STRANGERCROMBIE WINNER! This article was bought-and-paid-for in The Stranger’s annual charity auction—which this year raised more than $50,000 for the Seattle nonprofit Treehouse, helping foster kids since 1988. Thank you, everybody!
Do not let anyone tell you Lowell's in Pike Place Market is for tourists. Lowell's—aka "the living room of the Market"—is absolutely tourist-friendly, but it is also for locals and rock stars and everyone from the Market and you, whoever you are. Pretty much everybody loves Lowell's, and Lowell's loves every- body back, pretty much unconditionally.
In the tourist category, no less than the travel section of the New York Times has recognized Lowell's goodness, back in 2005:
"There may be no place in Seattle better to eat before 8:00 a.m. than the second story of Lowell's, a restaurant nestled into the Pike Place Market and overlooking Elliott Bay. Its interior owes nothing to fashion and much to wood stain and the large windows that overlook the ferry terminal far below.... As the Seattle architect Fred Bassetti once said of the Market itself, it is 'an honest place in a phony time.' The coffee is rich and flavorful, the waitresses kind, and the salmon scramble—comprising hot-smoked salmon with eggs and green onion, accompanied by thick, buttery sourdough bread—is as perfect an entrance drug as anyone hoping to tempt addiction to West Coast salmon could devise."
While the Times may be forgiven for waxing rhapsodic, Lowell's is not the kind of place where you're likely to hear the word "comprising." It is indeed an honest place, an unpretentious landmark that also happens to have a sense of humor. Its slogan, printed on the front of the scuffed menus, is "ALMOST CLASSY," a summation of Lowell's spirit that came to general manager Mark Monroe when he was shooting the breeze with some of the staff. Also on the front of the menu, for no particular reason, is a wrench. The staff's been known to gather on the second story, interior side, to mess with passers-by in the Market below by flashing a laser pointer on specific pieces of fruit.
Monroe's the best kind of motormouth, full of funny stories and no-bullshit observations, and, underneath it all, clearly more than a little bit in love with Lowell's. He's run the place for 10 years, but to hear him tell it, he's just letting it be itself. His managerial philosophy: "Don't fuck it up." He elaborates: "It's been around forever, so leave it alone."
"Forever" is approximately correct—Lowell's is now more than a century old. In the beginning, it was a coffee- and nut-roaster with a cafeteria. The sepia-toned old-timey photos you'll find on the walls are actually of Lowell's; the wait station on the second level is an antique walnut bureau because it's always been there, not because someone thought it looked quaint. ("That thing's held together with spit and gum!" Monroe says.)
So many rock stars have hid out at Lowell's that Monroe finds it hard to remember them. Artists playing at the nearby Showbox often come by; Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams were in recently. Eric Clapton was able to dine a month or so ago unpestered. ("I did buy his breakfast," Monroe says. "He got me through some really tough times in my life, sad and listening to Cream in my room.")
A regular named Skip has been coming in every day since 1975; the Market's famous fish throwers hang out here, as do other vendors. Monroe gets as close to reverence as he can go when he talks about his neighbors: Harry, who's sold seafood at Pure Food Fish Market two doors down every day (save four days in August) since he came back from the Vietnam War; Lina of Lina's, who runs the produce stand across from Lowell's and who works nonstop except for church on Sundays. As far as Lowell's staff: Brandi, one of the bartenders, makes organic bacon–infused vodka for the Lowell's Hangtown Mary, a specialty that she and Monroe invented after a few drinks. It's got a raw oyster in it, and it's a lifesaver. Brandi, daytime bartender Kittie, the waitstaff, the four cooks—Juan, Juan, Hugo, and Alex—these are the real rock stars of Lowell's.
People love the big-ass breakfasts, the excellent clam chowder, the Famous Fish & Chips, the crab cakes (from the recipe of Tom Douglas, who comes in sometimes), the Big Fresh Market Salads (topped with blackened wild Alaskan king salmon or Dungeness crab or any number of other deliciousnesses). The prices are notable only insofar as there's no whopping tourist tax: A bowl of soup's $5.95, a ground sirloin cheeseburger's nine bucks. The first and third floor are order-at-the-counter, then your food is brought to you; the second floor—the place to be, per the NYT—is table service and home to the beloved bar.
When it comes to lavish praise like that of the Times, Monroe demurs: "It's not really that it's the best—it's just fresh, with a view you can't beat." The fish comes from Harry, two doors down; the produce comes from Lina, six steps or so away. The view comes from, if not heaven, someplace very much like it—the slate gray or sparkling Sound with its ridiculously picturesque ferries; the islands and ridges covered in dark firs; on a clear day, the distant, noble mountains. That Lowell's remains, almost classy and entirely itself a hundred years on, is pretty much a miracle.