Tacoma: The Gateway to Dining and Hiking

June 18, 2018

Since the early 90’s, Tacoma has gone through an intense revitalization. City planners and residents joined forces to rejuvenate the downtown area. Today you have a lovely, walkable city center, anchored by the former Union Station (now a U.S. District Courthouse), and many new shops and restaurants.

University of Washington - Downtown Tacoma

Part of the new look is driven by the Tacoma campus of the University of Washington which opened in 1990. The stunning campus is located in century-old brick warehouses with lots of lovely landscaping and pathways through the greenery. In the spirit of “build it, and they will come” the neighboring streets soon became a hub of eateries, shops, and museums that are worthy destinations in themselves. 

After an hour drive from our home in Redmond, our Tacoma adventure started at the Harmon Restaurant, named for its location in the old brick Harmon Warehouse, and located in the center of the downtown museum and University district. As we walked through the door, I thought we had been whisked up the mountain into a charming ski lodge. The brewery (which is the flagship among 5 locations) was envisioned by owner Pat Nagle to be the perfect stop after hiking at Rainier, or skiing the back country.

Jim Whittaker Back country skiing

With an exposed red brick wall, dark hardwood floors and the décor accents of skis and photos of the mountains, the large airy and open space was warm and welcoming, and we felt immediately at home. And hungry! Taking a look at the menu, we were ready for some important decisions. I started my meal with the Harmon Hummus, served with roasted red peppers, sliced cucumbers, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, Roma tomatoes, pepperoncini, feta cheese and toasted pita bread. It was served in a lovely and appetizing presentation. The hummus was just the way I like it – smooth and garlicky. Meanwhile, Michael went with the Smoked Salmon Plate which was made up of house smoked wild salmon, goat cheese, pickled red onion, balsamic drizzle, and served with toasted crostini. Of course, we traded bites and agreed on the deliciousness of each.

In between courses we learned that the restaurant is very proud of Chef Pedro Cruz. Pedro’s previous experience was as a sous chef for Facebook headquarters where the company dictated that employees be served three meals a day from a menu that couldn’t repeat anything within 90 days. What a challenge for a chef! That talent keeps the menu at Harmon fresh and exciting.

For the next course we shared the Cod and Chips, two fresh Alaskan Cod fillets rolled in panko breadcrumbs and Pinnacle Peak Pale Ale batter. Served crispy with house-made slaw, parmesan garlic fries, house-made tartar, and lemon wedges. We both enjoyed the crunchy-coated fish and delicious fries. Of course, the meal wouldn’t be complete without a flight (or two) of beer.

Harmon Restaurant

Pat delivered two flights of very generous pours from their taps. The flights are served on the front part of a wooden ski. One flight was the seasonal and specialty beers, which included the very unique Tayberry Sour. Sour beers are becoming more popular in the states, and for some are an acquired taste, with the intentionally acid, tart and sour taste. The Tayberry was indeed sour, but also light and crisp with a slight fruity flavor. Michael declared it the perfect breakfast beer. In case, like me, you’ve never heard of a tayberry, it originated in Scotland and is a cross between blackberries and red raspberries. It is a relatively new variety, developed and patented in 1979. Also, extremely difficult to harvest, so it has never really developed as a commercial crop.
Another favorite among the seasonal brews was the Blueberry Wit. Wit beer is a wheat beer, that is pale and cloudy. It is brewed with a variety of spices and fruit, usually orange. The Blueberry Wit was crisp and tangy with the light blueberry flavor giving it an exceptional taste that we both enjoyed. Of the flight of regular beer, Michael couldn’t decide whether his favorite was the Pinnacle Peak Ale, named after one of Michael’s favorite scrambles (a term for something between hiking and climbing up a steep gradient – not for the faint of heart) up Pinnacle Peak at Mt Rainier. He certainly found the ale an easier endeavor than the mountain scramble. The other contender for fav was the Mt. Takhoma Blonde with its crisp balance of malt and hoppiness.  For me, the more hops, the better. The Pt. Defiance IPA has an IBU (International Bittering Units) of 70 and was awarded the Leavenworth Ale Festival Best IPA and Best in Show in 2015. I found it very much worthy of the award.

Well fueled and ready to go, we headed out for a walk along the Prairie Line Trail. The trail is a mile long park linking the waterfront, downtown, UW, the Brewery District and a number of Museums. Converted from a strip of the Prairie Line railroad corridor, it’s a walk through the history of the development of Tacoma as the railroad terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad. It is also home to a vast collection of public art, some of which was commissioned specially for the trail.

