Winning a chowder competition against the city's largest seafood restaurants started Larry Mellum's journey to opening Pike Place Chowder at Pike Place Market in 2003. A Pacific Place location opened in 2007. Mellum spoke with Where about his favorite spots at the Market and beyond.
In 1991, I became the co-owner of a small, 125-seat place in West Seattle called the Charlestown St Café. News spread that we served great food and Charlestown became popular beyond anything we had imagined. What we heard most often, week after week, was how much the customers craved our New England Clam Chowder. Eventually, we were invited to participate in the Seattle Chowder Cook-off, competing against all of the big seafood restaurants in town. To our surprise, we took First Place in the Professional Judges Award and, also, the Peoples Choice Award. It was the first time in the 10-year history of the event that a single restaurant had won in both categories. We also won the next year.
After customers from all over the region began standing in line for our chowder, opening a chowder shack came to mind. As luck would have it, a space opened up at Pike Place Market. I sold my share of Charlestown St. Café and opened Pike Place Chowder in 2003. The second location in Pacific Place opened in 2007.
How long did it take to perfect the first recipe?
The original recipe was created by one of our line cooks and enhanced as we went along. We built on quality ingredients, fresh produce, herbs and spices. By the time we opened at the Market, all of the improvements had been made. The New England Clam Chowder has remained the same ever since.
Your chowder won one of the largest East-coast chowder contests three years running—how incredible did that feel?
The Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, Rhode Island, really put us on the map. It remains the largest chowder competition in the country where about 20,000 people show up every year to vote for their favorite chowder. No restaurant outside New England had ever taken first place at this event and yes; we won three years in a row. As Gail Alofsin, the director of the event, reported to the Food Network, “In comes this restaurant from Seattle, of all places, and beats us at our own game.” Our team raised the money to go to the competition through car washes and bake sales. Not one of them had ever been east of Montana. What a great experience!
You have more varieties than just the original Clam Chowder. What other kinds do you make in the winter?
We serve eight varieties of chowder at the Market location, every day and every season; and four to five daily versions at our Pacific Place location. At the Market, we always offer one chowder specific to the season. Right now, we’re serving our Cascadia Harvest Chowder, with lots of regional vegetables and herbs, topped with clams and mussels in the shell. With the limitless supply of fresh fish and produce at Pike Place Market, we are always inspired to add new chowders to our menus. In the spring, the first halibut arrives just in time for the early, tender asparagus. Then comes the Copper River Salmon.
People may not realize that you ship worldwide. When did you start doing that?
We started shipping several years ago when customers wanted to enjoy the chowders at home or give them as gifts. We ship throughout the U.S., but not yet worldwide. Our chowder arrives on a two-day schedule to ensure quality and freshness. However, we have amusing photos from fans who have flown all over the world with our chowder. One customer, whose work had transferred him from Seattle to Singapore, purchased a case of chowder along with an extra seat on the plane. He sent photos of the feast when he arrived at his new home.
When you aren’t here perfecting chowder recipes, where else do you enjoy dining in Seattle?
Because we are so busy with the chowder business, I wish I had time to try more of the creative restaurants in Seattle. I like just about anything on Ballard Avenue, particularly The Walrus & The Carpenter. Actually, anything Renee Erikson does is great—The Whale Wins, Bateau. I’m impressed with Ethan Stowell’s Goldfinch Tavern. I really like supporting the terrific eating places here at the Market: Steelhead Diner, El Borracho, The Athenian, LoPriore Bros. Pasta Bar, Rachel’s Ginger Beer, to name only a few.
Any favorite spots for a drink—beer/wine/cocktails?
There is no better margarita—well, maybe any stronger margarita—than my go-to place, Viva Mexico, in White Center. Also, the local wines and brews here at the Market are always good choices.
What is a hidden Pike Place Market gem people might not know about?
Well, they are not so hidden anymore but the Market is filled with gems like The Pink Door, Place Pigalle, Il Bistro, Rachel’s… Shiro’s new sushi bar, Kashiba, Chan’s at The Inn at The Market; also, the Old Stove Brewery and The Alibi Room. I like them all.
What is your favorite Seattle landmark?
The place where I work, Pike Place Market.
What is your favorite Seattle holiday tradition?
Macy’s Holiday Parade and Star Lighting Ceremony.
Best cup of coffee in Seattle?
Caffé Umbria at Le Panier.
Do you have a favorite store to buy holiday gifts?
What is something you always do with visitors from out of town?
Take them out sailing on Elliot Bay.
What is your favorite Seattle memory?
When I first moved from Portland in the late '70s, I didn’t care much for Seattle … too much traffic and too many people, constantly finding myself lost somewhere or another. But, early in the summer, on a bright Sunday morning, I decided to go on an excursion. Grabbing my fold-up patio chair, the Sunday Times, and a bottle of wine, I headed for the Colman ferry dock. Once aboard, I went up to the top deck, opened my lounge chair, and read the Sunday paper from beginning to end, while sipping my wine and riding back and forth for the better part of the day. By the time I walked off the boat late that afternoon, I knew Seattle was going to be my town. I’ve loved it here ever since.
Where is your favorite spot to go on vacation?
For sailing, to the San Juan Islands; fly fishing, in Montana; hanging out, on Vancouver Island. My wife, Betty, and I have recently taken some rather exotic vacations to see endangered animals. We’ve visited the Marquesas, and traveled to India to see the tigers. Next year, we are planning to see the polar bears on a visit to Svalbard Island, above the Arctic Circle, off the coast of Norway.
What is the best way to explore a new location?
I’m a history geek so, wherever I go, I typically look for some historical places and perspectives. Then walk it and talk it with people I might meet along the way.
What spot is No. 1 on your travel wish list?
Following our trip to Svalbard Island, we will likely head for Africa to check out more critters or to Southern Europe for historical sites. There is so much to experience in this world and so many places I’d like to see. Yet, sometimes it’s just as nice to sit at home in the back yard reading a good book.
Any must-pack items when you travel?
Reading material and, of course, a camera.
Window or Aisle seat?