Bartenders are talking about it across the city. When craft drinking culture—beer and cocktails—blossomed a decade or so ago, it took itself very seriously, often at the expense of hospitality. Great cocktails take a long time to make, it seemed to say. Good authentic beer comes from spartan industrial spaces.
Now the pendulum swings back. Bars are making a comeback: not cocktail lounges, not speakeasies, not taprooms—bars. Just check out Belltown’s revitalized Second Avenue: Neon Boots, Screwdriver (technically First Avenue), Bar Abajo, Jupiter. In each the emphasis lands on atmosphere; they're places to meet people. Even the technically precise beer and cocktail offerings at No Anchor and Navy Strength are presented with nonchalance and affability.
“I’ve worked in some really serious places, and there’s definitely a shushing element,” says Chris Elford, who co-owns No Anchor and Navy Strength, and who’s worked at Canon and New York’s Amor y Amargo. He says they’ve had complaints about Navy Strength being too loud or rowdy in atmosphere for a place making serious cocktails. “But we’re like, 'That’s good. We’re drinking. Let’s have fun.'”
Over in the Central District, Standard Brewing’s new space evinces the shift too. These days, it feels almost strange for a smaller brewery to open a brewpub, instead of opting for the food-truck-and-beer-only model. That’s all some startup breweries can afford, of course, but huddling in the rain for an order of fries, and then heading back into an unheated brewery to drink cold beer, your jacket still on and now humid—it isn’t the most welcoming experience.
“It surprised me a little that some folks thought it a was an odd idea,” says Justin Gerardy, Standard’s owner . “It’s actually one of the oldest models.” The Elysian brewpub on Capitol Hill is the same, he notes.
There’s no cocktail menu at Standard, and Gerardy is clear that liquor is not the focus: “We’re a brewery first, second, and third.” But if you’re feeling a martini or a glass of wine—instead of a beer from the 12 taps—much of the staff comes from restaurants and cocktail bars, they’re happy to accommodate. There’s a small, sandwich-centric menu from David Gurewitz—formerly the chef at Mamnoon, who’s also done stints at Little Uncle and Lark. The sandwiches roam from conventional—tuna melt, muffuletta—to lightly curious: braised tofu with tomato, mayo, and furikake.
The vibe tends toward comfort and invitation. Burnished light over a finished bar. Heat lamps warm the covered seating outside. Grilled cheese, pickle plate, potato chips scooped (with charming nonchalance) from a 5-gallon bucket, a bowl of lentil soup. I stopped by with a few friends I hadn’t seen in weeks. We griped about work, talked about the OutKast on the stereo, James Franco acting with himself on The Deuce. The beer came up a few times—a very good saison, a gooseberry sour, a Russian imperial stout with weird Nyquil notes upfront—and then receded again. Neither bar nor wheel has been reinvented, but why should we have anything against either?