We started at the northern end of the trail, walking south to the nearby Tacoma Art Museum. Of course, we needed to add some culture to our stroll, so we stopped in. Wandering through the museum brought us numerous surprises. Two pieces, in particular, captured my interest. The first is called Migration in Four Parts, by American artist Dustin Yellin. Located in the very center of the gallery, it is a significant piece which looks, at first glance, like a huge aquarium. Made of 30 layers of collage on sheets of glass, suspended in blocks of Lucite, the 3-d layering effect is enhanced by the tiny and multitude of intricate depictions of the migration of both people and animals, and a few whimsical half-human half-animal beings. I probably could have sat there for an entire day and still found new elements in the work.

The other piece that stood out for me was a sculpture called Hung by the Freedom of Choice by Pakistani artist Humaira Abid. The piece is provocative and haunting. Two 4-foot tall wooden pacifiers are hung against a white wall, suspended by thick red cord. One pacifier is held by its handle, the other one with the cord wrapped around the bulb of the pacifier’s nipple. Behind the pacifiers is a faint line drawing of the crescent and star of the Pakistani flag. The museum guide told us that the piece is about a lynching of two young boys by a mob in Pakistan, which was witnessed by the artist.

We wandered through the many other exhibits – including photography, Native American and other Northwest artists, sculpture, and many others.

Back on the trail, we continued south through the UW campus, where students were lounging around in the lovely weather. Back on the street, we stopped at the Union Station, hoping to get a look inside where there is a gallery of Dale Chihuly’s work. Sadly, we discovered that the building was closed – which made sense when we realized that it was Sunday! Oh well, since Chihuly is a Tacoma native, we were sure that we’d have other opportunities to see his amazing glass work.

And – sure enough – right next to the building we discovered the Bridge of Glass. The 500-foot bridge is home to two major Chihuly installations. But you have to look up to see them as they are incorporated as the cover of the bridge. At the end of the bridge we found ourselves at the Museum of Glass, which is hard to miss because of its iconic tilted cone at the top of the building. The cone is made of stainless steel, and you can climb the stairs to the top.

 Chihuly glass

The museum, which opened in 2002, is home to both permanent and traveling exhibits. We particularly enjoyed the contemporary work of Albert Paley. Paley started out as a jewelry maker but has since gained a national reputation working in glass and metal. The exhibit is titled “Complementary Contrasts,” which is the perfect name for his sculptures of glass and steel, woven together. The color and clarity of the glass is the perfect complement to the steel. Another collection that we enjoyed is the “Kids Design Glass” exhibit. The museum includes many workshops for both kids and adults. In the “Kids Design Glass” workshop kids under 12 are given the opportunity to draw a design inspired by the art of the museum. They can then enter their drawings to a contest for a chance at having their picture made into actual glass sculptures by the Hot Shop Team. The display of the results is just adorable.

Chihuly glass Hot Shop Team

Speaking of the Hot Shop – you certainly don’t want to miss this opportunity to watch the artists in action, using blowing, kiln-casting, and hot sculpture techniques. The creations from the Hot Shop are then sold in the Museum Shop with the proceeds going to help support the museum.  

We had put a lot into this day and had only seen two of the many museums to be found in Tacoma. The Car, History, Children’s, and Pacific Bonsai (to name a few) will have to wait for our next visit.

Hotel Murano, Tacoma

With all the fresh air, culture, and walking we found ourselves hungry! But first, it was time to check into the Hotel Murano. The hotel is named for the island of Murano, off the coast of Venice and home to the world famous and centuries-old glass blowing district. Along with comfy and beautiful guestrooms, the hotel is home to a museum-worthy glass art collection. Each of the 26 floors features a different artist, with a piece of their art, and information about the artist’s life. There are even docent tours available upon request. The lobby is stunning and inviting with its display of amazing works of glass art.

We settled into our room long enough to unpack and then headed out to the Pacific Grill, just a few blocks away. The décor of the restaurant is a nice mix of contemporary and cozy. The designer did a great job of mixing modern elements such as lighting and clean lines while still incorporating the original brick wall found in so many of the buildings here in the warehouse district.

Pacific Grill might best be described as a place to celebrate the special events in your life, but at very reasonable prices. Executive Chef and part owner Gordon Naccarato has won many awards, including being named one of the “Ten Best New American Chefs of The Year” by Food & Wine magazine and “Best Seafood Menu in The United States” by Seafood Leader Magazine.

Michael started off with a selection of Oysters on the ½ shell. Our friendly and helpful server described the available varieties and then ended up bring him one of each. He proclaimed them some of the best oysters he’s ever had, but couldn’t decide which of the three varieties he liked the best. I had the Flatbread of the Day, which featured feta cheese and beets. Delicious! The sweetness of the beets and the tangy cheese made a “melt in your mouth” experience.

Wild Halibut with yellow coconut curry

For our main course, Michael went with the Wild Halibut with yellow coconut curry, Yukon gold potatoes, spinach, young corn and carrots, and romanesco broccoli. His announcement midway through the fish was that it was simply the best seafood he has ever had. The curry flavor did not at all overwhelm the fish and had what he called a “spicy joy.”  I had the Lamb T-bone, served with asparagus, wild mushrooms, baby carrots, caramelized onions and snap peas. I love lamb, and this did not disappoint.

