A SEATTLEITE IN TACOMA might maintain a sense of superiority up to a point—during that last bend in Interstate 5 when our southerly sister city’s stubby skyline swings into view. While rolling up Sixth Avenue, with its gauntlet of fast food chains and nail salons. While uttering “aroma of Tacoma” more than once to ding the city for its pungent paper mill. But come brunch time at Shakabrah Java, west of the city center, a Seattleite’s confidence begins to crack. One strains to think of a King County diner that compares. College students fill mismatched chairs and drain pots of coffee; men on work breaks gab over biscuits and gravy—a forthright simplicity that would be the envy of half a dozen Capitol Hill restaurants. On the menu: sun-dried tomato skillets, baby red potatoes kissed with garlic. By the time a waitress named Haney ferries an omelet to the table—the Farmers Omelet, heavy with squash, zucchini, mushrooms, and sausage—that arrogance has all but fizzled.
It’s enough to send a Seattleite running to Tacoma Art Museum, where surely T-town will fall short compared to museums in the Emerald City. But it’s no use. Here, Degas’s dancers pirouette. Renoir’s The Two Sisters worry their pretty nineteenth-century heads. Reflected on a glass wall, sculptor Richard Rhodes’s untitled “stone wave” installation (made of 500-year-old stones excavated from a doomed Chinese village) seems to pave a path to infinity. And American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell (through May 30) slaps the visitor with a twentieth-century history lesson—44 paintings and more than 300 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers of apple-cheeked innocence and G-rated shenanigans. A kid discovers the identity of Santa Claus after rummaging through his parents’ dresser drawers. A policeman consults a runaway at a soda fountain. Sentimental, sure, but Rockwell’s scenes provide a backward glance at where the country has been.
Tacoma has come a long way, too. The so-called City of Destiny (an old railroad tagline) was long regarded a thriving industrial port, but often a nondestination for tourists on the way to Olympia or Portland—B-roll that flickered past the car window, notable only for the less-than-sparkling crown of the Tacoma Dome. Over the past two decades, however, the city has slowly converted its waterfront into a museum district, first with the Washington State History Museum in the mid-’90s, then with Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass, or MOG, in the early 2000s.
The two newer museums, projects totaling more than $70 million and largely capitalizing on the international fame of glassblower and native son Dale Chihuly, transformed the city into an art lover’s mecca—enough to justify a handful of posh hotels, restaurants, and bars. Even the notorious “aroma” is an olfactory artifact. (In 1998, the Simpson Tacoma Kraft pulp mill extinguished a furnace that had been the source of 68 percent of the mill’s sulfur yield—and the town’s leading stink culprit.)
A block from Tacoma Art Museum and spanning Interstate 705 is the 500-foot Chihuly Bridge of Glass, topped by some of the artist’s most psychedelic clamshells. It leads directly to MOG, where works by international artists, including an entire mini forest made of glass, stand next to collections such as Kids Design Glass, a series of in-house creations (Toothy Turkey! Horsie Ham! Coyote in Socks!) suggested by MOG’s half-pint visitors.
But the highlight’s the Hot Shop amphitheater, where a team of sorcerers toils before an audience of museum-goers. The artists dip wands into a red-hot, 2,400-degree furnace—its warmth felt on the cheeks of onlookers all the way up in the nosebleed seats—and pull out globs of molten glass. An artist exhales into the hollow rod and the glass swells into a bubble the size of a fourth grader—then falls to the floor in a spine-tingling crash.
Back across the Chihuly bridge and up Broadway, more fallout from Tacoma’s renaissance is on display: Named for the Italian island renowned for glassblowing, the Hotel Murano—a Sheraton until four years ago—exhibits a floor-to-ceiling portrait in the lobby by photorealist painter and Monroe, Washington, native Chuck Close. Nearby a life-size black plastic horse stands sentinel, a lampshade atop its head. The art extends into the guest rooms, where the gray walls allow cow-print pillows and lamps the color of tropical fruit to steal the show.
When hunger calls, one could do worse than Harmon Brewery and Eatery on Pacific Ave (if the hankering is of the cheeseburger and locally crafted beer variety) or Primo Grill on Sixth Ave (where Copper River salmon is king.)
In a last stab at gaining a sense of superiority, a Seattleite might eye Tacoma’s cocktail culture at 1022 South, a dimly lit apothecary behind a barbershop in the Hilltop neighborhood, above downtown. No luck—1022 dazzles with craft cocktails. Owner and lead bartender Chris Keil, whose shaved head and winter beard give him the mien of a friar, stands before a cathedral of bottles and beakers filled with bitters and potions. (PDX, his concoction of Genever gin, grapefruit juice, lavender- and chamomile-infused honey, and sparkling wine, is a must try.)
On a recent Friday night, professors from the nearby Pacific Lutheran University toasted a coworker on her birthday. Women giggled their way through a bachelorette party. Men on bar stools loosened their Windsor knots. And a Seattleite stopped comparing the City of Destiny to the Emerald City, clinked the fist-size ice cube in his old fashioned, turned to the person next to him, and said hello.