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To many, the Space Needle is the symbol of Seattle, but to locals with long memories, it's often discounted as a tourist trap. If you're fit, you can get a very similar view (for free) by hiking to the top of the water tower in Volunteer Park.

But the Space Needle has many things to offer in addition to the view, especially since the $20 million renovation of the entire complex in 1999-2000 and the subsequent revamping of the kitchen, menu, and service. Locals need to learn what tourists have always known, the Space Needle is a must.

First a quick history lesson: the Needle was built in 1962 for the World's Fair and has a revolving restaurant at 500 feet topped by an observation deck -- both decks have 360° views of downtown Seattle and its surroundings: Elliott Bay and the Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier, the Cascade Mountains, and Lake Union.

Over the course of the Fair, 2.3 million visitors went up the elevators. That number has dwindled to about 1 million visitors annually, but that's still a lot of people considering that each of the four glass elevators can only carry 25 people at a time.

The Needle has also been used as a dramatic location for such varied star vehicles as the Elvis Presley film,
"It Happened at the World's Fair", and Warren Beatty's 1974 conspiracy theory film, "The Parallax View".

Despite my blasé local attitude toward the Needle (you know how it goes, it's de rigueur for locals to shun the "touristy" areas, when in reality, the touristy areas are sometimes the most gorgeous or exciting parts of the city), whenever I end up going up the elevator, the view always takes my breath away. Sure, I can see mountains on my commute, but I can't see them from this angle, and I can't see them free of traffic noise like I can from the observation deck, or the O Deck as the renovation team would have me call it.

What's more, I can't have a wonderful meal of steak or salmon while commuting either.

Before I get to the meal though, let me tell you a little about the atmosphere.

Since the restaurant revolves (very slowly -- slowly and smoothly enough that it is driven by a 1 HP engine), the first thing you notice is that the maitre'd is at the center and tables are around the outsides. As you sit and try to look down from the view long enough to select something from the menu, you may notice a piece of paper go floating past. Remember, the restaurant rotates, but this doesn't mean the outside wall rotates with you. What's really happening is that your table and the floor beneath it are rotating past the glass. Of course, the movement is so smooth that the notes look like they are floating by.

If you're there early enough, the note is probably in crayon and is probably from an 8-year old asking who else reading the notes might have a dog or a brother. Later in the evening, the notes start to morph into questions about where people are from or what school they went to -- many will be about birthdays (especially 21st birthdays) or celebrations of some sort. If you or your dining companion is easily distracted (view, notes to read, notes to write), you might need to force yourselves to actually make some dining decisions. Or you could rely on the excellent suggestions of the staff. One such suggestion led us to a wonderful chardonnay from the Toasted Head winery in California, when we had been leaning towards the tried and true Kendall-Jackson. Since these were by the glass, it was pretty easy to tell that the Toasted Head was the superior wine.

Now before I go on, I have to say that the prices for dinner are not cheap, but in addition to subsidizing one of the best views in the city (note: make a reservation and make it for about an hour before sunset), and paying for all that food and wine to be transported up one of the elevators, you're paying to be wined and dined while watching one of the most fabulous sunsets on the west coast -- the sun going down over the Olympic Mountains with the Puget Sound in the foreground. Of course, if you're lucky enough to get reservations on the 4th of July, then you're paying for a great seat to watch not one, but two fireworks displays as well.

SkyCity Revolves Around Fine Cuisine

For an appetizer, we started with a Satay Sampler of prawns, grilled chicken, and grilled pineapple. This was served with two dipping sauces, a spicy chili sauce for the prawns and pineapple, and a curry peanut sauce Click to see the Sky City Menufor the chicken. Piled high in the middle of all this was a nice Asian slaw. Light, but just enough to take the bite out of the sauces if that's what you need. The prawns and chicken were fine, but it was the grilled pineapple that was truly mouthwatering.

Next, we moved on to Caesars salad and lobster bisqué. The bisqué was very good, but the puff pastry cap on it kept way too much heat in for eating on a hot summer night. Leave it to me to order wintry food after such a fine summery start with the pineapple. This would have been much better on a (more) typical rainy Seattle day. Caesars are Caesars, what can I say -- though I have noticed sometimes that restaurants mess up even this simple salad. Luckily, SkyCity strives for perfection (the new restaurant in the "new" Space Needle deserves a new moniker, right?).

By this time in the meal, we were at least one spin around the city and down by a glass of wine (not to say that the service was slow -- just that the servers know how to let you dine at your own pace). Pink and orange tones were coming into the sky, the magical hour was arriving, and we were rotating back to face the Puget Sound precisely as our entrees showed up: a Northwest Salmon Wellington (with pesto and lemon cream) for my dining companion and a Broiled New York Strip Loin for me.

The salmon was good enough to warrant some distracting maneuvers so that I could sneak my fork across the table just one more time, with a thick layer of pesto between the puff pastry and the salmon itself. The pesto was made with whole pine nuts, which brought the punch of the pesto out with every bite instead of letting it get overwhelmed by the salmon.

Click for the Space Needle The steak was just right - capturing the tastes of the grille with some black pepper and no other adornment. The presentation matched the steak - mashed potatoes, an entire head of roasted elephant head garlic with a sprig of rosemary and glazed shallots.

There was definitely enough food to feed two to three friends, but we soldiered on.

As we had been eating, we had seen people around us ordering what looked like mounds of ice cream in a fish bowl with dry ice sending steam up around it. It turns out this is called the Mt. Rainier and was always met with screams of delight. When our turn for dessert came, we (wisely?) decided to forego the dry ice and go with a more traditional brownie a la mode and a lemon tart. The lemon tart won by a mile.

By the end of the meal, we still hadn't gotten enough of the view, so we climbed the stairs to the O Deck (the elevator also goes there, but the restroom is halfway between floors -- I'm not sure how handicap accessible this is, so if stairs are a problem you might want to inquire before going up). We walked around in the balmy air and noted, as only locals would, that our route home (3 miles away) seemed to be blocked by aide cars and fire trucks. (Traffic in Seattle can be challenging.) It turns out the view has many advantages. We browsed a bit in the souvenir shop at the base of the Needle, retrieved our car from the valet (not complementary for diners, but discounted a bit), and drove home on an alternate route.

By Kevin Fansler, Seattle Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent.