Spokane: Too Twee to be True

This is the clock tower in Riverfront Park. The sun is more scary than gorgeous here: that haze and odd sky color is smoke from the forest fires.
This is the clock tower in Riverfront Park. The sun is more scary than gorgeous here: that haze and odd sky color is smoke from the forest fires.

Spokane (Spoh-can, not Spoh-cain), Washington is too cute. I do not say this lightly. Spokane is so cheek-pinching adorable that John and I kept joking that it must have some hidden dark secret fueling the bizarre cleanliness and friendliness and usability and walkability of the city. I made this comment to a local and she laughed. “Yeah, we have to sacrifice to the dark ones every couple of decades.”

That’s it. Forget Maine. I’m moving to Washington.

Spokane is the cool, lesser known cousin of Portland (OR, that is)–in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s where all the hipsters go once they decide that Portland is too mainstream. But enough of the general huzzahs. Let’s get specific.

Travel tip#1: If you fly into the airport (possibly on a prop plane, sorry my fellow easily-queased), a taxi ride into downtown will run you around $30 including an okay tip. Or you can find the chipperly labeled bus stop and take Bus 60 into town. Fare is $1.50, exact change required. The trip is about twenty minutes. You can take the same bus just as easily by picking it up in the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza at Zone 8.

Stuff Your Face with Cuteness

This list represents a scant fraction of the delightful looking eating spots downtown. We would have tried more, but we were busy scavenging for free food or eating on the floor of the convention center with good company for quite a few meals, so these are the only ones I can report first-hand experience.

Manito Park Bench Cafe

The quality of the food here wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was solid sandwichy type stuff for under $10/person with a few vegetarian options. It was circumstantially incredible because we were tired and hungry after walking through the park from the other side, and this was an unexpected oasis of shade and live folk music. Definitely get their beverages – I had fresh lemonade, John had their peach green iced tea, and we were both thoroughly refreshed.

Luigi’s Italian Restaurant

Set in a refurbished Salvation Army building with a long history, this place has a formal yet cozy feel. It’s one of the closest restaurants to the convention center, so it was swamped when we went in, but the service was still fast and friendly. Excellent food, nothing unexpected. The meat sauce was a little heavy on something green and strongly herbal for my taste (rosemary? oregano?), but I would eat there again. Absolutely possible to eat for under $20/person, but only just.


Nitro cold-brew iced coffee! If you need me to say more, this place provides job training for at-risk youth, donates a meal for every bag of coffee sold, and has an honor system for basic and quick cups of coffee, which is a very humanizing way for folks who can’t afford a cup of coffee at regular prices still enjoy a hot drink. Worth supporting, and your tongue won’t regret it.

Black Label Brewing Company @ Saranac Commons

The Saranac Commons, not to be confused with the Saranac Pub just down the street, is a little conglomeration of businesses, one of which is Black Label, which kindly put up with the r/fantasy Drinks with Authors meetup completely overtaking their space. They’re a beer and cider place, and we had something called d’s Wicked Baked Apple Cider…a choice which rippled like a wave through the folks around us to the apparent pleasure of everyone. I went back later to try one of the other businesses and Black Label had live music going and, with a less hectic crowd, the atmosphere was very relaxed.

Frank’s Diner

Frank's Diner

We mostly stuck with the free continental at our hotel for most breakfasts, but by Friday I needed something different lest I lose my mind and start flinging boiled eggs madly at everyone who walked into the breakfast nook. We were planning to check out the NWMAC (it’s coming, keep your pants on), so we chose something in that general direction to break up an otherwise longish walk and ended up at Frank’s Diner. A+ on the experience, A++ on the food. I got some vegetarian twist on Eggs Benedict, which made me really regret that I’ve outgrown licking my plate in public. The fun bit about Frank’s is that it’s set up in an antique railroad car—lots of polished wood and leaded glass. We ate at the counter, so we got to watch the very professional chefs in action for even more fun. It’s also a place that operates on the farm to fork model, so it manages to be more of a hipster spoon than a greasy spoon.

