Embrace the Rain

Best Things to See and Do in Winter in Seattle

Don’t hibernate. There are hot toddies, Russian spas, and skating rinks worth braving the cold.

By Allison Williams November 23, 2011 Published in the December 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Psst: Check out the newer version of this article.


1 We’re in for Another La Niña Year


Of course, for those of us who live to hit the slopes, hunker down by the fire, and model hats with earflaps, that sounds a little different: another cold, snowy winter!

Last year’s snowfalls were so heavy that Crystal Mountain was open for skiing through July 16. But it also meant a pre-Thanksgiving blizzard that trapped Seattleites in their homes or, worse, on the viaduct for hours on end. Why the endless winter? Brad Colman, the meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service local office, broke it down for us.


Photo: Danita Delimont/Getty Images

There’s a pool of warm ocean water that floats somewhere between Indonesia and South America. When the trade winds scoot it west, it starts a chain of events between the ocean, jet stream, and atmosphere: “There’s a feedback loop,” says Colman. “The winds get stronger, the water gets colder, the winds get stronger.” It all leads to chillier-than-normal temps in the Pacific Northwest. The phenomenon is known as La Niña—it occurs naturally in oscillation with El Niño, its opposite—and it was in full force last year.

“About 40 percent of the time, a La Niña year is followed by a second La Niña,” says Colman. “The pattern that we had last year, cool spring into cool summer, is what we see historically with La Niña.” Of course, predicting the weather is about as certain as, well, the weather; still, Colman would put his money where his meteorology is: “If you were a betting person, you’d bet for cool and wet.” We might as well embrace it: Winter is coming.

So that’s why we’re breaking out the long underwear and celebrating the bright side of winter in Seattle. “It’s probably a good year to buy a season ski ticket,” Colman says. “I’m a gardener—it’s a good winter to dig bulbs.”


2 We Have Canadian Comfort Food

Coterie Room's extraordinary poutine.

Image: Olivia Brent

FILLING, FATTY, AND DRIPPING with cheese, poutine is the ultimate winter comfort food splurge. Lucky for us, it’s an obsession here in Seattle—we’re overrun with the curious Canadian concoction of fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Traditionalists will find a standard preparation at plenty of places—we’re big fans of Smith and Skillet’s—while nouveau noshers can fork newfangled approaches just as easily.

One of our favorites comes out of the kitchen of the recently opened Coterie Room (thecoterieroom.com). Here, poutine is anything but routine: The typically unrefined artery clogger is a downright haute affair. To create this perfect plate, chef-owners Brian McCracken and Dana Tough blanch steak fries (they stay crisper than regular frites), then toss them in chives, salt, and rosemary oil, which lends “an herbaceous note to the potato,” McCracken explains. Next, a pork trotter gravy rich with braised porcine shoulder is reduced to a consistency so exact it took them a week to perfect. Equally exacting is the amount you get—enough to coat the fries, not enough to drown ’em. On top come Beecher’s cheese curds—fried and salted just so—then a fragrant dressing of herbs, spices, oil, and lemon juice. The result: “It hits the soul.”

Why are McCracken and Tough, noted molecular gastronomists, messing with Canada’s messiest dish? On a menu built around food people crave, poutine is a no-brainer. Says Tough, “A soulful, hearty, cold-weather dish, poutine fits the bill.” We couldn’t agree more.—Christopher Werner


3On New Year’s Day, 1,500 people take the Polar Bear Plunge at Matthews Beach Park.

4We Have the Next Big Snow Sports Company


Board Much? Bryce Phillips surrounded by his wares at Evo’s Fremont headquarters.

Image: Mike Kane

TEN YEARS AGO, BRYCE PHILLIPS of Evo was a pro skier with a dream of not only selling ski gear but bringing snow fanatics together. He got his start by hawking skis out of his garage and in 2001, he launched the gear website evo.com. By 2005, he’d opened a 10,000-square-foot flagship store in Fremont.

