I experienced Seattle through video and music magazines in my 20’s and 30’s. I heard about the Seattle grunge scene or someone told me that about what was happening with music in Seattle while living in Hollywood during the big hair band days.
Seattle Grunge, Food and Nightlife: A Perfect Day 20 Years Later
Nirvana & Veretta Park
I was playing the club scene when Nirvana came on strong. I always wanted to venture up north to see what Seattle was like, experience all the rain and check out some great local Seattle grunge music. I finally did at the age of 45.
Sitting in my car in front of 151 Lake Washington Boulevard East, the former home of Kurt Cobain and it was pouring rain. I circled down to the four-spot parking area and small park off Washington Boulevard that offers access to Lake Washington.
I jumped out of my car to trek up the street and around the corner to a small park with two benches. One bench faces the street and another sits up another 50 feet or so on a tiny hill of grass.
This bench sits below the upper level of Kurt Cobain’s old house. I am in Veretta Park.
Up above the tree-line, I saw an image I have engraved in my mind from April 8th, 1994. The image of a beautiful upscale home in a pretty expensive neighborhood and I think, where’s the grunge? As I walked up the grassy hill I slipped and got a bunch of mud all over myself like a goof. Nice. This bench was my focal point I didn’t care about the mud.
My eyes started focus as I tried to read the en-scribing and markered notes that completely cover both benches in this little doggie park. I realized standing there that this is a piece of rock culture and will be in a museum one day or ripped off.
These benches are a history of love and caring by local Seattle grunge music fans. The messages were mostly urban babble but there were a few that stood out as key thoughts of appreciation for the music that Kurt gave us. I expected something else, I don’t know what… “Love you Kurt, life is short” and “Kurt, thanks for the free downloads!”
I knew that one day I would come to visit this place. I realized sitting on that graffiti bench that I miss the energy of the music scene and good times in the early 90’s. It was a bit lonely and I began to feel strange, sitting there all alone looking over the trees and 16-foot gate. I slid down the hill, waved goodbye, and imagined for a moment, what could have been.
I decided to go downtown and explore some of the places I have only heard about, check out the Seattle music scene today while also remembering and retracing the steps of some of the successful bands of the grunge movement.
I needed to know firsthand what is different now compared to what it was like when Seattle grunge bands like Green River, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden and of course Nirvana were playing the clubs and hanging out.
While grunge is the predominant sound associated with Seattle, today there are plenty of new and worthy bands in the city. While some things have changed, many of the local hangouts and eateries from the heyday of what is coined the Seattle Sound still exist and continue to thrive and it was time to explore rock and roll and Belltown nightlife.
I was in town for the night, so I headed to my hotel to drop off the car. I choose Hotel Max for my stay as it’s known to be one of the hip and happening hotels in the district, attracting lots of musical artists and notable types. Located in the Denny Triangle, it also walking distance to the local hangs in the Belltown area.
Hotel Max is a modern boutique hotel. The décor is retro 90’s style with lots of rich red colors and glass everywhere. The look is high-end and trendy with imagery and artwork in every direction. All the outer doors to the guest rooms have embedded images of black and white surreal photography which cover the entire door area. And at the end of the hallway on my floor was a 3-dimensional eye chart, artistically mounted and created to grab your attention and make you test your ability to focus and be sure of your state of mind.
Mama’s Mexican Restaurant
By then I was feeling an urge for Mexican food, so I decided to ask a few people “if you wanted Mexican food and you were a soon to be rock star, where would you go”. I told them I wanted a place that has been a hang out over the years. I want a place where Dave Grohl has slopped a burrito and downed a drink. The unanimous answer was Mama’s.
It was a cool little place that everyone goes to for big plates and local atmosphere. It also happens to be Seattle’s oldest Mexican food restaurant. The vibe was great; cool people working there, cute booths with arches, interesting hanging lamps and Elvis memorabilia. Belle, who has been at Mama’s 12 years served me. I had Guacamole and chips, an enchilada and beef tamale with a side of beans, and a big ass beer.
Subpop Records and Seattle Grunge
After a full meal and beer, I walked down Fourth Avenue and headed to the doorstep of the Seattle music company Subpop Records. The giant iconic Subpop logo painted on the side of the building was nostalgic for me. It reminded me of all the great music the greatest label in the northwest has put out over the years. In my opinion, Subpop has promoted and stood behind some of the most innovative bands that I have in my collection like L7, The shins, Band of Horses, Soundgarden, Jesus Lizard and Modest Mouse. Where do I stop? I can’t. The newest releases from Tiny Vipers and Beach House are brilliant.