Madeleine’s Patisserie

Trés français, if you’ll pardon my probably wrong French. Dusty blue and ecru (it’s not the sort of place that just uses white or cream, of course) with dark wood and reclaimed industrial details with flourish bits here and there make for a very cute little coffee spot. In college, they would have been hard pressed to kick me out if I needed a spot to read post-modern philosophy. Oh, right—they also have very nice coffee, and the croissant I had was buttery fresh and bigger than my face. Fortunately, my face is like a Tardis: bigger on the inside.

The Stacks at Steam Plant

I have no idea if we ate at the Stacks or the Steam Plant or the Steam Plant Brewing Company…too many names in one place. The size and mazishness of the place probably merits the confusion – dinner and entertainment! Getting from your table back to any exit is just like being locked in a puzzle room, no extra charge! A steampunk puzzle room, no less. The building is exactly what it sounds like: an old steam plant, converted for commercial use, and the environment is gorgeous. The food was more-ish…my pasta was obviously fresh, and our dessert had candied bacon on the top. I have no idea what else you could possibly ask for from a nice dinner out.

Sweet Frostings

I saw a sign on a shop window advertising cupcakes our first night in town and spent the rest of the week trying to find a time to return…and then where to return to once I realized I hadn’t made note of the shop’s location. The quest was worth the bothering of three different local folks. Recommended cosplay: amigurami based on anime characters. Seriously. An adorable sugar monster vomited cuteness and scrumptious cupcakes all over this place. I especially love that the cupcakes were reasonable cupcake size with normal amounts of frosting, which means (1) you can eat an entire cupcake by yourself without fear of instant death from sugar shock and (2) the cake was nice and moist. I liked their coffee better than Madeleine’s, but to be fair, I always like coffee better with good chocolate, and that cupcake was very good chocolate.

Mediterrano @ Saranac Commons

I hadn’t managed to work my way through the food line when we were at the commons for the very crowded Drinks with Authors thing, so I doubled back Saturday night to try the little Mediterranean bistro. I didn’t love the dolbas, but in retrospect, maybe I was confusing dolmas with something else, so cold minty rice (I think?) in a grape leaf was not quite what I was expecting.  The falafel gyro, on the other hand, transcended all other falafel I have ever put in my mouth and left me craving more in the sort of way that will drive me to eat nothing but falafel until I find a local place that’s at least vaguely comparable. It may have been that good mostly because I was hungry enough to start wondering how passersby would taste with ketchup, but still: it was good and fast and inexpensive and reasonably healthy and I would eat there all the time if I worked nearby.

Enjoy some fresh air (but if it’s fire season, maybe check the air quality report if you have breathing sensitivities)

We lucked out an had some lovely walking days in spite of the fact the Washington is more or less entirely on fire. It’s bad though, folks, to the point that FEMA declared a national disaster, so if you’re close by, be safe and keep an eye on the air quality reports. If you’re not there, organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross always need support for taking care of people who have been evacuated.

Riverfront Park

Louff Carrousel

This park is right downtown, and if you’re in town for a convention, you’d be nuts to not walk to the center along the Centennial Trail instead of on the boring old sidewalks. There are all kinds of odd little sculptures and some damn gorgeous landscaping. And ducks. And geese. (Pro tip: don’t sit on the grass without first thoroughly inspecting for geese poop. You’re welcome.) There are at least half a dozen bridges crossing to Canada Island and over to the other main bank over some gentle falls, and every single one of them has a view worth considering backwards and forwards. (Pro tip #2: Taking a walk? Turn around once in a while. Scenery looks different from the other direction.) There’s a little permanent carnival, a skyride over the falls, a historic working carrousel in stellar condition, a splashpad which also manages to function as art, the world’s largest Red Flyer Wagon (which is also a slide), and a clock tower. It’s all relatively flat and there are many shady places to sit and think a bit and lots of signs with interesting notes about local history including the Spokani and tribes.

Manito Park & Botanical Gardens

First, how to get there without a car: (1) Go to the STA plaza, which is in the middle of town and surrounded by buses and signage and impossible to miss, so quit yer bellyaching about public transportation. (2) Get on the 44 with exact fare ($1.50) in hand. It doesn’t matter which 44 route you take. There are two 44 routes, but they go around opposite sides of the park, so whichever side you end up on, you can just pick up the other route on your way back. (3) Listen to the nice, clear announcements, and when you hear the one for Manito Park, pull the cords to request a stop. (4) Get off and enjoy the free and breathtaking park! If you’ve ever seen more roses or dahlias in one place, please tell me where so I can go there. A bit of strategy for you: the Nishinoyima Garden is on the Bernard St. route and is generally considered the back of the park. The Park Bench Café is on the Grand Ave. side. So you might plan which route you take where such that you end up at the café when you’re hungry. Either way, in between you’ll find incredible roses, wonderful dahlias, a gorgeous perennial garden, a massive formal European-style garden, and (if you don’t go on a Wednesday when they’re spraying pesticides) a conservatory which is presumably as impressive as the rest. (We went on a Wednesday, so that bit was closed.) The gardens are by and large very well populated with signs identifying the various plants for ease of copycatting their designs at home. We walked through good chunks of the gardens and had a leisurely lunch in less than two hours, which is important to note for transportation reasons: the $1.50 fare gets you a 2-hour pass, so if you still have time on that pass when you head back, you don’t have to pay a second fare. Bam! You’ve been hit with a knowledge stick.

Huntington Park

So you’ve done the Riverside Park and you want a chance to get completely winded. No problem. When you get to the Bloomsday statue (all the runners, it’s a local thing involving an annual fitness-oriented celebration of lilacs and the statue features a diverse pack of runners…including kids and a wheelchair racer—I told you these folks are almost creepy in their profound delightfulness), instead of going right or across the grass, go straight and left after City Hall. This will take you down to a view of the larger falls and the dam system and some more lovely landscaping and stunning rock formations. The only downside is that it’s steep and eventually you have to drag your butt back up it (if you’re unlucky like us, you’ll be lapped by a high school track team RUNNING up and down the hill while you’re praying for a quick death), but they do have switchbacks and steps and benches to make it more manageable if you’ve got time and are sufficiently divorced from your dignity. Or you can cough up the dough to take the skyride thing–that’s where it runs.

Coeur D’Alene Park

First of all, just say it with me. Cour dalaine. I’m just going to sit here repeating it to myself until someone gives me a funny look because I love the way it sits on my tongue. Other than the name, though, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to find it—it’s in Browne’s Addition, away from the downtown area, and is very much a functional park for walking your dogs and small children. The gazeboish thing at the center is lovely, though, and if you (cough, cough, good job me) fail to plan your time appropriately and end up in Browne’s Addition an hour before the NWMAC opens, it’s two blocks up along Maple St. and a nice place to sit with a book. OR…you could just wander around the neighborhood. The architecture and landscaping are completely worth a wander, especially if you happen to be keeping company with someone who has a degree in architectural design and a good eye for the particularly unusual details in old houses.

Feed some starving local creatives

Auntie’s Bookstore

Okay, yes, maybe going into a bookstore when you’re at a literary convention is a good way to end up with more books than the airline will let you check in your suitcase. Whatever. Auntie’s is a local icon, and it’s phenomenal. It also had a few things that the convention was lacking: postcards and a robust section on local history. It’s also got tons of used books, conveniently organized right alongside the new books in easy to peruse section. And character out the wazoo—one more awesome place making great use of a refurbished historical building.