Today, his company has become one of the biggest online retailers in the action sports market. “Simply buying and selling gear has never been the sole focus at Evo,” says Phillips. “We are as passionate about the lifestyle as we are about music, art, engaging the community, and giving back.” That means an art gallery in the Fremont building, where they host movie premieres and other events, and a commitment to children’s charities and environmental causes. “The minute that the experience at Evo is one you’d expect from an average ski and snowboard shop, we’ll have lost what has made this business succeed,” he says.

Phillips still travels the world and films as a pro skier, which gives his store—and the products he sells—an authenticity that few gear shops can boast. Which is why Seattleites are lucky to have Evo in their city: You’ll get outfitted by experts who ski and ride 80-plus days a year (try not to envy the salespeople).

There’s talk of Evo opening shops in other cities in the future, but for now, Seattle is the only spot with personal service to match the online inventory. “We can’t wait to build on what we’ve established,” Phillips says. “Even 10 years in, we feel like we are just getting into a nice groove knowing so much is to come in the next 10.” —Megan Michelson


5It takes an hour to be served the whole roast chicken at Cafe Presse—a full, cozy, wine-filled hour.

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Image: Chris Skiles

6 We Have More Nutcrackers than Nuts

We have a Maurice Sendak–designed Nutcracker (Pacific Northwest Ballet, pnb.org), a burlesque Nutcracker (Land of the Sweets, thetripledoor.net), and an old-fashioned Russian Nutcracker (Tacoma City Ballet, broadwaycenter.org).


Image: Chris Skiles

7 Our Snowbirds Are Actual Birds

Every year, up to 100,000 snow geese travel 3,000 miles to Port Susan Bay because, compared to their Arctic home, our weather feels like a tropical vacation. Flock to the flocks in February at Port Susan’s Snow Goose and Birding Festival (snowgoosefest.org).

8 The Varsity Theatre shows the entire lineup of Oscar-nominated short films in February. landmarktheatres.com

9We Never Have to Drink the Same Seasonal Beer Twice

Image: Olivia Brent

Auld Acquaintance
Hoppy Holiday Ale

Light with orange peel, coriander, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pike Brewing Company, pikebrewing.com

Jive Espresso Stout
Locally roasted Kuma coffee meets chocolate malt in a stout that isn’t overly heavy. Two Beers Brewing Company, twobeersbrewery.com

Winter Ale

A dark winter ale with roasty and chocolate notes; another version comes aged in a bourbon barrel. Fremont Brewing Company,

Winter Poison
Blends highly alcoholic batches from this year and last, both boasting crystal and chocolate malts. Three Skulls Ales, pillagerspub.com

Snow Cap
Winter Ale

A mahogany blend of caramel and chocolate malts. Pyramid Breweries, pyramidbrew.com


10 SAM Has a One-Way Ticket to Tahiti


Photo: Courtesy NY Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen/Seattle Art Museum

COMPARED TO THE IMPRESSIONISTS, PAUL Gauguin was something of a wild card. His painting career was preceded by stints in the merchant marines and the financial sector. Then, rather than paint flowers in rural France, he trotted off to the South Pacific. (He also knocked up a bunch of locals and died of syphilis; what a rebel.)

Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, on display from February 9 through April 29 at Seattle Art Museum downtown ( seattleartmuseum.org), traces the rich relationship between the nineteenth-century artist and his adopted country. The exhibit’s a near-even split: 50 pieces by Gauguin, 60 by Polynesians. Gauguin’s own fascination with ethnographic art started early, so some works in the show make references to Breton folk culture and date back to before his first South Pacific trip in 1891. “He was always looking for something raw and authentic…primordial and basic and real,” says SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa.

Before he went tropical, the artist toyed with forming a kind of hippie art commune with his painting buddy, Vincent Van Gogh. But, says Ishikawa, Van Gogh’s “ethic of self denial” didn’t mesh with Gauguin, who “wanted to eat everything and take advantage of everything and impregnate everybody.” So the hedonist was off to Tahiti.

