Ivar's: why it ought to win a restaurant award

Some Seattle chefs win awards from the James Beard Foundation. Maybe the chain created by Seattle's Ivar Haglund deserves honors for its special way of serving the public in a city that has a tendency to take itself quite seriously.
Crosscut archive image.

Ivar Haglund, radio star, back in the 1930s

Some Seattle chefs win awards from the James Beard Foundation. Maybe the chain created by Seattle's Ivar Haglund deserves honors for its special way of serving the public in a city that has a tendency to take itself quite seriously.

Earlier this year, The New York Times ran an article about teriyaki in Seattle, a type of fast food that is huge here, but largely unnoticed and disrespected. Sweet, mundane, ubiquitous, it's part of the city's workaday life, but not its culinary consciousness, like hot dogs in Chicago or cheese steaks in Philadelphia.

I was quoted in the piece, saying that Seattle yuppies might brag about finding a new dim sum restaurant, but never about a teriyaki joint. A Seattle native e-mailed me that when it came to "real Seattle food," Dick'ꀙs Drive-in and Ivar's were what came to his mind.

For pure Seattleness, the Ivar's restaurant chain is impossible to beat, even if you haven't eaten its food since owner Ivar Haglund died in 1985. His restaurants are institutions with roots in the days when Seattle seafood meant pasty clam chowder or deep-fried prawns. Haglund strummed a guitar, sang folk songs and wore a captain's hat; his company motto was, and is, "keep clam"; and he reflected the ethnicity of an older Seattle when "mixed race" meant a Swedish father and Norwegian mother.

Ivar's restaurants have come in many forms, from sit-down waterfront dining to a faux Indian longhouse to fish-and-chips takeout counters. The old seafood ways endure, but Ivar's continues to change. Haglund once pushed briny "clam nectar," the type of drink alleged to boost the love lives of fishermen. Today at Pier 54, you can order such un-Ivar-sounding appetizers as "blackened Alaska cod tacos with lime cilantro crème fraîche, Napa cabbage, avocado and roasted tomato salsa."

Seattle-area chefs and restaurateurs are frequently short-listed for (and sometimes win) James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars of the food world. But Ivar's deserves accolades for being a part of Seattle life. Ivar Haglund was a well-known character for nearly half a century, and built his chain with brilliant promotion and a knack for civic whimsy. How many restaurateurs are immortalized with their own statue?

Ivar built the city's first aquarium. He saved the historic Smith Tower when it needed a new owner, a good deed that he marked by topping the skyscraper with a fish windsock. Ivar frequently stuck a pin in the city's tendency to be too serious about trivial matters. One wonders at the fun he would have had with the proposed grocery bag tax or the suggested ban on summer barbecues in city parks. When a train car spilled syrup on the waterfront, Ivar posed for the newspaper cameras ladling the glop onto a stack of flapjacks. The old man could turn a railroad accident into a jolly event.

The real tribute to Ivar is that his restaurant chain keeps his spirit alive. Last summer, the company pulled off a hoax by pretending to have uncovered an underwater billboard that Ivar supposedly planted in Puget Sound in the 1950s for the day in the future when we;d all be traveling by personal submarine. The Seattle Times fell for it, as did all of us who were ready to believe that Ivar Haglund was teasing us from beyond the grave.

It smacked of his creative hucksterism and was rooted in Seattles longstanding fascination with the future. (Remember when we were all supposed to be living in "space needles"?) Ivar's ad agency, Heckler Associates, helped engineer the hoax. This is a gang that knows how to create and play with local icons: They developed the Starbucks brand and legendary "Wild Rainiers" beer ads. They had an assist this time from the paper's own columnist and local historian Paul Dorpat, who once edited Seattle's mischievous 1960s underground paper, Helix. He acted as a co-conspirator in the hoax by confirming that the underwater billboard campaign was true. It was an April Fool's prank in August.

The Times was not amused, some called it 'ꀜIvar-gate,'ꀝ and Dorpat had to publicly apologize for his role in misleading his newspaper colleagues. Struggling papers are sensitive these days to any appearance of impropriety or having fun. But they didn't fire Dorpat, which they might have. The public was forgiving, too, and the hoax worked: Ivar's chowder sales quadrupled, when compared to those of the previous September.

The James Beard Foundation ought to create a new category for restaurateurs who help their cities hold on to a sense of humor. A trickster like Ivar would be the perfect choice.

This article first appeared in Seattle Magazine's April edition.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.