Seattle and Portland, the two major cities in the Pacific Northwest, have a long-standing rivalry, something you’d expect from places in close proximity. The Portland vs. Seattle competition manifests itself first and foremost in sports, with the Major League Soccer teams Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders as prime examples. The rivalry also extends to the cool factor, donuts, bikeability, and public transit. And both cities pride themselves in their culinary and craft beer scene.
To explore this latter aspect of the Portland vs. Seattle rivalry, we partnered with Laura Lynch, a travel blogger and expat who loves to travel, eat, and drink around the world (and write about her culinary adventures on her new blog Savored Sips). Laura wrote the Seattle portions of this blog post (“Seattle: Dungeness crab” and “Craft beer in Seattle”), and we covered Portland and wrote all the rest.
Portland vs. Seattle: The ultimate culinary smackdown
Rather than judging the overall culinary scene in each city, we decided to pick one signature dish each city is known for and face off those two.
You might find food in Seattle, Washington to be as good as in any major American city. That the city sits right on the Pacific Ocean coast makes what to eat in Seattle an easy decision. Of all the seafood to eat in Seattle, Dungeness crab is the most iconic choice.
In Portland, food carts dominate the culinary scene to the point it’s impossible to pick just one dish or even food category.
Which city has better food?
Seattle: Dungeness crab*
Seattle is well known for its fresh-off-the-boat seafood and world-class craft breweries. While some people might try to convince you that Portland is better than Seattle for food and beer, I can only say those people haven’t spent enough time in Seattle because they are very, very wrong.
While Portland does have some decent food—I’ll give it that much—Seattle is where it’s at when it comes to seafood, especially shellfish, and particularly Dungeness crab.
The meat of a Dungeness crab is very succulent and sweet—more so than the coveted King crab. It needs very little preparation to make a tasty dish. In Seattle, it’s available to order in most restaurants that serve local food, if not year-round, at least during the height of the crabbing season. When a plate of steamed Dungeness arrives at your table, you’ll understand why I say Seattle does it best.
Most Seattle restaurants serve whole Dungeness crab, crab legs, and various dishes including the succulent crab meat. One of my favorite places in Seattle to order it is at Elliott’s Oyster House on the downtown waterfront. Elliott’s is a classy restaurant with a fantastic view of Elliott Bay and an extensive menu of local favorites.
To add to the reasons why Seattle reigns over Portland, there are many beaches and marinas nearby where you can go shell-fishing to catch your own Dungeness crab, which is definitely the king of the ocean for this area.
While there are Dungeness crab to be had in Portland too, you have to drive at least an hour to get to a beach where you can catch your own.
Dungeness crabbing is a beloved pastime for Pacific Northwesterners. We spend hours on the beach with our crab traps and nets, hoping to bring home a few of these tasty crustaceans. Netting a Dungeness crab of your own will save you a good amount of money, as these crabs typically sell for around $10 a pound, weighing around 2.5 or 3 pounds each. Plus, it’s good fun.
Another of my favorite places to eat in Seattle is Pike Place Chowder, where you can get delicious clam chowder. I often find that visitors to Seattle don’t know about it unless they’ve done their homework in advance or they stumble upon it. There is a very popular, but tiny, location in Pike Place Market that is always packed with tourists who have managed to find it. There is also another small location in the Pacific Center mall just east of the market, where you can get the same great chowders with no lines.
The chowder (both the New England clam chowder and their irresistible smoked salmon chowder) is decadent, creamy, and packed full of that fresher-than-fresh shellfish I promised you Seattle does best.
Portland: [ _____ ]
We’ve lived in Portland for almost 15 years yet when it came to picking a signature dish to square off against Seattle’s Dungeness crab, we drew a blank (no you don’t have to have a Voodoo Donut, tourist).
Generally, Portlanders, both original and transplants, are proud of the food scene here, but to us it leans too much toward comfort foods—adequate for the 10 month-long rainy season we get here but not anything to boast about. A local rag once nicknamed the city Porklandia.
The same way cupcakes took America by the sweet tooth a few years ago, every now and then a new dish or cuisine enters the Portland food scene and owns it for a while—waffles! Schnitzelwich! Korean tacos! ramen! khao man gai! bacon on everything! This makes for a thriving food culture in Portland, allowing locals and visitors alike to discover new cuisines, flavors, and ingredients.
Despite how many dishes you simply must eat in Portland at any one time, there is simply no agreement what Portland’s signature dish is. Eater lists 25 iconic dishes in a recent attempt to pin down the one. And the consensus in a Yelp Q&A is that Portland’s signature food is beer (more on that later).
If you visit Portland, you must eat at a food cart. There are more than 500 carts in Portland (five times more than in Seattle), offering a wide variety of world cuisines and fusions from downtown to the city’s farthest reaches. They come and go like comets. The one we named as the most underrated food cart in Portland a few months ago is no longer there. The best (or at least the most popular) ones, like Guero or Lardo, open brick-and-mortar restaurants. If this were a Portland vs. Seattle food cart smackdown, we’d win by a long margin.
Likewise, brunch is huge in Portland. Witness the long lines outside Screen Door or Pine Street Biscuits at peak hours, and you’d think brunch in Portland is to die for (or at least spend a long time waiting for).
But neither “food carts” nor “brunch” is really a dish. We were tempted to go with salmon, which spawn in the Columbia River, but seafood isn’t really a thing in Portland. We haven’t eaten seafood in Portland once.