The French territory wasn’t exactly the virgin paradise he sought. Gauguin was bummed to see the “bourgeois trappings” of Western dress, says Ishikawa. “His idea of paradise as a free place of flowers, where you can pluck the fruit from the trees? That went out the window quickly.” In his portraits, young women have serene, melancholic expressions, a stark contrast to the bright colors of the lush island.

A century later, his works may have steamrolled local style; Google “Tahitian art” and it’s mostly Gauguins and bare-breasted knockoffs. But in SAM’s show, dozens of elaborate carvings and ornamental jewelry show off the Tahitian, Marquesan, and Maori styles that inspired the troubled artist. In the tour’s only U.S. stop, the museum shows off not merely the dissatisfied Frenchman who craved authenticity, but the paradise lost that was so hard for him to find.

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Image: Chris Skiles

11A Back-Alley Speakeasy Serves the City’s Best Hot Toddy

There’s a basic bourbon toddy available year-round at Belltown’s Bathtub Gin (bathtubginseattle.com), but this winter they’re “going a little crazy,” says owner Marcus Johnson. A seasonal concoction combines brandy, agave nectar, and allspice dram for that Christmasy spice flavor. An IPA beer float on top cools it down for added drinkability. Down a few to kick seasonal affective disorder where it hurts.

Image: Chris Skiles

12 We Get Steamed—and Buzzed—Like the Russians

At South Lake Union spa Banya 5 (banya5.com), you can skip from a 220-degree sauna room to a pool of chilly 45-degree water. Better yet, get whacked by a bundle of leafy, aromatic branches in a traditional venik massage. The spa day ends with vodka shots in the on-site lounge, naturally.

13Our Homegrown Winter Duds Are Stylish

Image: Dennis Wise

A. Born to Run
Prairie Underground made fewer than 200 of the biker-inspired cotton hoodies named, naturally, for the Boss. $253, prairieunderground.com

B. Skipjack
Crochet queen Anna Sharp was inspired by the hanks of yarn she hung around her neck while working, then named her ropey scarf after a kind of oyster boat. $50, etsy.com/shop/victorygardenyarn

C. Gracie Zip
Kavu’s extra-thick bonded jersey is sturdy but smooth, and the hood creates a narrow porthole for the face, all the better to trap in warmth. $85, kavu.com

D. Baby Alpaca Arm Warmer
By coordinating with weavers in Peru, Seattle’s Built for Man gets access to traditional loom work while also supporting South America’s rural communities. $95, builtforman.com

E. Scarlet Mackinaw Cruiser
Filson’s replica of a 1922 wool work shirt has a special pocket for your vintage compass—you never leave home without it, right? $350, filson.com


14 You can pour your own beer from the taps at Belltown brewpub Buckley’s. buckleysseattle.com

15We Can Roast While We Get Toasted All Over Town

The Sorrento Hotel Fireside Room: One special holiday hangout

Image: Kyle Johnson

Fireside Room
The Sorrento Hotel bar is classy, not stuffy, despite the wood-paneled walls that surround the fireplace. The hunting-club vibe makes it the ideal spot for scotch. hotelsorrento.com

It can be difficult to snag a spot on the fireside leather couch at the Capitol Hill lounge, but the rotating art shows and occasional musical acts make up for the crowds. 22seattle.com

Shelter Lounge
A tiled counter and bench seating flank the flaming fire table in the airy, angular Ballard bar. theshelterlounge.com

Locöl Barley and Vine
It’s the first full winter for West Seattle’s wine-heavy hangout, where local art hangs on the walls and West Seattleites curl up hearthside to wait for a table. locolseattle.com

The Attic
There are angled ceilings but still plenty of elbow room in the cozy top-floor bar at Salish Lodge and Spa, where there’s a roaring wood fire and a great view of the roaring waterfall. salishlodge.com

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16We can ice-skate outdoors—even when it’s raining—at the covered Capitol Hill Ice Rink in Cal Anderson Park. capitolhillicerink.com

17 Forget neighborhood competitions—our best holiday light displays are in the mobile, month-long Christmas Ship Festival. argosycruises.com

Image: Chris Skiles

18Seattle U Launched a New City Fandom

LAST SEASON’S SUBPAR RECORD NOTWITHSTANDING (11-20, ouch), the Seattle University men’s basketball team is, dollar for Cameron Dollar, the best sports ticket in town this winter. Here’s why.

