By Wendy K. Leigh
Ask any of the new hipster business owners on the redesigned Stone Way North and you’ll get a different answer: are you in Fremont or Wallingford? The street literally divides two of Seattle’s most beloved and distinct neighborhoods – and both sides have a mouthful to say about the multi-million-dollar development bulldozing down Stone Way in the last couple of years. But now that it’s “all said and done,” the sometimes-strident conversation has ricocheted into an entirely different question:
Why does this commercialization of Seattle actually work for the locals and the city?
To find the real answer to that, follow your nose. From 38th Street down to 34th, Stone Way now unfurls as a yellow-brick-road of sorts, with people almost literally skipping along from one ultra-cool new eatery to the next, culminating at the north tip of Lake Union. But these aren’t just any old’ places to eat, and therein lies the magic.
The crafty, uberlicious, individually owned eateries dishing out eclectic fare every few steps along the pavement are actually owned by locals, and ones that have made pretty impressive names for themselves. Leading the pack is Seattle’s favorite dish-diva chef Renee Erickson, who was just given the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest in 2016.
Her sleek, sea shanty-ish spot in a converted warehouse on Stone Way is The Whale Wins, which set the bar for authentic and small foodie havens when it opened on the reconceptualized strip in 2013. The restaurant’s name is a subtle reference to Moby Dick, expanding a literary motif that began with its lines-out-the-door sister in Ballard, The Walrus and the Carpenter, named after the narrative poem by Lewis Carroll.
The Whale Wins goes out of its way to use ingredients from local beaches, gardens and farms. They even have their own 45-acre farm on Whidbey Island, affectionately called The Donkey Farm. With their own cattle, sheep, chickens and vegetables, they’re able to literally go from farm to table in many of their dishes.
As an early arriver on Stone Way, Renee and her business partner Jeremy Price arguably defined the new strip, establishing it purposefully as an extension of the already existing hip-or-hippy-ness of Fremont – but with a twang of urban polish that manages to bring together the long-time families and the newly arrived high-tech implants.
“We wanted to join the neighborhood, not transform it,” explains Jeremy. “Our customers are our neighbors, and that’s how we want it to be.”
It just so happens that the neighbors are onboard with that as well – especially as their influence has turned Stone Way from just another overdeveloped Seattle street into a progressive vision for what Seattle can be as it evolves and moves forward.
With the impending debut of software giant Tableau’s 110,000-square-foot office expansion just five minutes away on N. 34th Street, and thousands more Google employees just down the road, growth is inevitable. But where everyone congregates to break bread and share a growler at the end of the day can go a long way toward setting the tone.
Just a block south of The Whale Wins, the Miir flagship store is a seeming dichotomy of Seattle culture. By day, the lively, networking, 30-something laptop crowd slips from one espresso-laden table to the next, overflowing with Eureka! moments and VC-funded planning. When happy hour hits, growlers and craft beer spill into the conversation, but it never slows down.
However, what belies the tech-ness of the scene is the fact that Miir is a custom commuter and mountain bike maker whose purpose is “world change” through supporting trackable giving projects, water initiatives and bicycle/mobility programs to foster education and enterprise in poverty-stricken areas. The “product to project” theme fuels the entire Miir operation on Stone Way.
Even the coffee at Miir has an underlying progressive element, evidenced by casual events such as the impressive (and free) September coffee-cupping afternoon hosted by the two brothers of Onda Exchange in Seattle. Paul and Scott Tupper, purveyors of world betterment and ethical consumerism, spread out a traditional coffee cupping and tasting in the back room of Miir, hosted by Enrique from Finca Monte Copeya, a small family-owned coffee farm in Costa Rica.
Family Tree Branches
Renee and Derek from The Whale Wins are like the cool aunt and uncle skipping their family stones across the road; several former members of their Sea Creatures family have landed on the other side of Stone Way, dropping into their own spots with names like Manolin, named after Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
Even though Manolin was placed on the Bon Appetite list of America’s Best New Restaurants 2015, they have few pretensions.
“We literally built this place ourselves, from ceiling to floor,” says Rachel Johnson, co-owner of Manolin and former employee of The Whale Wins. “The only thing we didn’t physically install was the hood for our wood-fired grill.”
The Sea Wolf Bakery next door to Manolin, named after the Jack London novel, belongs to Kit and Jesse Schumann, two brothers who still supply freshly baked loaves of Seattle Sour Boule and artisan breads to Renee’s restaurants, even after opening their first-ever walk-in bakery here in August 2016.
“We are Lake Union people,“ explains Jesse. “This spot is perfect for us, and the important thing is that we don’t feel like we’re “intruding” here with our baking business – we’re actually just part of the family on Stone Way.”
Collision of Past and Present
Its history as an industrial strip filled with paint and plumbing shops makes the new Stone Way even more striking. The musty old, nondescript buildings were literally toppled like tinker toys to make way for ultra-modern high-rise buildings with names like RAY beaming primary reds, oranges and yellows into the skyline.The new Stone 36 bar and grill, tucked into the bottom level of RAY, adds another layer to the growing “micro-community” concept, where residents can live, work and eat without cranking up a car.
Pockets of the pre-development Stone Way still exist, but somehow have blended into a “modern and vintage” harmony that just works.The picnic tables at RoRo’s BBQ shack next door to RAY are packed with both longtime devoted customers and brisket newbies, and the Pacific Inn Pub sizzles up fish-and-chips like they’ve done for decades. Live acoustic music drifts from the earthy Stone Way Cafe down to The Whale Wins, lingering at the posh new outdoor firepits of Joule.
As the street ends just past N. 34th Street, Lake Union glitters with sailboats, kayaks, floatplanes and houseboats, framing the city skyline as it rises on the south horizon like the Urban Oz of Seattle. Kites dance in the air over Gasworks Park, and cyclers glide around the Burke Gilman Trail as it intersects with Stone Way.
The moving city scene hints that these small restaurant owners have actually managed to pull it off – they all fit as they simultaneously define the transformation and pull together the multi-faceted new families of Fremont and Wallingford. It’s not just the whale of development that wins this time: we all do.