Our search for the most Portland of all foods yielded many options, none of which emerged as the winner. We couldn’t decide what dish would represent us in the Portland vs. Seattle culinary smackdown.
There’s nothing more Portland than that.
Portland vs. Seattle: Craft beer
Tell a Portlander beer’s better someplace else, they’ll punch you in the face, at least with their eyes and definitely with an ironic twist. A Seattleite will scoff at the notion the small town down south (in California’s Canada, no less) would dare to think beer’s better there.
The Portland vs. Seattle rivalry takes its most delicious form in craft beer.
Craft beer in Seattle*
Craft beer has become popular all over the world in recent years, but it first started to gain popularity in Portland and Seattle. Both of these cities are now known worldwide as the pioneers of craft beer. Seattle truly embraces the beer culture, with frequent beer festivals, Seattle Beer Week, and with the growing popularity of home brewing.
Now, I don’t want to get loyal craft beer fans worked up, but Seattle is definitely the best city on the West Coast for beer lovers. It is well known for its abundance of craft breweries and its innovations in brewing. There are now dozens of breweries in Seattle who are making various types of beer.
One of the most popular types of beer in Seattle is IPA, which are made with hops that are grown in the Pacific Northwest. The locals prefer beer with really high IBUs (International Bitterness Units), which means the beer is bitter and hoppy.
One of Seattle’s favorite activities on the weekends is doing a beer crawl. A lot of the breweries are open to the public for tastings. Two of the largest craft breweries in Seattle are Georgetown Brewing Company (makers of the popular Manny’s Pale Ale) and Pike Brewing Company (makers of the popular Kilt Lifter Scotch-style ale). For IPAs, one of the favorites in Seattle is Fremont Brewing Company.
Unfortunately, as has sadly become the norm everywhere, Seattle has a few breweries that have recently been taken over by large corporations, like the very popular Elysian Brewery, which was bought by Anheuser-Busch . They appear to still be local craft breweries, which are very popular with locals and visitors alike. If more people knew they were owned by large faceless beer companies, they’d hopefully opt to support the true local breweries instead.**
If you’re really looking for great food and beer, you should look no further than Seattle. It has it all, plus views for days and incredible scenery everywhere you turn. Portland is fun for a few days, but Seattle’s where it’s at.
Portland breweries for the win
Though Portland proper is roughly comparable with Seattle proper in terms of both population and area square mileage (the Seattle metropolitan area is 50% bigger than Portland’s), Portland has more microbreweries both in total—68 to 55—and in terms of density—11 to Seattle’s 8 per 100,000 residents(2016 figures).
We’ve been visiting and reviewing Portland breweries since this spring, and we’re barely halfway through (see our North Portland and Northwest Portland breweries roundups). There’s simply too many breweries to visit, too much beer to drink. Why would a beer fan want to be anywhere else, let alone Seattle? Truly, when it comes to beer, Portlanders don’t even bother casting a gaze north. We know the truth.
The numbers alone should put an end to any debate which city is better for beer. But we’ll keep piling on because, while views may have an edge in Seattle, brews are better in Portland.
Don’t take our word for it: fine publications from Travel+Leisure to Thrillist to CNN to Bustle, to even Seattle’s own Post Intelligencer rank Portland higher than Seattle for craft beer (and with the exception of PI, which you can’t trust because it’s a Seattle rag, Portland consistently ranks as the Number One Beer City in the country).
Portland loves its IPAs, too; doomed is the brewery that eschews the style. But down here, the Hop Wars, the era when breweries competed on who can make the hoppiest IPA, are long over. IPAs provide a foundation for a great deal of experimentation, even play, on part of brewers around the city.
Belgian styles, like saisons and farmhouse ales and sours, have swept through town, becoming a staple offering at breweries and pubs everywhere. There is nary a brewery that doesn’t make a gose, a salty wheat beer. One Portland brewery is even fighting the Pacific Northwest AKA West Coast IPA with the New England hazy IPA import; and Portland has the world’s first nonprofit brewery as well.
The best part: You can walk to most breweries. There’s a brewery within a mile or two wherever you are in the city. Five North Portland breweries even partnered to create the NoPo Industrial Ale Trail, a mile-long brewery-to-brewery walk.
Finally, remember all that comfort food we talked about earlier? Beer is the ideal pairing for it. Because who wants to drink microbrews with crab?
Portland vs. Seattle: How to choose
Though roughly comparable in size, Portland retains the feel of a small city (though that’s rapidly changing), while Seattle has the cachet of a major American metropolis. Sometimes, we feel, the Portland vs. Seattle rivalry has to do with the former’s little brother complex toward the bigger, more grownup bro.
No matter, we’ll always have the rain.
If you can’t decide which city to visit for the food or beer, you’re in luck. Portland isn’t far from Seattle at all. The distance between Seattle and Portland is only 174 miles. The trip from Seattle to Portland, whether you take the bus or drive, takes only about three hours (the train from Portland to Seattle takes a bit longer, almost 4 hours).
In other words, why choose between the two or try to decide which is better? You can eat and drink in both cities on the same day!
What’s your favorite? Portland or Seattle? Seattle or Portland?
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* Section written by Laura Lynch, who also contributed the photographs.
** For this reason, the Brewers Association recently developed the Independent Craft Brewer Seal. Look for the inverted bottle logo at the entrance of any brewery to see if they are (still) independent.