The menu at No Anchor described one beer, a saison from Baltimore brewery Stillwater, as an “escape to a meadow in spring.” Our server’s description, however, was more prosaic: “It’s very chuggable.”
Chuggable isn’t a word you’ll usually hear in a serious beer bar. Much less at the sort of place that serves its drafts at a precise 42 or 52 degrees, depending on the style. Where bartenders mist the inside of each long-stemmed glass to control the beer’s release of carbon dioxide bubbles, and a quick whisk of a foam scraper tidies things up after each pour.
In Seattle, beer has ascended from subculture to identity: You can get a quality local pour at even the diviest of bars. Bottle shops and taprooms are kid- and dog-friendly third places. Canlis curates bottles of uncommon Belgian sour ales alongside cabernet and burgundies.
But Belltown’s new beer destination does something different: No Anchor gives beer the same micronuanced treatment now inherent to craft cocktails. Those precision draft pours are designed to show off the contents of each glass at its best, not unlike an old-fashioned with hand-hewn ice cubes or a martini with a sensory-activating citrus twist.
Cocktails usually keep company with stylish rooms, tableside service, and interesting plates. Beer can have nice things, too, says co-owner Chris Elford, though he works mightily to avoid any whiff of pretension (you probably won’t notice all the glass misting and foam scraping unless you look for it). No Anchor’s walls are paneled with walnut, and curio cabinets are filled with old skulls and vintage jars. When Spur, one of the city’s seminal cocktail destinations closed, No Anchor snapped up its chef, Jeffrey Vance, who delivers the rugged, salty-savory pleasures of bar fare, but in sophisticated dishes that look like art.
Most visitors order an earthenware bowl of hen of the woods mushrooms, whose lacy edges were seemingly born for a good tempura fry. Radishes don’t sound particularly decadent until their crunch hits the pool of parmesan custard for dipping. Russian-style pelmeni dumplings made violet with clarified beet juice deliver comforting bursts of potato and housemade cheese. Instead of fries, the shrimp and dungeness crab rolls come with a side of ketchup chips, that Canadian favorite, which Vance makes with dehydrated ketchup (he turns it into a powder with liquid nitrogen). Much like the bartenders quietly spritzing and scraping each pour, the chef uses a lot of modernist technique designed to go unnoticed.
Beer selections come from all over and include some astonishingly rare drafts; the hoppy stuff is mostly local to ensure maximum freshness, and for every off-the-wall option there’s an equally easy-drinking pale ale.
The bar has a relatively restrained 17 beer taps, the contents of which are plotted on a grid, from approachable to esoteric and modern to traditional. “Obviously that’s all pretty subjective,” a bartender named Zack acknowledges one night as I sat on a stool before him. He uses the chart to help divine whether customers want more of a chin-strokingly complex trophy beer—perhaps an unusual collaboration saison stout out of Montreal’s Dieu du Ciel brewery, made with Japanese hops—or the sort of straightforward lager that recedes into the background of a good conversation. (Either way, ask for the smaller four-ounce pours for maximum exploration and/or minimum intoxication.)
What No Anchor doesn’t have is a full bar; just a rotating list of carefully chosen spirits. Elford worked at a few well-regarded East Coast beer bars, but his cocktail bona fides—Canon, New York’s Amor y Amargo—run as deep as those of his wife and business partner, Anu (formerly Apte), who is also the longtime owner of Rob Roy. The couple is opening a tiki bar, Navy Strength, next door later this year.
There’s geekery afoot here for sure, but Elford says he designed No Anchor for diners and drinkers who like beer but don’t spend their free time collecting barrel-aged imperial stouts—people who respond to words like chuggable instead of its beer cognoscente synonym, sessionable. In his years making cocktails, Elford learned that the entrenched aficionados already know what they want; it’s the neophytes who want to engage. “They’re also the most turned off if we have a snooty attitude about it.”
Just like Rob Roy, No Anchor manages to present a lot of expertise without giving off that Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons–vibe. Mostly it’s just straight-up hospitality—the bartender who asks how your night’s going, the server who can discuss wild yeast strains and keeps water glasses scrupulously refilled. No Anchor is the only beer bar I’ve ever seen offer tampons in the bathroom.
In other words, maybe the best way to cultivate future beer geeks is to not to be overly geeky about it.