Image: Jeremy Novak
The sleek and new vs the dirty and mysterious.

In case you somehow haven’t heard, Capitol Hill has a Mystery Coke Machine. This graffiti-covered curiosity sits on the sidewalk outside of the Broadway Locksmith on John Street and has drawn double takes for over a decade.

The main mystery is who stocks the thing since the locksmith denies involvement and at 75 cents a pop it’s spitting out barely-cooled cans well below market price. The charm lies in a trio of buttons labeled  “?Mystery?” that deliver random sodas from Raspberry Nestea to Mountain Dew Code Red. 

This machine has experienced a recent round of media attention. So. MuchAttention. And it's questionable how much of the mystery is a marketing strategy. There's a QR code on one of the buttons. Scan it and the machine tries to add itself to your contacts—a little forward if you’re just meeting—but reveals more than 14,000 likes on Facebook. (More than most any Seattle restaurant, roughly one eighth as many as the Space Needle.) So why the craze?

I visited the Mystery Coke Machine and its antithesis, the sleek and endlessly customizable Coca Cola Freestyle machine in the Broadway Pagliacci Pizza, which has its own fan base and 186,000 Facebook likes (but for over 3,000 machines) to size up their respective hype, see what each can reveal about the changing face of Capitol Hill, and of course to down some carbonated beverages:

Mystery Coke Machine

Coke, QR code, ?Mystery?

On a drizzly night I approached with two friends and a pocket full of quarters awkwardly exchanged at Starbucks. Someone considered just pushing the button labeled “coke” but was easily convinced to pick “?Mystery?”.

The Vibe: Strangely exciting, a bit like unwrapping a gift, one you know is book shaped, but still which one? The machine blessed me with an Orange Crush, and I’d have felt silly celebrating audibly if my companions hadn’t done the same for their Mountain Dew and Sierra Mist. I got another can, an orange Fanta, which convinced us that the machine was in tune with my desires. 

The Value: Easily worth $1.50 for two cans, but even cheaper for the experience. I’ve never felt the least bit thrilled purchasing soda. I’ve never called friends to partake. The cans were clean, but after touching the buttons I had a nagging desire to wash my hands (or maybe shower). But isn’t that often a sign you’ve had fun? 

Coca Cola Freestyle Machine

Over 100 flavor combinations.

Strolling along Broadway, I popped into Pagliacci for a quick slice, and I found the skinny silver tower with a glowing touchscreen interface. 

The Vibe: Sterile but pleasing. There were many options. I selected Sprite, was offered multiple flavor shots, and clearly chose orange.

The Value: $2 was steep. Even with the flavor shot and what I decided were free refills. But it was clean, convenient, and by many standards a “better” experience. It gave me exactly what I wanted, but a mystery was exactly what I had ordered the night before, and Coke Freestyle could never supply anything but a customizable yet totally predictable experience. 

The Final Comparison

The Mystery Coke Machine is like the bar that you love with the world's slowest service, the club that’s filthy—and actually come to think of it has terrible speakers too—but you’re drawn to not only despite these qualities but also because of them. For some reason the fastest, the cleanest, the newest isn’t always the best, and like the Hill itself, grittiness and mystery can diminish as more people seek it out. 

I think of the reopening of the notoriously grimy Comet Tavern and the online backlash to its serious cleansing and makeover. It will be “nice” to not leave with beer-soaked shoes, but is that really what you’re looking for when you visit the Comet?    

The shiny and the new have been moving into the neighborhood for a while and show no signs of stopping. And this has its upsides. I haven’t gotten a customized Sprite that quickly ever before. But there’s something to be said for mystery, written with two question marks in a clown/serial killer font.

One was an adventure that could only happen in this specific corner of Seattle and brought me out on a damp Tuesday for exploration. The other was a carefully crafted encounter. But both were exactly what they promised.    

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