile Park south of downtown; and Pike Place Market is once again packed with pedestrians and sporting new restaurants, including Maiz Tortilleria for authentic Mexican street food and Sugo Hand Roll Bar for exquisite Japanese seafood and veggie wraps.
Even Pioneer Square — the city’s original downtown, with red brick Romanesque Revival buildings and pedestrian malls — which emptied precipitously during the pandemic, is getting a welcome new jolt of energy because of the ongoing waterfront development following the removal of the elevated highway known as the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The new Seattle Aquarium Ocean Pavilion, slated to open in 2024, will be the marquee structure on the reconfigured waterfront.
Phen Huang, the director of Pioneer Square’s esteemed Foster/White Gallery, notes that during the pandemic local galleries collaborated on remote art exhibitions like the Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair — in which 50-odd local galleries showcased the work of their leading artists online — and now in-person visits are ticking up. First Thursday Art Walks have once again begun to attract healthy crowds.
Amazon, which has transformed the downtown South Lake Union neighborhood from a backwater of grubby light industry to a hive of tech employment and recreation, worked to keep area commerce alive during the pandemic, and the effort paid off. Now, right at the edge of the Amazon campus, there’s the spiffy new tech-forward Astra Hotel Seattle, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel, with a whimsical outer space vibe (rooms from $279). Its sleek roof terrace bar was slated to blast off early this month.
Just a couple of blocks to the south, the Level South Lake Union is another newcomer to the neighborhood, with clean, spare suites offering full kitchens and balconies. A climbing wall and indoor basketball court top the list of sporty amenities. The Level suite (the smallest unit) sleeps four, with rates starting at $299.
COVID-19 may have slowed Seattle’s explosive growth and eased its congestion — but now traffic is back and so is the dynamism that has come to characterize this youthful, diverse, innovative and increasingly decentralized urban hub.