Inadvertent charm

Thankfully, success has neither spoiled nor improved the Honey Bear Bakery.

FORGET THE LOCKS and the Space Needle and Kurt Cobain's last address: When out-of-towners come looking for the Real Seattle, I've always taken them straight to the Honey Bear. From the moment the Wallingford coffeehouse opened its doors in 1986, the place has embodied the spirit of this town better, I daresay, than the best fish house or view joint. It's an ineffable thing; the atmo that results, perhaps, when you get this many Guatemalan belts in one room. Honey Bear regulars are the good organic gardeners and home-birthers and Celtic-music listeners who give Seattle its mellow flavor and crunchy texture; Honey Bear food is the mellow, crunchy sort of pastries, soups, and sandwiches that fuel feverish journal writing and self-actualizing conversation. Honey Bear Bakery

2106 N 55th, 545-7296

Sun-Thu 6am-10pm, Fri-Sat 6am-11pm

MC, V; no alcohol

17171 Bothell Wy NE, Lake Forest Park, 366-3330

Mon-Thu 6:30am-11pm, Fri-Sat 6:30-midnight, Sun 8am-10pm

MC, V; no alcohol The Honey Bear is, as someone else once perfectly summarized it, the love epicenter of the universe. And so I was as alarmed as anyone when I heard last summer that said epicenter was to be sold to a corporation. Never mind that the new owner, Third Place Company, promised only minor adjustments; already a handsome redo of the exterior had left it looking suspiciously polished, and news that they'd be adding another location in their Lake Forest Park bookstore meant that now Honey Bear Bakery would be a chain. (Honey Bear's Seattle precursor, a rustic bakery way out in Stehekin, hardly counted.) When word hit the streets that these Third Place folks also acquired Elliott Bay Book Co., and that a third Honey Bear was slated for the basement cafe space there, regulars began perspiring in earnest. McHoney Bear, here we come. So we launched a visiting campaign to find out exactly how the new ownership was affecting things at Love Epicenter nos. 1 and 2. (The Elliott Bay outpost is currently in the midst of opening.) And what we found should save legions of sensitive journaling Zen rolfers from hanging themselves by their Guatemalan belts. What we found is not, mind you, that the food is great. On our first visit, initial samplings of an oatmeal honey scone ($1.75) and a cardamom poppy seed butterfly ($1.50) yielded flavors that were not quite worthy of the term. In desperate want of more something----dare I say sugar?—these pastries were bland and comforting and altogether too virtuous for my taste. In short: exactly like the pastries I've always gotten at Honey Bear. So far so good, fans. Every day the blackboard over the cash register lists the day's soups, salads, wraps, pizzas, casseroles, and grilled sandwiches—that last the new owners' major new contribution to the Honey Bear menu. A glass deli case lets you browse the items; you order at the cash register and set up your own spot at the table of your choosing. On our second visit to the Wallingford original, we ordered a slice of tomato-topped polenta ($3.50), a tomato-rice borek ($2.25), and one of the new grilled sandwiches, a pesto vegetable melt ($3.75). Eruptions of pleasant surprise ensued all around. The polenta, though on the heavy side, was quite good: studded with chiles and kernels of corn and nicely livened with plenty of cilantro. One cheeky companion insisted that carbon dating would fix this dish at 1972, but he meant no commentary on its execution: Flavor- and texture-wise, this vegetarian staple was just fine. Likewise the borek, a kind of flaky-crusted Turkish burrito. Plentifully stuffed with rice, tomatoes, black olives, and onions, this garlicky dish offered flavor enough and a delicate pastry. Best on this visit was the grilled sandwich, making use as it did of the Honey Bear's wonderful seed bread. Upon this flavorful base was a generous layer of good oil and a ragged dice of zucchini, red onions, and green peppers, all held together with a slather of pesto. Grilled to golden, this sandwich was really satisfying. Indeed, this much satisfaction at prices this reasonable was more than enough to make us overlook the various indignities of eating in a place without table service: setting our own table, nuking our own entr饳, replacing our "clean" fork with a clean fork, busing our own dishes. Amidst a crowd, these tasks can be logistically challenging, and it's a crapshoot whether you'll get any direction from the folks behind the counter. Some have been helpful, friendly, and terrific. (Word is that the new owners are uniquely enlightened, as coffeehouse owners go, offering employees good pay and exceptional benefits.) But more than once in recent weeks I've gotten polar glares from Wallingford Honey Bear staffers who seem annoyed by basic queries like "Do I pour my own coffee?" (yes, you do; it's over to the right; so's the milk). I guess that's one strategy for making regulars feel special: Treat the rest of the world like they're not members of your club. But again, this is the kind of insider treatment newcomers have forever received at Honey Bear—and, to be fair, other coffeehouses of its ilk. Again: Regulars, take heart. THE LAKE FOREST PARK Honey Bear is inside the enormous new Third Place Bookstore; all spit-and-polish compared to the love-worn original. Apart from that, the general setup is the same. (One gracious difference: Lake Forest Park will microwave your entr饠for you.) This time we started with a couple of salads: a refreshing cucumber-tomato-red-pepper-red-onion melange ($2.75/ $3.50), which was rather bland but for a heavy, heavy dose of dill; and a lip-smackin' little oiled bowtie pasta number ($2.75/$3.50) with basil and very good tomatoes. Our grilled sandwiches could have stood to linger a little longer on the grill, but were overall just as robust and delicious, on that wonderful bread, as our first: one with smoked turkey, cheddar cheese, avocado, and tomatoes ($5); another with prosciutto, provolone, arugula, and pesto ($5). We also tried a potato-skin half stuffed with a creamy potato mixture and topped with squash and peppers ($3.50), which was friendly of texture but critically flavorless. By contrast, a generous square of spinach-cheese pie ($3.50) was zingy and terrific. Desserts were also terrific: a tart, buttery lemon bar ($1.70); a moist and sufficiently sweet chocolate chip cookie ($1.30); a deeply rich chocolate brownie ($1.70). On our earlier visit to Wallingford we'd relished an extraordinary dessert called Basque cake, ($3.05) which is, on a literal level, a dense Bundt cake filled with a thick vein of custard; on a carnal level a thoroughgoing orgy of vanilla. We even ordered two specialty cakes from the Honey Bear's lengthy list of options (it took us a long time to settle on one lemon-curd-whipped cream cake, and one pear cassata cake with ricotta, candied ginger, and cream cheese frosting), just to see how this burgeoning aspect of the bakery's business would pan out. Weeeeeell . . . all right. The cakes were on time, as ordered, but not near as moist as freshly baked cakes ought to be. I guess that means that in some ways the new Honey Bear meets the expectations of its longtime habitu鳬 who appear to relish bland or mediocre food, and in other ways it exceeds the expectations of the picky critic who does not. Pretty smart corporation.

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