Friday, April 22, 2011

A Chocolate Tour of Seattle, Part I

This past week we hosted some visitors who asked me to take them on a tour of local chocolate shops. I took into account our home location, the amount of time we wanted to spend, neighborhoods that might be interesting, and Seattle's hellacious rush hours, and we ended up making a nice loop through town. I had fun, and I think they did too.

Considering the city's fancy bar shops, confectionary stores, and numerous small chains, add a car and a good relationship with Google Maps and any visitor or resident can make his or her own tour. This week I'll cover what I consider must-visits and bonuses for bar lovers; next week I'll list specialty shops and those I haven't seen myself as well as a few additional tips.

Must-Sees

These stores are must-visits because they fulfill one or more of the following criteria: meaningful to Seattle, easy to fit into your route, generous with samples, or a way to break up a bonbon-heavy tour.

Theo Chocolate produces its chocolate from bean to bar right here in Seattle. (Most companies buy elsewhere and blend with flavorings or use to coat confections.) It's fair trade and organic, which are a taste of Seattle in and of themselves and simply good besides. Theo holds inexpensive factory tours several times daily; if you're interested, make reservations well in advance. Whether or not you're going behind the scenes, the shop displays most of its bars with a pile of sample pieces, so you can taste as much as you want before you buy. Don't ignore the small case of confections: They're high quality, the flavors are interesting, and some are vegan. On your tour, Theo is the best place to fill up on samples.

Fran's Chocolates is a local institution best known for salt caramels. Flavors are not especially unusual but are all high quality. There are three locations, two in Seattle and one in Bellevue, and one of the Seattle options is downtown near Chocolate Box (below) and tourist mainstay Pike Place Market, inside the Four Seasons—very swank. Visit because it's local, everything you get will be good, and it's a good place to buy gifts for the folks back home.

Oh! Chocolate is a familiar-feeling confectioner: big glass cases filled with chunky chocolates, a large assortment of fun fillings, and whole chocolates as samples. There are three locations, one in Seattle, one in Bellevue, and one between the two on Mercer Island. (There's actually a fourth in Georgia, but that's neither here nor there.) Not every flavor is a standout, but there's something for everybody, they're cheaper than many others, and the experience will make you smile.

Chocolati and Dilettante both sell chocolates that I think are just okay, but they're on this list because of their hot cocoa and number of locations, Chocolati's mostly in Seattle and Dilettante's also beyond city limits. Some of the other stores I'm mentioning also offer drinks, but I appreciate the café style of these, and between the two I prefer Chocolati's more relaxed feel and especially its dark hot chocolate with cayenne. With 11 locations between them and as a break in the bar/confection monotony, I think it's both easy and worth it to work at least one hot-chocolate-focused stop into your chocolate tour.

Good Bars

These stores are my reliable sources of fancy bars—those other than the ones at Whole Foods or random finds around town and elsewhere.

Chocolopolis is where to be if you want serious high-end bars. They shelve their stock by origin, so you can look at separate sections for Africa or the Caribbean and so on and another section for bars with inclusions. It's not comprehensive or anywhere near cheap, but like a well-edited wine shop, it'll help you find the good stuff. At the counter, peek behind the glass at the shiny confections (unlike in the shops above, most of these aren't house-made) and take a couple home with you.

Chocolate Box is kind of a hodgepodge store, but it's fun and the location makes it super easy to combine with a visit to Fran's or Pike Place Market. They have tons of confections from a wide variety of regional brands and a bunch of high-end bars, some of which I haven't seen elsewhere in the area. They also have gelato, cookies, and mini cupcakes, and they recently incorporated the wine bar next door, so this is a great place to indulge. Note: Tourist-friendly also means higher prices, as I've seen some of the same confections at Chocolopolis for less. Chocolate Box apparently offers a AAA discount that might make purchasing more attractive, though I haven't tried it yet myself.

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