Tacoma, Washington: A Perfect Fall Day in Tacoma
Many cities cherish their weirdness, but I've always felt that Tacoma's bumper sticker should read, “Keep Tacoma Gritty.” We're wilder, funkier, friendlier, and more ethnically diverse than Seattle, our northern neighbor. We don't boast world-class fish markets or ornaments like the Space Needle, but we have our own charm, and there are plenty of activities, whether you're a native or a visitor. Here are some suggestions for intrepid travelers searching for an authentic Tacoma experience.
A perfect autumn day in Tacoma should always start with breakfast at Shakabrah. This lively establishment qualifies as a Tacoma institution, since locals have been dining here since 1995. Weekends are packed, and lines often form on the sidewalk outside. The restaurant boasts both a DIY, counter-order front section, and a separate room for those who prefer table service the old-fashioned way (be sure to tip well, however, because these folks really hustle). Breakfasts are affordable, but enormous. As an almost-vegan, I'm fond of the Shaka Potatoes. For eight bucks, you can fill up on a platter of fried potatoes, zucchini, mushrooms and peppers (cheese included in price, but optional. I just tell them to leave it off). Egg and meat eaters are also in heaven here, with such offerings as The Caesar, a mouth-watering combo of two fried eggs, sauteed spinach, tomatoes, and avocado, served on sourdough toast ($8.50) and the ultra-rich Chrissy Skillet, which combines eggs, pesto, garlic, mushrooms, bacon, and two kinds of cheese ($11.00). Espresso available, too!
2618 6th Avenue, Tacoma, WA. 98406. (253) 572-2787, Open 7 AM-4 PM, Mon-Sat, 8-4 Sunday.
After breakfast, head over to Point Defiance Park, which boasts 702 acres (some of them overlooking Puget Sound and Vashon Island), the Pacific Northwest's only combined zoo/aquarium, and numerous flower gardens. A series of winding trails meanders through the park, offering hikers beautiful vistas that will make them forget they're in a city. You can stand at the water's edge and watch the ferry head towards Vashon's Tahlequah dock. Point Defiance Zoo/Aquarium's admission varies, according to your age and whether you're a Pierce County resident, so be sure to check their website: https://www.pdza.org If zoos aren't your thing, or you're on a budget, don't despair—you'll still have plenty of fun hiking around the park, gasping at the size of the trees and beauty of the flowers. Wear comfortable shoes—you'll need to walk briskly if you want to burn off those Shakabrah breakfast calories and be ready for lunch.
5400 N Pearl St, Tacoma, WA 98407. (253) 305-1000. Autumn hours: 9:30-4:00, 7 days a week.
If it's raining, don't fret. Skip the park and head to the Lemay Car Museum, across from the Tacoma Dome. You can't possibly miss it—the building is shaped like an enormous metallic caterpillar, perched on a hillside. Most people don't think of classic cars when they think of Tacoma, but they should—automobile culture is revered here. No other establishment celebrates it more lovingly than the Lemay, which features such exhibits as “Route 66, Dream of the Mother Road” and “Tools of the Trade: Powering the Working Class.” Here you can see everything from muscle cars to vintage Austin-Healeys, and can indulge your fantasies of being a race-car driver, all at the same time.
2702 East D St, Tacoma, WA 98421. (253) 778-8940. Open 10 am – 5 pm, 7 days a week.
After you leave Point Defiance Park or the car museum, drive to the Grand Cinema for a matinee, but be sure to pay close attention to the speed limit. The Grand Cinema is a sweet gem, tucked in the bottom floor of the Merlino Arts Center, a gorgeous brick building on the corner of 6th and Fawcett. It screens first-run, foreign and independent films, with an emphasis upon quirk. From October 5-12, the iconic theater hosted the annual Tacoma Film Festival, showcasing indie movies from across the globe. The Grand offers post-film discussions, free family films, Third Wednesday classics such as “The Lady Vanishes” and “To Sir, With Love” and many other events. Be sure to grab a slice of quiche or a cupcake first, next-door at Corina's. Pastries are mouth-wateringly delicious, and include many vegan options. Their vegan cupcakes are to live for….definitely don't die for them, because then you won't be able to wrap a second one to go. And yes, they have the non-vegan kind, too.
606 Fawcett Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402. (253) 593-4474.
If you're hungry for dinner after all that snacking, don't miss the Top of Tacoma. This iconic establishment is home to hipsters, yuppies, working-class folks, retired people, and everyone in between. Not only does the Top serve great beer and mixed drinks, but its kitchen also prepares the tastiest food you will ever find in a bar. Everything is made with fresh ingredients, and the selection is huge. Choices range from the meaty 253 Turkey, a succulent combo of turkey, bacon, white cheddar, tomato, grilled on sourdough and served with creamy pesto ($9.25) to the vegan Buddha wrap (my favorite) which features peanut curry seared tofu, seaweed salad, sesame aioli, carrots, raw jalapeños and cilantro, all wrapped in a warm flatbread. ($9.50). They have amazing tacos, as well (half-price on Thursdays). The Top is exceedingly popular, and service can take a while, so be patient. Kill some time in the old-fashioned photo booth at one end of the bar, or shoot a game of pool. There's even a patio outside for the warmer months, though die-hards eat there all year.
3529 E McKinley Ave, Tacoma, WA 98404. (253) 272-1502. Open 7 days a week, 11 AM - 2 AM.
If the Top doesn't manage to suck you in for the rest of the night (and it just might), you should cap off your adventure with a trip to Bob's Java Jive. No Tacoma visit is truly complete without a karaoke excursion to the venerable Jive. If you're too exhausted to go inside, at least drive past the place. You can't miss it—the building is shaped like an enormous coffeepot. The original owner, Bob, left this universe several years ago, but his ghost remains. “Java” and “Jive” were the names of two monkeys who lived inside the establishment long ago, when folks still thought such shenanigans were cute. Don't let the bar's exterior scare you—it's all part of the charm. This is the real Tacoma, and we want to keep it that way. Karaoke at the Jive is a transcendent experience, set against the garish backdrop of flickering lights and tiki ornaments. You can belt out your smoldering rendition of “I'm Not in Love” or “Takin' Care of Business” seven days a week, and nobody cares what you sound like.
2102 S Tacoma Way, Tacoma, WA 98409. (253) 475-9843. Opens around 4:00 PM.