I had called a few days in advance in hopes I could take a peak inside one of my favorite music labels and maybe get a sticker or two. When I rang the buzzer, Teal the PR Manager escorted up. An old dog in the halls named Dinky, walked up to me sniffed me. I patted him on the head he turned and walked away, as if he is supposed to meet and greet all visitors.
I was enamored just looking at the walls and the records and poster. At one point they had a photo booth in the lunch area and now they have a whole wall dedicated to black and white photos from the booth. It was great to see all the celebrities and characters who stepped into this magic booth.
During my visit, Teal told me that vinyl is back in style—Subpop is pressing new vinyl as well as reissuing earlier releases. If you buy vinyl for certain Subpop releases they give you the download too. Now that is worth the money.
There is a grassroots energy that comes from a great local band getting noticed and gaining success and it still exists with Subpop. That was great to hear. I love music and especially fantastic and innovative musicians. Beach House out of Baltimore is due to be huge and reminded me of a cross between Sigur Ros and the Cocteau Twins. This, is my own view of course, so check them out on youtube for your own analysis.
At the end of my visit, I thought, “I have reached Nirvana”. Thanks Teal and Subpop peeps. It was great to see the building where Seattle grunge originated and where it all happened—or most of it.
After my stop at Subpop, it was time to visit a few of the many cool nearby bars, pubs and clubs to see what was going on. First up had to be the Crocodile Bar. The place has been completely renovated since great Seattle bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana performed on their stage and created history.
There is some great photography in this place by a super well-known local patron. I wrote down her name but the napkin but it got destroyed. Now, they have “Battle of the Bands” here and other musical events as well as booking some of Seattle’s best local bands. Unfortunately, it was a big hip hop event the night I visited not a Seattle grunge showdown, so I had a beer and moved on.
Next, I headed up the block to fill the void in my stomach at Two Bells. Just off the beaten path, located around the corner from the 2nd Street bar cluster including spots like Shorty’s and Rendezvous. Known for its burger and Caesar combo, it also has the biggest selection of local beer anywhere in town. I ordered a Big Time Scarlet Five IPA. One of the best ever and I am a Portland beer specialist. The burger was served on a French roll toasted to perfection, or was I just really hungry again? A beer, Caesar and burger for $14–that was cool.
Now it was time to head up to the Denny Triangle to one of the coolest bars in town: RE-BAR. Different evenings offer great options for specifically themed music. Tonight’s genre oddly enough was industrial. Oh well, here we go into the Ministry of Specimens and Skinny Puppies loathing for a spanking.
Apparently, the industrial music scene is thriving in Seattle, at least one night a month at RE-BAR. I am cool with that—once a month work’s for me. As I sat there pondering my earlier days at Scream and Zombie Zoo in Hollywood, this kid who looked about 25 starting yappin’ at me. A guy named Matt, (a cool name for a band) proceeded to educate me about industrial music and the origin and nature of the process.
If he only knew I carved Halloween pumpkins with Ogre from Skinny Puppy and I was there 5th row the night Einsturzende Neubauten attempted to burn down the Shrine auditorium and got banned from Los Angeles forever. Old Matty would think I am a rock star. Well, I am.
This glorious night of scary entertainment was called “Mechanism-us”. I could not pronounce it if I tried three times. I could barely spell it, while looking at it. A once a month gothic industrial collaboration between DJ’s and people who scream with really cool clothes on. Somehow I felt at home and knowledgeable in my old age at the RE-BAR.
Back to the hotel after an amazing day exploring the Seattle grunge music scene and some of its history. The black and white surreal photography covering each guest room door has become just a bit more surreal upon my return and the 3-dimensional eye chart is truly testing my ability to focus and my current state of mind. Once in my room though, the bed is amazingly comfortable and pillows are perfectly fluffy to slip into a good night sleep.
I loved my Seattle grunge trip. My day was one that took some planning while some things happened by chance. I did as much as I could in one night, had some great food heard some good music. It’s been 20 years since the surge of Seattle’s rock scene that Nirvana and Subpop Records broke wide open and that pulled this Northwest city and Seattle grunge onto the music map.
I love this place. I could live here–I wrote this article when I lived in Portland, so it’s a tough call where would be a better place to reside. The Seattle grunge music scene is alive and well, come visit the real rainy city.