 Strawberry shortcake

On to dessert – Michael had the strawberry shortcake with fresh strawberries from local Spooners Farms. It was a pleasant taste of spring with a bit of rosemary to complement the strawberries. I have a hard time passing up ice cream when I get a chance, so I chose the Affogato which is a scoop of premium vanilla ice cream with a shot of Meletti Chocolate Liquor to pour on top. What a great finish to a fabulous meal!

After such a full day, we were happy to walk the four minutes back to our museum-that-is-really-a-hotel for a great night’s sleep. Early the next morning, Michael started his day at the Bite Restaurant in the hotel lobby. He was pretty excited that the menu included an Egg White Omelet, with spinach, cremini mushrooms, feta and some fresh fruit on the side. Since I was too lazy to get out of bed that early, he brought me a couple of their fresh Alki Bakery muffins and coffee. (What a guy!)

Chinese Reconciliation park, Tacoma

We headed out to begin our day with a stroll on the Ruston Way Walking Path. The path is paved for its entire length of 3 miles, going along the Tacoma waterfront. It takes you along Commencement Bay, with views of boats coming and going, and Mount Rainier in the backdrop. A significant point of interest near the beginning of the trail is the Chinese Reconciliation Park, built to commemorate the forceful expulsion of Tacoma’s Chinese population on November 3, 1885. The park is a long and narrow strip on the Commencement Bay. With beautiful views, a Chinese garden, and interpretive trail, it is a walk through history.

Next up – lunch at Duke's Chowder House. Built entirely on a deck extending out over the water, and with fantastic views, the Chowder House is part of the Duke's collection of 8 restaurants around the Puget Sound area. After our 3 mile stroll, we felt we deserved to begin with Duke’s Famous Bloody Bloody Mary. When the server brought them to the table, the first thing we noticed is that they are served in tall, slanted glasses. As we laughed about the leaning glasses, we were told that when it looks like the glass is standing straight – it’s time to stop drinking! The next thing we noticed was the garnish of two jumbo prawns and asparagus. The drinks were refreshing and tasty, with just the right kick from the New Amsterdam Vodka which is infused with roasted garlic, onions, peppercorns, bell peppers, lemons, and limes.

 Duke's Manhattan-style clam chowder

What good would it be to go to a Chowder House without the chowder? Michael is always on a search for Manhattan-style chowder, which is made with a tomato base rather than cream and pretty rare in this part of the country. So he immediately decided on the North by Northwest Seafood Chowder, made with wild Alaska salmon, halibut, and cod served cioppino style. I ordered the Lobster Mobster Pernod Chowder. Made with baby langoustine lobsters and sweet potatoes. It is well-named as the “Grand Duchess of all Chowders”! The sweet potatoes gave it an exciting and enjoyable taste.

For our main courses, our server told us that the staff favorite is the Rockin’ Rockfish Tacos. Featuring wild Alaska rockfish, Thai chili marinade, sharp white cheddar, mango chutney, tequila lime aioli and served with cucumber pico de gallo. The sweetness of the mango chutney perfectly balanced the spicy chili marinade. The menu sub-title for the Fish Taco section is “Eat me; I’m delicious” which is a more than apt description.

 Duke's Stuffed and Puffed Prawns

Michael chose (and loved) the Stuffed & Puffed Prawns – wild Mexican Pacific prawns stuffed with crab, Havarti, parmesan and asiago cheeses and drizzled with a homemade pesto sauce.

There are a few things that make Duke's outstanding and unique. One is that owner Duke Moscrip personally checks out all of their food sources, making sure that the food is fresh and from sustainable processes. He travels to Alaska each year to check out the fish supply. Another is their Gluten Free Menu. Along with an indicator for gluten-free items on the regular menu, Dukes has an entirely separate menu and dinner menu of gluten-free selections. This includes a “Create Your Own Entrée” section where you choose your protein (fish or chicken) sides, and desserts. What I found most exciting is that there is also a list of 12 sauces from which to choose. For many gluten-free diners, one of the most frustrating parts of eating out is making sure that sauces don’t have hidden gluten. But I think what surprised me the most was that each item we ordered came with the recipe printed out for you! What fun!

 Point Defiance Park, tacoma

After a delicious and filling lunch, we took a drive down the Five-Mile Drive through Point Defiance Park.   The park is 760 acres which include a rose garden, rhododendron garden, Japanese Garden, a high school, zoo and a historic fort. It would take a multiple day exploration to experience everything that Point Defiance Park has to offer. 

