If Baz Luhrmann's 2013 The Great Gatsby boondoggle were a cocktail lounge, it might feel a lot like Dead Line, the Pioneer Square cocktail lounge that opened this July. A heavy dose of art-deco glitz—most manifest in the big gilded chandeliers and the two-story mirrored wall of liquors, complete with rolling ladder—imbues the space. There’s a mezzanine with a second bar and velvety old chairs, and an area called the “Gold Room” beneath, which is largely used for private events. Blues rock—Jimi Hendrix, the Black Keys—plays. The bar is underlit and the floors are nice dark wood and there’s a large teal booth that looks readymade for gussied-up thirtysomethings to squeeze into and order bottles of your best champagne!
When my tie-and-vest-uniformed server arrived with my Dead Line cocktail, he told me to shine my phone’s flashlight into the drink from above. I did so: the black drink’s surface glittered.
“Cool. What is that?"
“Gold flakes,” he said.
I took a sip and the drink’s visual pizazz carried on beautifully at first, a daiquiri-like acid hit (sour pineapple and lime), mezcal’s smoke, Chartreuses’s herbal wallop, all nicely balanced. Then that sip ended and the activated charcoal that gives the drink its color left a grainy texture. When you begin the drink, this isn’t so off putting; a little grit never hurt anyone. But as you proceed, the sediment settles so that the last sips become visibly viscous and feel downright chalky, and you’re left with the impression that the drink was made more for an Instagram feed than consumption.
That cocktail makes perhaps a little too much metaphorical sense—a pretty thing that leaves a needlessly bad taste in your mouth—when you learn that Dead Line takes its name from Yesler Way’s old nickname, a "dead line" that, according to the bar's website, divides “the privileged north of the city from the poverty and vice to the south. Our name represents the space where all walks of life interacted; grim reality and humility entwined with privilege and opulence.”
Beyond the hugely questionable conflation of poverty with authenticity or humility (a problem that was even more blatant in their early story section), what’s odd about Dead Line is that there’s little apparent “entwining” of privilege and poverty: that Dead Line cocktail runs $15, and after tax and a 20 percent tip, cost nearly $20. Now, I dig glitz, especially in this town where it can feel like there's a city ordinance against covering a concrete floor or the ceiling's duct work. But why pretend that $20 for a drink that is literally garnished with gold is anything but a privilege or that "all walks of life" might interact here—especially in the neighborhood that still so blatantly juxtaposes MacBook-toting chic with our city's homelessness crisis?
If you talk with the anonymous owner, he'll tell you the humility is manifest in service (which is true) and in the staff's work in the neighborhood at places like Union Gospel Mission (which is noble) and in a malt liquor flight (which is tasteless).
But for the average patron such motives may feel a little abstract, and the only thing that digresses faintly from the highlife theme is the food menu: nine or so small plates of Latin American comfort food plated with arty glee: tacos, carne a la brasa, a dessert tamale. At $5, an order of arepitas seems humble as cocktail bar food, but then the plate arrives and the class divide reasserts itself: seven small fried cornmeal pucks atop a swipe of tomatillo aioli, a nest of pickled red onions, a dab of red pepper aioli. (They are, however, along with fries and housemade tortillas, free at happy hour.)
Of course, one person’s Baz Luhrman is another’s F. Scott Fitzgerald. Slipped behind my receipts was a card for a “Gatsby-themed New Year’s Eve Bash.” The party shares its title, “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody,” with a Fergie song from that movie’s soundtrack. If you yearn for a dip into the gilded pseudopast, sure, head to Dead Line. Me? I'll be across the street for The Sovereign's fun, funky take on art deco.