What & Where:
Hotel Max(620 Stewart St; 206-728-6299; www.hotelmaxseattle.com)
Mama’s Mexican Restaurant (2234 2nd Ave; 206-728-6262)
Sub Pop Records (2013 Fourth Ave; 2013 Fourth Ave; 206-441-8441; www.subpop.com/)
note: I had a scheduled interview here and do not recommend subpopping without calling first.
Two Bells (2313 4th Ave; 206-441-3050)
Crocodile Café (2200 2nd Ave; 206-441-7416; www.thecrocodile.com)
RE-BAR (1114 Howell St; 206-233-9873; www.rebarseattle.com/)
Check out Todd’s full photo gallery of Seattle’s Rock Music and Food day exploration.
Need to update your Seattle grunge music collection? Check out the Nirvana catalog, Beach House’s Latest release Teen Dream [LP + DVD] or check out other great books, movies and music from the Grunge movement.
WHEN TO VISIT SEATTLE
The best weather in Seattle is from late June to early September. July and August are the busiest months when hotels are full and restaurants are crowded. May, June, September, and October usually have nice weather and fewer tourists making them great months to visit if you’re not after hot summer weather.
If you enjoyed this article about Seattle Grunge, Food and Nightlife: A Perfect Day 20 Years Later, you’ll also love Seattle’s West Montlake Park.
Traveling To Seattle Soon? Here are a few tips:
How to get there: Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, known as Sea-Tac is the main airport for Seattle. You can also travel to Seattle by train. Amtrak has three routes: Coast Starlight travels between Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles. Amtrak Cascades travels between Vancouver, BC; Seattle; Tacoma; Portland; Salem and Eugene. Empire Builder travels between Chicago; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Spokane; Portland; and Seattle.
Where to stay: There are many places to stay in Seattle, Washington. There is a wide range of hotels, from budget to luxury. For a luxury hotel that won’t break the bank, I recommend The Edgewater, A Noble House Hotel, which is currently the #1 hotel on Tripadvisor. For a mid-level hotel, I suggest the Belltown Inn. Finally, for a budget hotel, try The Grove West Seattle Inn. You can also check HotelsCombined for the best Seattle Hotel Rates.
What to pack: The temperatures each season vary greatly, Summer in Seattle is probably the city’s best-kept secret. I visited in June and was very happy to have a Maxi dress, Sunglasses and a pair of sandals. If you are visiting in Winter, you’ll want to bring heavy-duty layers.
Seattle Trip Essentials
6 Indispensable Items to Pack for a Seattle Vacation
- Get the Fodor’s Seattle (Full-color Travel Guide).
- Bring a good quality mirrorless camera for getting those beautiful Seattle landscape shots. I use the Sony Alpha a6000 .
- It gets warm enough in the summer in Seattle, so make sure to bring Neutrogena Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 45
- A great cross body travel bag. Cross body bags prevent theft and are much easier to access.
- Don’t forget sunglasses for the beautiful sunny days. A.J. Morgan Unisex Sunglasses are a great choice and very affordable!
- With nice weather and minimal rain, a pair of sandals and a pair of sneakers are the best shoe combo for a trip to Seattle in June, July, or August.
Read More About Seattle, Washington
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Todd Meisler was born and raised on Long Island, New York and moved to California in the seventies. Todd Meisler currently resides in San Diego, CA where he is consulting and operating a web development agency called ZD Design Agency. He spent the early part of his life exposed to big band and concert music through his father, who was a drummer turned bandleader during those years. As an early teen Todd began his journey to art and photography, working in the dark room and painting in watercolor. In his teen years Todd was primarily a musician playing the Hollywood club circuit trying to pass for 18 in local clubs. As time went on Todd continuesto play drums and sing lead vocals in several bands by night, and by day stays busy shooting photography for magazines and online publications and running the agency.
In 1986, Todd was asked to join forces at New Riders Publishing, a Que/MacMillan Publishing group as Art Director. Todd then moved on to work at several prominent digital output centers in Los Angeles. In 1996 Todd launched PC Bureau, Inc., a Windows based service center for film and printing. While running this operation Todd continued working in the digital realm and embarked on numerous photographic adventures. Over the past 3 years Todd has worked at combining photography and painting, reproducing prints in his studio. Having his own production studio enables Todd to have total control over the final product. He is looking forward to teaching art one day and will continue making waves wherever there is still water. He enjoys outdoors and traveling and currently playing drums with Levi Chen and Liquid Gardens. Todd continues to pursue new art techniques and to find his voice in the art world. With the birth of a new company called ZD design, Todd is offering web, SEO, SEM, SMM and marketing services.