 Owen Beach tacoma

Just off Five-Mile Drive, we ended up at Owen Beach, where we rented a couple of kayaks and went for a paddle. For an hour we paddled, drifted and floated, enjoying the beautiful view. One thing we discovered about the drifting is that the currents are pretty strong and even though we stayed close to the shore, we ended up a couple of places we didn’t intend.

After we returned the kayaks and dried off a bit, we headed down the road to Point Ruston, which is a brand-new neighborhood of condominiums built on the waterfront and surrounding a village-like center of shops, restaurants, and common areas. Along the beach area, we found a beautiful “Spraypark” for children or adults of the young-at-heart variety. On a warm summer day, it would be difficult to resist running through the spraying fountains! Adults could also choose to sip some wine at the Wildfin Walk-up bar, which is close enough to keep an eye on the kids in the Spraypark.

 Tacoma Waterfront park

The waterfront also includes a large pavilion painted with a detailed map of the entire Puget Sound area. A very exceptional and creative feature of a particular approach to the waterfront is still under construction. Alongside the long stretch of stairs down to the water, they are currently building a slide for those who are feeling adventurous!

It was tough to believe that this had been a Super Fund site due to an old smelter that had been located here. In fact - for those who haven’t been paying attention, the name Tacoma may conjure thoughts of pollution, crime, grit and that old “Aroma of Tacoma”. The city started out with high hopes, though. Tacoma, the third largest city in Washington State was dubbed the “City of Destiny” in the late 19th century when it was chosen as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. It seemed a natural choice because of its deep-water harbor, Commencement Bay.

However, by the late 1970’s and 80’s the mayor of Tacoma characterized the downtown area as looking like “bombed out downtown Beirut” with abandoned warehouses, storefronts, and streets. And then there was that aroma! Because of paper mills in the industrial area, Tacoma had the ever-present distinctive acrid odor for which the city became known. Today, modern technology has virtually eliminated the paper mills’ sulfur output – along with its accompanying aroma (which used to be called the Aroma of Tacoma).

Back in the present, we returned to our hotel for a brief rest we headed out for our next food adventure. Stanley & Seafort’s Steak, Chop & Fish House offers a spectacular view of the city and bay, which would be an excellent choice for your first meal in Tacoma because the views are a unique way to orient yourself in the city. This two time “Diners’ Choice Award” winning restaurant (2017 & 2018) is a Tacoma landmark. Our wonderful dining experience made us agree with the awards.

Stanley & Seafort’s Steak, Chop & Fish House oysters on the halfshell

We started with more oysters for Michael. They were accompanied by a Bloody Mary cocktail sauce, which was spicy and “out of this world.” I selected the Warm Brie with Macadamia Nut Crust which was drizzled with orange-blossom honey and balsamic reduction. It was served with apple slices and a fruit compote. The brie was creamy and delicious.

For our main course, Michael had the Char-Grilled Filet Mignon with a cabernet demi-glaze and served with smoked mushrooms and mashed Yukon potatoes. He reported that it was tender and juicy. The chargrilling gave it a wonderful seared taste. Keeping with the beef theme for our dinner, I had the Seared Peppercorn Crusted New Your Steak, which was topped with a peppercorn demi-glaze and blue cheese. Yum! Both steaks were delightful and satisfying.

Next came dessert. I enjoyed the Warm Pear Bread Pudding. The homemade bourbon sauce (poured tableside) and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg was delicious over the exceptional taste of the pear bread pudding.

Warm Pear Bread Pudding'

Michael is not much of a dessert person. So his enthusiastic and joyful reaction to the Key Lime Pie was fun to see. The pie is made with Nellie and Joe’s Famous Key West lime juice, shipped in from Key West, FL. He declared that it was the best dessert he had ever had. I really can’t say what it tasted like because he wouldn’t share!

We got back to the Murano with some extra time to explore the art exhibits and beautiful lobby area, and then had another great night’s sleep. The next morning Michael went to the nearby Honey Coffee & Kitchen for breakfast. (okay, I slept in again!) The popular breakfast stop is located in the Alma Mater, an artist-driven work, performance and gathering space situated at the Carpenters Building. Michael ordered the Cocotte Eggs, which is baked eggs with cream and served with arugula salad, hash browns, and a parmesan baguette. He described it as “OMG and healthy!” I think I’m sorry that I missed this one.

 Cocotte eggs with cream, arugula salad, hash browns, and parmesan baguette

Then it was time to head north back home. Our trip to Tacoma was wonderful, and we will definitely go back. We need to check out more of the many museums, public art, and lovely walkways! And speaking of walking – many places we visited were within walking distance of the Murano. Parking at the hotel and walking to just about everything made for a very relaxed time. There is also excellent public transportation, including the free streetcar linking the Tacoma Dome and downtown. Our next trip will be timed around a show at the Dome, with dinner first in the downtown area, then the Link to the Dome.


Disclosure: Please note that food and lodging were complimentary.