Ethnically diverse, the historic Hilltop neighborhood, overlooking Commencement Bay and downtown Tacoma, was once notorious for its gangs. Now, this area which centers around Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and offers epic views of Mt. Rainier, is undergoing an unmistakable process of gentrification, but slowly and gently: new hipster hangouts comfortably share the streets with long-established local African-American businesses. “You can do something here,” says Laura Malone, proprietor of the fabulous Monsoon Room (now closed; see City Arts Sept./Oct. ’06.) and a force of nature for positive change in the area. “It’s still affordable. You want to start something new and everybody’s like, ‘Okay, great! Do it!’” This walking tour starts in the heart of Hilltop, on MLK Jr. Way, then moves toward the downtown business district.
1. 913 Martin Luther King Jr. Way Tempest Lounge (253.272.4904) Michelle Douglas and Denise Tempest are the friendly proprietors of this swanky watering hole and dining spot. The dinner menu focuses on comfort food, including homemade mac’n’cheese and panini sandwiches. All fruit drinks are fresh-squeezed; the mint julep, made with lime juice over cracked ice, is my new favorite.
2. 924 Martin Luther King Jr. Way Johnson Candy Company (253.272.8504) A Hilltop institution with a presence on MLK for eighty-two years. Ron and Bee Johnson are currently training the next generation (number three) to hand-dip chocolates on the premises. You’ll swoon over the array of confections, including salt water taffy and every flavor of jellybean imaginable.
3.1324 Martin Luther King Jr. Way Quickie Too (253.572.4549) I’d call it vegan soul food, with a Jamaican twist on burgers, wraps, and other updated classics like the TLT (tofu replaces you-know-what). Popular with TCC students. Here healthy-minded Titan Theora Palmer digs in. Try the Mama Africa Burger.
4. 1115 Tacoma Ave. S. American Design Inc. (253.284.3150) The firm has been in business for nearly twenty years but relocated to Hilltop when founder Pamela Sturgill fell in love with this space (the building dates back to 1890). The beautifully renovated showroom features a carefully edited, eclectic selection of furnishings: antique, modern and contemporary pieces, all reflecting a touch of Zen.
5. 1102 Tacoma Ave. S. Handforth Gallery (253.591.5688) Located inside the original 1903 main branch of the Tacoma Public Library, this exhibition space features local artists in shows that change every six weeks. The current exhibit of photographs is devoted to historical images of Hilltop.
911 S. 11th St. Bob’s BBQ Southern-style ribs | 1001 S. 11th St. Goodfellas Barbers & Fashion Classic clip joint | 1012 MLK Jr. Way Le-Le Great Thai | 1115 S. 11th St. Pho Buc Filling Vietnamese | 1117 S. Tacoma Ave. Syren Lounge & Nightclub Hilltop hip-hop | 1504 MLK Jr. Way D.A.S.H. Center for the Arts City youth outreach | 602 N. Sprague Hilltop Artists in Residence Glass arts for teens.