Pottery Place Plus

Right next to Auntie’s is a coop shop for local artists. It’s mostly pottery, as the name implies, so not a ton that’s ideal for bringing home in a suitcase BUT…they ship! So bring your Christmas club money, get your holiday shopping done, and have your purchases waiting cheerfully on the doorstop for you when you get home! There’s also a good bit of jewelry, some unique magnets, and plenty of local nature photography and prints. The way the coop works is that artists take turns running the counter, so you can always get someone talking about their work and why they love it.

Get cultured like yogurt

Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (NWMAC, like you’ve all been waiting for, or the MAC in local parlance)

Salmon statue at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Admission is $10 for adults usually, but Spokane has a First Friday thing too, and if you happen to be in town for a First Friday, admission is free. The exhibits running while we were there where 100 Stories for the Centennial (perfect backdrop for a con that was themed around stories!), which has components inside the museum and out. Fun tidbit: Did you know that Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman both took formative career steps in the Spokane jazz scene? (Did you even know that Spokane had a jazz scene? Bam! Knowledge stick!) The eclectic mix of art and history paints an interesting overall tale of the area, which was boosted by the selection of local artists showcased in a parallel display. And the museum was running a book sale at their gift shop with a massive and eclectic collection of little books of local art and history for $1…seriously, I am going to have to set at least a novella in Spokane to justify everything I picked up.

Mobius Science Center

Thumbs up to every city with a kids’ science museum! We didn’t go here ourselves (adults with no kids get funny looks wandering around places that are designed for kids, sadly), but the Mobius people came to the con on Super Science Saturday! I enjoyed some massive exploding foam, a lift demonstration in the form of a toilet paper thrower (party over here!), some fun with a van de Graaff generator, and a glowing pickle…and I only caught one of their shows. I bet the center itself has a wealth of awesome learning opportunities of the sort that inspire future geeks of America to join us in our mad science. MWAHAHAHA. (ahem)

Stonerose Interpretive Center & Eocene Fossil Site

This place is technically not in Spokane and technically I didn’t go there, but I did enjoy their display at the con and wish I could have made it, so let’s count it. This is an active dig site for Eocene Epoch fossils consisting mostly of plants, insects, and some fish. If you had asked me last week what I though of flora fossils, I might have shrugged, but the level of detail you can see in the fossils made by these incredibly fragile bits of nature that were around 48 million years ago is captivating. Did I mention you get to dig up fossils and keep a few too? Cuz ya do.

Lay your weary head to rest…

Which Davenport is on first?

I only walked through parts of one of the ten thousand different Davenport something or other hotels, but my review is: lush. Aside from that, I have two comments on the Davenport hotels. (1) Good luck figuring out which one you’re staying at. (2) The first one was built by a waffle magnate. Bam! Knowledge stick again. You’re welcome. Again.

Hotel Ruby 2

Art outside the Ruby2

(Seriously, are there any uniquely named hotels in this town? So confusing.) I was initially a little wary of staying here because (1) the name conveys a very rent-by-the-hour business model, which does not imply clean and safe, and (2) it was way too cheap too seem like a safe and clean place to stay. I booked everything on the late side, however, so it was the only con-affiliated place left, and it did have both the con stamp of approval and decent Yelp reviews, so I rolled the dice. Sevens all the way, baby. I would have been less afraid of eating off the floors there than off the plates in some restaurants, it was that clean. The exterior windowsills got wiped down EVERY DAY. The beds were comfortable (and apparently the exact ones used in one of the Davenports where the rooms are about five times as expensive). There was a solid continental breakfast—nothing fancy, but fresh enough for me and plenty of it, and hella good coffee, for a continental. I have paid more to stay in worse places. The biggest drawback is that it is motel style and opens towards a working railroad track, so it’s not dead quiet, but I didn’t find the clacking of the cars on the rails to be disruptive of my sleep. The walk over to the convention center is 15 minutes if you meander through the park, 10 if you hoof it directly on the streets.

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