Stephen Travels

And he's ready to take you with him.

Ivar's Acres of Clams, Seattle, Washington

Ivar’s Acres of Clams (Seattle, Washington)

From my accommodations at the outstanding Sorrento Hotel in Seattle, Washington, I walked downhill to Elliott Bay for some fish-watching at Seattle Aquarium, one of the world’s best aquariums. From there, it’s only a few blocks to Ivar’s Acres of Clams, a comfortable, family-friendly eatery with a very spacious interior with a central fireplace and remnants of the original Pier 54 where the restaurant is located, a large outdoor patio with views of the bay, and one heck of a story that you might easily think is a fish tale, but there’s nothing fishy about it (except, of course, for the actual fish).

Born in 1905, folksinger Ivar Haglund, of Swedish and Norwegian descent, established the city’s first aquarium and a fish-and-chips stand, on this same pier, in 1938, while simultaneously establishing himself as one of Seattle’s more colorful characters. He started the aquarium to collect dimes at the tail end of the Great Depression, attracting paying customers by sitting on a stool wearing a captain’s hat and performing the sea shanties he had written about the residents in his tanks, like Herman the Hermit Crab, and Oscar and Olivia Octopus. A couple of years later, Haglund performed one of his loopier stunts by dressing Pat the Hair Seal in a pinafore and lace baby cap and parading him around Pike Place Market, one of the world’s top five indoor markets, in a wicker perambulator.

Haglund expanded his stand into a full-fledged restaurant on the pier in 1946 and shuttered his aquarium a decade later. He filled his Ivar’s Acres of Claims with nautical items and more than a few fairly cheesy puns: He was the flounder of the restaurant, and he always tried to keep clam. He also continued his antics, by encouraging people to feed the seagulls while neighboring restaurateurs were railing against it; taking advantage of a ruptured tank-car hose across the street that spilled one thousand gallons of syrup by scooping it onto the pancakes he quickly made—a story that went viral around the world decades before social media existed; creating the Pacific International Free Style Amateur Clam Eating Contest Association (the PIFSACECA), with 197 vice presidents and him as the executive-secretary; and proposing a U.S. postage stamp commemorating the clam.

His high jinks attracted droves of customers to his restaurant, making him a very rich man. In 1976, he purchased Smith Tower, Seattle’s most beautiful skyscraper, for $1.8 million and hoisted a 16-foot-long windsock called “The Rainbow Salmon” to the flagpole atop the tower—an innocuous act that garnered unanticipated media attention when the director of the Seattle Building Department decreed that the windsock violated a municipal ordinance regarding the flying of flags and banners. The city eventually sided with Haglund—sharp evidence of his status in the community. That was made even clearer when, in 1983, he filed to run for Seattle Port Commissioner—as a publicity gag, to remove the obtrusive boxcars blocking the view of the bay from his restaurant. Without campaigning, he won by 30,000 votes and reluctantly began his six-year term. Only two years later, however, Haglund passed away.

Haglund left behind a legacy of memorable capers and escapades; genuine affection for both his city (most of his estate went to the restaurant program at Washington State University and to his alma mater, the University of Washington School of Business) and his employees, who were given the opportunity to purchase his business after his death, which they did and have since expanded to 28 restaurants in all; and very possibly the most engaging restaurant in Seattle.

Fork and KnifeTry This: Forget the wine and liquor. Instead, enjoy a wonderfully refreshing blackberry lemonade. Start with a salad of mixed greens with toasted hazelnuts, a chunk of French blue cheese, and a Washington huckleberry vinaigrette, or, if you’re a chowder fan, try the sampler—a trio of chowders: white clam, salmon and corn, and Northwest seafood. The house-smoked bacon-wrapped Alaska halibut with sherry vinaigrette, served with asparagus and roasted baby Yukon gold potatoes is a terrific entrée, but you may want to continue the trio theme with the combination platter of wild pink shrimp, Alaska halibut, and wild coho salmon. Treat yourself to one of the locally made Sonqualmie ice creams for dessert.