The historic Hotel Sorrento in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district has long attracted explorers and eccentrics. Apparel merchant Samuel Rosenberg built the Sorrento in 1909, but ran into financial difficulties soon after opening and decided agriculture was more to his taste. So he traded his new hotel for a 240-acre orchard along the Rogue River in Oregon.
A frequent visitor in the 1930s, Alice Toklas lived nearby in the wealthy First Hill neighborhood. Toklas was a patron and the companion of Gertrude Stein, whom she met in Europe. The two concocted the idea for Stein to write “The Autobiography of Alice Toklas” as something that might be a commercial success, which Stein desperately needed at the time. The book was a hit and Toklas also became a celebrity with the its success.
The Feel of Old Seattle at the Hotel Sorrento
The couple lived in Paris until Stein’s death in 1946. After Stein’s passing Toklas needed to make a living of her own. So drawing on lessons she had absorbed from Stein she wrote and published “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook”. One recipe became quite famous: a brownie containing nuts, fruit, spices, and marijuana. Yes, long before the drug wars of the 1980s marijuana was a quaint little herb whose medicinal qualities were quite commonly and happily used for all manner of ailments.
Speaking of good vibes, Ms. Toklas may have neglected to ever check out of the Sorrento. Reports of a female “ghost” occur regularly in and around room 408 and her presence is part of the hotel’s lore. To make Alice feel right at home the ground floor watering hole, the Dunbar Room, created a special cocktail in her honor. It’s a fresh concoction of elderflower, chamomile, honey, lemon juice and Lucid Absinthe Supérieuree. Give it a try. Maybe Alice will join you.
There were several owners at the Sorrento over the years and the hotel slowly sank into relative obscurity. But with a recent change in management and a top-to-bottom refresh, the Sorrento is back in top form again.
Fortunately, the years of neglect meant that the Sorrento never suffered from any late 20th century “modernization”. So most of what you see today is original 1909 construction and interiors. It’s a fascinating snapshot of Seattle from over 100 years ago, when the Puget Sound and Olympics were laid out without interruption on the hotel’s front doorstep.
The ground floor “Fireside Room”, with its distinctive Honduran wood paneling and grand green tiled fireplace depicting scenes from the serene Italian countryside, is worth a visit even if you are not staying at the hotel. For guests and neighborhood visitors alike it’s a great place to hang out, meet friends, or take in one of Sorrento’s events, which range from Jazz Combos to up-and-coming young singers. The events are free, so what are you waiting for!
Drawing on Sorrento’s more recent history, the lobby bar/bistro, the Dunbar Room, got its name from a ‘60s restaurant that used to occupy the top floor. Now with a new interior of black painted brick walls, Moroccan tiles, and classic Bistro furniture, it’s a place in which Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas might well have felt quite at home.
Most importantly, the 76 rooms at the Sorrento are “20th century” sized, as opposed to the miniature spaces common in new hotels. Beds are naturally super comfortable.
We settled into the Fireside Room with a seat by the fire and spent the afternoon making our way through the scrumptious afternoon tea. With strength gathered, we headed out to explore around the hotel in the fabulous Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
The Sorrento is a four-star hotel and a great value for a short getaway. Check online for special offers. In addition to Dunbar, nearby are many great places to eat, drink and experience the Seattle sights. For a listing of free concerts in the Fire Room, check the Culture Hub section of Sorrento’s website www.hotelsorrento.com. Stay tuned for more Seattle stories coming soon.
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger