The Fourth Best City in the Northwest

This ain’t your granddad’s Spokane.

By Jim Gullo January 3, 2009 Published in the May 2008 issue of Seattle Met

BEST WEEKEND EXCURSION for May? Spokane, Washington. Yeah, Spokane. While the rest of us were worrying our matted little heads over which city—Seattle, Portland, or Vancouver, BC—is the beacon of the Pacific Northwest, Spokanites quietly turned their town into a bona fide destination with all the amenities—dining, cocktails, coffee, parks—that we hold dear. Take the four-hour drive east on I-90 and see for yourself.

Remember Spokane’s dreary brick buildings seen from the freeway? The buildings that fairly cried out, "Keep going to Idaho! Keep going to Idaho!"? They’ve all been renovated, and now they’re becoming million—dollar downtown condos that people are lining up to buy. Remember the awful smokestacks that spewed goo into the air for so many years? Meet Steam Plant Square, the coolest industrial-eyesore-turned-mall you’ll ever want to visit. The Steam Plant Grill occupies several levels, with metal walkways, air ducts, and the old, original gauges and levers from the boilers that used to be here. After you’ve had a couple of belts at the bar it’s fun to walk into the bottom of the 220-foot smokestack, look up and try to not fall over.

Image: Terry Ban

Also downtown, Riverfront Park is like what would happen if the Seattle Center had a drunken one-night stand with Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park. There’s an amusement park with a 1909 Looff Carousel, an awesome aerial tram over Spokane River Falls, an Imax theater, a huge ice-skating rink in the winter, public art, and lots of nice meadows and grounds. From here, you can ride your bike on the 37-mile-long Centennial Trail along the river.

Image: Gary Nance

You bunk at another one of those downtown buildings that once looked like the Yesler Home for Weary Longshoremen but is now gorgeously renovated. The Davenport Hotel and Tower in the middle of downtown was one of those dowager places that had its day when Spokane was a major railroad hub for all of the commerce heading east to Chicago or west to Seattle and Portland. Then the silver mines of Idaho washed this town in money in the early part of the twentieth century. The Davenport was a western dream of a hotel when it opened in 1914: First place ever with central air-conditioning and a central vacuum system, and reportedly the place that originated the crab Louis salad, thanks to owner Louis Davenport. It was sold in 1945 and flipped a year later; it decayed for the next four decades and faced demolition when it closed in 1985. Enter local civic angels Walt and Karen Worthy, who bought the property in 2000 and sank $40 million into a two-year renovation.

A guide named Bill who looks like George Carlin says things like, "I’ve heard that we have the second-largest outdoor parks and recreation program in the country."

It is once again a palatial, grand place to stay. The lobby is all gilded, intricately worked ceilings and antique furniture, the rooms are done tastefully in dark woods and pillow-top beds, and the Hall of Doges, an extravagant banquet room, is gorgeous, kept intact since 1904, with chandeliers and hand-painted arches. And if you want something a little more modern, a little more Vegas than Venice, go across the street to the Davenport Tower, which the same people built and decided—for reasons known only to the hoteliers—to decorate in a safari motif, with animal-print fabrics and an enormous stuffed tiger prowling in place above the hostess station at the café. Spokanites are so fond of the Davenport that they, somewhat hysterically, claim that it was named sixth-best hotel in the world in a poll a couple of years ago.

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That’s part of the charm of this town. Everybody practically grabs you by the elbow to show off this new Spokane. They say things like, "This year we’re getting touring Broadway shows!" as if Andrew Lloyd Weber was moving to Spokane. People around here are practically giddy about what’s going on—and with good reason.

The entire downtown area is a free Wi-Fi hot spot, something the City of Seattle could learn from. The Martin Woldsen Theater at the Fox, built in 1931, just reopened last fall, with Tony Bennett and Frederica von Stade on the ticket, after donors coughed up $31 million for a top-to-bottom renovation that saved the perfectly awesome art deco features of the place. There are amazing murals that were saved, and things like aluminum panels shaped like ferns, and a rose-compass light fixture made of aluminum and glass. The Spokane Symphony will conclude its first season there this month with a tribute to Leonard Bernstein. "It’s an exciting time to be in Spokane," says Fox theater spokesperson Elizabeth Thompson. We’ll tell you what else is exciting:

Image: Bluefish

The Bluefish restaurant and club has a room in back with black-leather banquettes, movies projected on the walls, and a mixologist lured from Portland pureeing fresh fruit into wild, kicky drinks like the Secret Knock, a clever little thing of Stoli vanilla, OJ, and a splash of raspberry liqueur in a sugar-rimmed martini glass. Moxie, just down West Sprague Avenue, is an elegant urban bistro with an exposed brick wall, an open kitchen, and a menu with those delightful bites like scallop-mousse-stuffed salmon and paella that you would pay twice as much for in Belltown. The Wild Sage American Bistro has the same kind of chef-driven urban bistro vibe.

There are more than two dozen lakes within an hour’s drive, including Coeur d’Alene. You can be on the edge of town and paddling the Little Spokane River in about 20 minutes. A guide named Bill who looks like George Carlin picks you up and drops you off and says things like, "I’ve heard that we have the second largest outdoor parks and recreation program in the country." A zoo called Cat Tales houses and rehabs exotic cats—bobcats, white Bengal tigers, leopards, a black jaguar—most of which have been abandoned or confiscated in drug busts. Manito Park in the South Hill neighborhood is an urban oasis of rose and lilac gardens and playgrounds. Green Bluff, just outside of town, is a delightful collective of farm businesses that includes Walters’ Fruit Ranch, where you can pick apples, apricots, peaches, and pumpkins in season and buy a fresh peach-huckleberry pie or a pancake breakfast.

And they’re awesome pancakes. Maybe the fifth-best in the country…no, the world. You go to Spokane for the smokestacks, you stay for the pancakes.

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