The red neon sign in the window announces that Olive Way’s new deli is “Open Late.” Indeed. The white-tiled room puts on a convincing show—meat slicer, Macrina loaves. But most customers at By the Pound on Capitol Hill know it’s a front. The metal door that suggests a walk-in cooler from an old-school butcher shop is actually a portal to a cocktail bar. “You make a reservation on OpenTable,” the sandwich dude explains as he assembles my ham and brie. “Then they send you a password.”
A secret bar that’s on OpenTable? Oh boy.
Forget Prohibition. Seattle’s speakeasy heyday is the bygone era of 2009-ish, when just about every detail-oriented craft cocktail program in the city concealed its coupes and housemade bitters behind a poorly marked door. Actual 1920s speakeasies sound a little like drinking in high school: Slug down gnarly swill in whatever undesirable location ensured the cops wouldn’t show up. Fancy latter-day versions have become easy shorthand for the arm-gartered pretension that sometimes infects craft cocktail programs. But the crowds at other local places like Needle and Thread or Bathtub Gin can attest that drinking in a concealed space never lost its thrill.
When I arrive for a Thursday-evening reservation, nobody ever actually asks for my password. By the Pound has some ownership in common with the overly bedecked Alchemy Bar in West Seattle and SoDo uberclub Aston Manor. But this sequestered room is actually quite handsome. The art deco chandeliers and walls full of liquor, vintage news clippings, and bound volumes are equal parts Al Capone and Ron Burgundy.
The bartender is incredibly hospitable, considering he’s the only person making drinks and taking food orders (deli sandwiches, of course) in this compact but full room, plus a group carrying on in a private room behind a false bookcase. I order a Ren McCormick—a gentle combo of bourbon (washed with bacon because mixology), sherry, and demerara sugar. The bacon garnish seems more Instagram bait than effective flavor enhancement.
Groups banter in tufted black booths; the two guys talk vacation plans. Did all these people actually make reservations and give a password? The bartender attends to the tipsy guy who just walked in a street-facing side door, passwords and portals be damned, and a woman hoping for a drink, even though she doesn’t have an OpenTable account. If the clandestine aspect of Prohibition-styled bars was tenuous a decade ago, social media has rendered any pretense of actual secrecy straight-up comedic.
And there’s the inherent irony of the modern-day speakeasy: With so many bars out there competing for customers, staying out of sight might be the best way to get people in the door.
Checking in with Seattle’s speakeasy bars.
Needle and Thread
Tavern Law—the best known of the city’s late-aughts speakeasies—changed owners a few years back. You still access the hidden upstairs bar, Needle and Thread, through a bank vault door; in lieu of a drink menu, bartenders still ask your preferences and whip up cocktails accordingly. But now reservation details are clearly laid out on the website.
Forget that ill-marked Belltown alleyway entrance—this bar’s charm has always been careful drinks and the tiny, two-level layout. Over the years, though, Bathtub’s reputation grew, but capacity did not. Now there’s often a line, and even a door guy.
The door on Olive Way now has a sign, and Knee-High now serves brunch, though the menu’s unexpected Filipino inflections retain an element of surprise.
The name kind of gives away the speakeasy aspect, but this fantastically decorated watering hole behind Roxy’s Diner has evolved from faux secret to Fremont staple, complete with a food menu big enough to furnish a full-on dinner.