RECENTLY, IN THE space of a single week, I bumped into my kindergarten teacher, learned an acquaintance of mine once lived with my cousin, bought an auction item donated by the same guy who bought one I donated to a different auction—and discovered the Volunteer Park Café and Marketplace. Seattle may have stepped up onto the world stage, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a small town.
The café occupies the residential corner of 17th and Galer, two blocks from the park, in the airy, high-ceilinged, circa 1905 space renowned for being the longest- operating market in Seattle. In its previous incarnation, the café became locally infamous when its owners hung a portrait of Mussolini and began broadcasting political views never before heard on Capitol Hill. Soon enough the place was on the market, and a couple of young friends named Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt had a decision to make. The pair had dreamed of a place of their own since meeting at the Greenwood vegetarian restaurant Carmelita, where Burke was the chef and Earnhardt a server. But Burke hesitated: Wasn’t the place too buried in its neighborhood, too far off the main drag? How would they snag diners?
Two months later the space was still for sale, and Earnhardt prodded Burke to go back for another look. “Suddenly—I got it!” Burke recalled breathlessly. “This could be the cornerstone of the neighborhood, the meeting-and-greeting place!” Flash to the present, six months into its new life as Volunteer Park Café and Marketplace, and the space functions as, whaddya know, the cornerstone of the neighborhood, the meeting-and-greeting place.
Even the golden retrievers tied out front seemed to be dishing convivially as I walked in one weekend morning. Sun streamed in through ceiling-high windows, spotlighting flour-sack-topped tables and mismatched chairs. To one side, the fresh case brimmed with pear-cardamom and banana-blueberry muffins; rosemary-parmesan and lemon-blueberry scones; chocolate bundt cakes and chunky chocolate brownies and extra nutty peanut butter cookies—the kind that glue your mouth shut and roll your eyes to the back of your head. In the back a refrigerated case held beer and wine under a vintage “Groceries” sign. A tag by the register read “Strawberry Lemonade.” Gillian Welch and Patsy Cline traded off on the sound system. If there is a lazy corner café on the way to the swimming hole in Buford, Georgia, it looks exactly like this.
But the urban version’s more diverse. A young mom and dad clutched toddlers and little tubs of applesauce. A tableful of aging hippies paged through The New York Times, no doubt grateful not to be doing it under the gaze of Il Duce. A couple of pairs of young lovers—one gay, one straight—sported bed-hair and locked starry eyes. A flock of North Capitol Hill matrons, dressed for their morning constitutional, klatched around a big table. And at least one neighbor who appeared to know them all skittered from group to group like a caffeinated hummingbird.
In short, a representative sampling of the motley crew that mixes daily across the Hill—bumping elbows and shoulders as they stand in line to order, pay at the register, jockey for a table, grab silverware, carry their food to their seats, then bus their dishes. It’s cheerful chaos, held together with pokey service. Friendly, yes—but so leisurely, so ill-equipped for the legions, I aged considerably while waiting for the latte I requested with my pear-cardamom muffin. In later visits this would become a pattern, with unswabbed tables and orders that may well have been routed through Buford, Georgia.