A crowd begins to gather for the famous fish toss — the main act at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle.
First, you choose a fish on a bed of ice. Then, one of the fish mongers — a fellow in rubber overalls who's as much an actor as he is a seller of fish — calls out to his compatriot behind the counter, tossing him the fish to be cleaned and wrapped.
It all takes about a minute, but it's vintage Pike Place Market, the four-block landmark overlooking the waterfront in this lovely city in the Pacific Northwest.
What's wonderful about Pike Place Market is that it's the real thing — a market where ordinary people do their shopping, and come to eat and drink.
The market has fruit and vegetable stalls, flower vendors, hand-crafted beers, breads of every variety, arts-and-crafts, international restaurants, cafes and food bars, wind-up toys and vintage clothing stalls.
You can have a cup of coffee at the original hole-in-the-wall Starbuck's, or, downstairs from the fish market, imbibe a drink in the Alibi Room — a bar-restaurant filled with old movie scripts that you can read.
The market has also been a magnet for immigrants seeking to carve out a niche for themselves: Japanese farmers whose presence was here for years until they were sent away to internment camps in World War II; Scandinavians who specialized in dairy products; and Sephardic Jews from Turkey who ran many of the fish stands.
We started our tour with a gusto-filled send-off at the Pike Brewing Company, which includes a nifty beer museum.
We sampled three beers from lightest to darkest, including a golden Pike Naughty Nellie; a full-bodied Pike Pale Ale; and my favorite, the Pike Kilt Lifter, a Scotch-style, ruby ale.
When it started to get close to lunch, we decided to have a bite at the Crumpet Shop, a crowded little place with customers enjoying the British pastry immortalized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times.
Crumpets, I learned, are prepared without butter or eggs — just flour, water, yeast and salt, the very ingredients poor people could afford in Dickens' England.
From the Crumpet Shop, we walked to an even smaller place, Rei Hanscomb's La Buona Tavola, which translates from the Italian to "The Good Table." The specialties here are truffle oils and porcini oil, infused with mushrooms of the same name.
We sampled both white and black truffle oil in a small cup of potato-leak soup, starting off first with plain soup, and then with the added truffle oil. What a difference only a drop or two made, adding a rich earthiness to the soup.
Hanscomb makes a pledge you'd be hard-pressed to find in big supermarkets: "We sell only the things we've fallen in love with."
We then walked to the Daily Dozen Doughnut Company, no more than a tiny corner in the vast market. The doughnuts sold here are only the centers — no bigger than ping-pong balls — and are nice and warm. I ordered mine sprinkled with cinnamon. Half the fun is watching them being tossed into the air for a crash landing into your brown bag.
Later, we made our way to one of the icons of Pike Place called Pure Food Fish Market, which was opened in 1914 by one of the many Sephardic Jews who settled in Seattle from southern Turkey. We sampled wild king smoked salmon and enjoyed it very much.
Toward the end of our visit, we got some Italian-style gelato at La Bottega Italiana. An example of an artisanal food shop that does only one thing and does it very well, it makes gelato from authentic Italian recipes. Since it originates in southern Italy, the gelato has a lot more fruit than other types, tasting just like the actual fruit — only in a different form.
We stayed at a cozy inn near the market, the Inn at Harbor Steps (www.innatharborsteps. com). Our comfortable room came with a buffet breakfast.
Time-permitting, you might also hop onto the Washington State Ferry for the 35-minute ride to Bainbridge Island on the Kitsap Peninsula. Known for its art community and its farmers market, the island is also home to the small Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery, and the Bloedel Reserve, which contains 150 acres of serene gardens, including the state flower — rhododendrons.