The History Behind Seattle’s Food Obsession

The 1962 World’s Fair left behind much more than space-age architecture.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

The Seattle “Century 21” World’s Fair of ’62 was about science, but what folks remembered was the food. The populist hit? Belgian waffles, first introduced to America at Century 21. Seattle loves its breakfast comfort foods (remember Dutch babies? Fisher scones?) and the thick, airy waffles, piled with strawberries and whipped cream, became a top attraction. A total of 500,000 were sold, which, if put into a single stack, would have reached the height of 70 Space Needles. Burp.

The fair’s food legacy resulted in more than thicker thighs; it helped reshape the city and its dining habits. The fair left behind an internationally recognized symbol that is also a restaurant (the Space Needle). It also boosted the city’s restaurant and tourism industries; helped reshape Seattle’s working waterfront into a dining destination; and showcased local foods, from salmon to Washington apples.

The Seattle dining scene had started to take off in the late 1940s and ’50s, when a citizens’ initiative liberalized the availability of liquor. Restaurants could now sell booze and count on having the cash flow to scale up their ambitions. Places like Victor Rosellini’s 610 and Canlis were the result. There were attempts to get the Sunday ban on alcohol sales removed for the fair, but the blue law held firm until the mid-’60s. But that didn’t stop many restaurants from growing, sprucing up for the tourism onslaught.

The fair offered Seattleites and tourists an incredible opportunity to expand their dining experience. The old Armory building was converted into the Food Circus, now called Center House (and soon to be re-named The Armory). It was meant to be a “gigantic farmers’ market” of global dining, offering French, Thai, Japanese, Mongolian, Mexican, Danish, German, Creole, Native American, Korean and many other types of cuisine. As comedian Bob Hope said when he visited, “Those international restaurants were great. You get heartburn in eight languages.”

The fair’s success was often measured in terms of food. On a record attendance weekend in September 1962, the newspaper reported 118,000 hot dogs, 84,000 hamburgers, 168,000 cups of coffee and 15,000 Danish sausages were served. The Food Circus was a smash: All 44 booths made a profit.

The fair showcased local foods, too. The Space Needle’s restaurant had long lines of diners, who waited for as long as three hours. The Eye of the Needle served fresh salmon and Dungeness crab, local apples and berries, Western beef and high-quality coffee. Celebrities such as Prince Philip of Britain, the Shah and Empress of Iran, and the Robert F. Kennedy clan brought glamour to the dining room, and the papers told us what they ate and drank. Virginia Wright, wife of the Needle’s first president, Bagley Wright, remembers that the Needle was where she first tasted fiddlehead ferns. The jet set brought sophisticated palates, and visitors left impressed—especially with the view of the land and waters that produced the bounty on their revolving plates.

The fair also was a reason investors spent liberally to fix up the downtown waterfront. Piers 50 and 51 added several eateries, shops and an aquarium act. The waterfront also featured The Polynesia, a new tiki-themed restaurant with a fabulous view of Elliott Bay. Another attraction built for the fair was Tillicum Village on Blake Island, designed to showcase North Coast native culture, featuring a scenic cruise across the Sound, a salmon barbecue, dancing, and tribal elders giving tours of the beaches. Hokey or not, it was a major advance in regional cultural tourism.

The fair whet the public’s appetite for new cuisines. It also boosted some familiar institutions: Ivar’s boomed, and Uwajimaya’s retail presence at the fair gained it an expanded clientele. Seattle has been tasting the fair’s legacy ever since.

 

Write editor at large Knute Berger at knute.berger@tigeroak.com. His Mossback column is at crosscut.com.