THE COACH The aforementioned Dollar (a protege of UW’s vaunted court marshal, Lorenzo Romar, and a crafty recruiter) is in his third season of leading the Redhawks. The wins haven’t started rolling in yet, but as the Seattle Times’s Jerry Brewer says, “Progress is being made, slowly, certainly.”

THE TICKETS Even after moving from Capitol Hill’s tiny Connolly Center to the comparatively more posh KeyArena in 2009, Seattle U kept the price of admission dirt cheap. A smidge more than $30 will score you two tickets (goseattleu.com); one person can’t even get into Alaska Airlines Arena—the Huskies’ home—for less than $38.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD The Sonics didn’t just break basketball fans’ hearts by leaving Queen Anne in 2008, they all but killed the local bar scene. But now that SU is drawing crowds—smaller crowds, admittedly—to the Key, nearby pubs like T. S. McHugh’s (tsmchughs.com) are embracing Redhawks boosters. This winter McHugh’s will offer drink and appetizer specials to season ticket holders, and owner Don Tremblay puts Scuttlebutt Chieftain Amber ale (a nod to the school’s former, less politically correct mascot) back on tap.

THE FUTURE The team has returned to Division I basketball after a nearly three-decade hiatus, and next season the Redhawks will join the Western Athletic Conference, making them eligible for the NCAA Tournament again. Start going to games now so you can say you knew them when. No one likes a bandwagon jumper.—Matthew Halverson


Image: Chris Skiles

Skates and elbows and ripped fishnets fly when the Rat City Rollergirls derby season begins January 21 at KeyArena. ratcityrollergirls.com


20 We Kick Up Our Heels


Photo: Courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

Whim W’Him
Since leaving PNB stardom in 2010, Olivier Wevers has focused on his sparkling dance company, bringing life to the Intiman during a dark theater season. Jan 20–22, Intiman Playhouse, whimwhim.org

Don Quixote
The story and music are classics, but the Dutch choreography is new and the costumes pop in Day-Glo colors. Feb 3–12, Pacific Northwest Ballet, pnb.org

The old tunes are still there (even that catchy “Surrey with the Fringe” one), but Spectrum Dance’s Donald Byrd updates the dance numbers with his gritty, emotionally rich choreography. Feb 3–Mar 4, 5th Avenue Theatre, 5thavenue.org

Chop Shop: Bodies of Work
The best of Northwest contemporary footwork gets a showcase in the fifth-annual Bellevuefest. Feb 11 & 12, Meydenbauer Theatre, chopshopdance.org

Using video and live-generated music, the Portland troupe takes contemporary dance to a technological level in Make/Believe. Mar 1–3, On the Boards, ontheboards.org

Image: Kyle Johnson


21 It’s At Least 70 Degrees Somewhere

Volunteer Park Conservatory

75 degrees

At the greenhouse modeled on London’s Crystal Palace, display plans include illegal orchids seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials. volunteerparkconservatory.org

Tropical Butterfly House
80 degrees

It takes 500 new butterflies per week, shipped from around the world, to keep the Pacific Science Center’s leafy enclosure fully populated. pacificsciencecenter.org

Tropical Rain Forest Dome
80 degrees

Ocelots, pygmy marmosets, and poison dart frogs live in the glass-walled indoor rain forest at the Woodland Park Zoo. zoo.org

Queen Anne Pool
85 degrees (in the water)

The city’s neatest public swim spot boasts a rope swing and a water basketball hoop, and there’s a sauna in the locker room. seattle.gov

Seattle Glassblowing Studio’s Hotshop
70 degrees

The Italian-made furnace burns at 2,000 degrees and holds 1,000 pounds of molten glass for students and artisans.

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