I can recall the exact moment when I fell head over heels in love with Seattle. It was 1988, mid-March, perched on a stool at a long counter tiled with tiny porcelain hexagons in one of Pike Place Market’s many secret-feeling spots, the late lamented (but never, by me, forgotten) Café Counter Intelligence, now Matt’s In The Market.
The visit to Seattle was my first, and like all firsts, it made a lasting impression. We took the bus all over town, our guide a friend from college who was living in a huge house near Louisa Boren Park, paying about $150 a month to rent a room with a view. We walked all through the Market, but what sticks with me most is that small break we took at Counter Intelligence, a hidden slice of upper floor in the Corner Market Building. The space was tiny — Matt’s has greatly enlarged their restaurant’s footprint — illumined only by the huge half-circle windows that lined (and still line) the exterior wall. The windows peek out over the bustling Market shoppers, and gaze beyond the main market building toward Elliott Bay and the snow-capped Olympic mountain range.
“Order a latte,” our friend Tom directed, “that’s the most common café order in Seattle.” It was my first experience with the drink — now so ubiquitous that billions of coffee drinkers around the globe consider it their go-to. Home at the time was Dallas, Texas, where the nearest you could get to a latte was watery cappuccino, and that only if you took the trouble to really ask around. The tattooed barista at Café Counter Intelligence served my latte in a thick tall pint glass. She had steamed something the carton identified as Smith Brother’s Double Milk, and added generous espresso shots. It was like drinking liquid velvet.
As I sipped, the happy depth-charge of caffeine sky-rocketing my mood, I saw my future as if it had already happened. This magic place, this exact degree of mysteriously illuminating cloud-filtered light, these people who seemed both friendly and insouciant — I had to live here. It took almost five years to make that happen, but eventually we moved to Seattle and happily stepped into that destiny.
Café Counter Intelligence opened sometime prior to 1983. In 1989, shortly after I had my Seattle revelation, The Seattle Times described it thus: “It’s definitely not trendy, but it is hip. You feel sort of secretive and cool being in there. Coffee-lovers have to climb all these stairs and sort of skulk in … Eavesdrop on neighbors (the few tables are very close) and you’ll likely hear commentary on an interesting array of topics.” To me, that just as easily described the entire city. Café Counter Intelligence was the kind of place where you’d see Market buskers hanging out with their kids on Saturday afternoons, where you could pop in on a summer day and order the iced latte with espresso ice cubes — rocket fuel. Climb all those stairs, and the door was always open. And then, sometime around 1995, suddenly it wasn’t.
Matt’s In The Market opened the following year, and had the grace and class and sense of history to save the long tiled counter, now mounted in a place of honor behind the bar. Many of my favorite, most memorable, most delicious meals have been enjoyed at Matt’s. And every time I pass the exact spot where Seattle and I first really noticed one another, I am once again grateful for that moment.
January 7, 2016
p.s. Seattle Portmanteau has been quiet these past six months as I’ve worked hard on my next book, Looking For Betty MacDonald: The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and I. University of Washington Press now has the manuscript, and I will once again give this blog my attention. Look for the book this fall, and in the meantime, I hope that those of you in Seattle, Vashon, and Port Townsend will join me for these upcoming events.