New owners have some big plans to restore West Seattle’s beacon of nautical kitsch—known for nearly six decades as the Admiral Benbow Inn, and more recently as the Heartland Café and Benbow Room.
The Admiral Benbow Inn never had any actual lodging—the name is a reference to Treasure Island, as well as a throwback to the days when most bargoers would get a reference to Treasure Island. Frances Farmer, the troubled and much-mythologized actress, drank at the bar. Mudhoney shot a video here. Activist Charlie Chong ran his city council campaign out of the back room.
Now, new owners Ian and Allison Hill are bringing back the Admiral Benbow name (but without the "Inn" part, to avoid confusion). Ian Hill says he and his wife are eager to add their own touch as they restore the Admiral Benbow's curious glory: "The history needs to be utilized and loved."
Inside, the building at 4210 SW Admiral Way looks like a prototype from Walt Disney’s earliest theme park planning session (the kind of session that happens after a few bourbons). There’s a koi pond built into the floor, and of course the dark bar in the building's midsection is tricked out like the business end of a pirate ship. Five years ago the restaurant in front became a diner serving Wisconsin-size helpings of fried cheese curds or tater tot casserole beneath a low-eaved cottagey exterior. It's a combination that makes no sense at all, but is unexpectedly charming even as it shows its age.
The rear section of the building, on the other hand, is more grotty rec room than midcentury time capsule. A jumble of tables, chairs, and speakers surround a small stage. There’s a pool table and a giant Captain Morgan poster on the wall. Which I guess is sort of nautical.
I mean this in the best possible way: The Hills don’t strike you as the sort of people who would run a pirate-themed establishment. Ian plays in three local bands (and made an early bid to buy the Comet). Allison helped open the Feedback Lounge (“That’s where I learned how to geek out about cocktails,” she says) and Locol Barley and Vine.
Hence the bar and live music situation will see some swift changes. Allison will be prepping housemade syrups, bitters, shrubs, and other tools that aid in the making of thoughtful classic cocktails. She promises the cheap beer won't go away; it will just get better. The room will see some aesthetic changes, but the ship stays. And yes, drink names will absolutely be nautical.
The music venue space in the back has six feet of concealed height lurking above the low-hung black ceiling tiles. The false ceiling will go, the sound system and general acoustics will be improved, and the Hills are building a proper three-foot stage. “It will be a legit West Seattle music venue,” says Ian. His financial arrangement isn’t the usual one—all the door money will go to bands, and Ian will help smaller acts put a bill together to bring in a good crowd. There’s also talk of some bigger acts playing secret shows here.
Eventually the restaurant up front will also undergo some refining (like adding vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options) but its soul will still be diner food. The little room tucked between galley and bar can hold private parties or beer, wine, or spirit dinners. The Hills want to resume the Admiral Benbow’s Friday prime rib dinners here, with tableside Caesar tossing and meat slicing. The West Seattle Herald has more details on the couple's plans.
The new owners (West Seattle residents, by the way) have been busy soliciting feedback from both longtime neighborhood residents who remember the Admiral Benbow's halcyon days, and newcomers who just want to find a good cocktail in the Admiral District. They're making their changes incrementally, starting with the music venue and working forward. Look for a grand reopening some time around June 1; by then the Hills hope the music venue will be rebuilt, the cocktail menu will be in place, and some changes will be apparent on the food menu.