From across the bar, beneath carved masks and glass buoys dangling from rope nets, a bartender clad in a dark Utilikilt won’t take his eyes off my tiki drink. “I don’t think you love it,” he insists. I protest that I like my mai tai just fine—the Plantation rum plays with the almond-tinged syrup for a complexity I wasn’t expecting from a beach bar staple. But he turns to pull another bottle from the wall anyway. “Let me try a daiquiri.”
I’m not sure this would ever happen in Seattle. High-minded cocktails, attentive service? Sure. But not this affable obsession over my measly $12 order in a themed bar. Here in Devil’s Reef, a fantastical Tacoma drinking hole open since early last year, I get no fewer than three expertly blended cocktails after ordering one. With dozens of rums at his disposal, says the beskirted bartender, he can do better than satisfactory. (He’s right, the daiquiri—not even on the menu—is frothy perfection.) To be honest, I’m mostly distracted by the seriously spooky Devil’s Reef decor, the shrunken heads and akimbo rods of bamboo rendering a kind of tiki gothic.
This town’s bad rap is so passe, it’s not even funny anymore; the industrial “aroma of Tacoma” is long gone, and the Tacoma Dome outlasted Seattle’s Kingdome. A few years ago, its story was the city’s embrace of Seattle institutions—it has its own Rhein Haus, its own Top Pot, its own Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max. But these days Tacoma revels in its own character.
Take this fall’s blockbuster offering at the Tacoma Art Museum, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Their Circle: French Impressionism and the Northwest. It’s hardly the first French Impressionism show in the area, admits executive director David F. Setford, but TAM uses its regional status to its advantage, borrowing exclusively from local sources. Works from famous painters sit in public and private collections all over the Northwest—“Who knew!” he says, joyfully—and form an intimate show that digs into the movement’s revolutionary roots.
Even better, the Monets center a triangle of exhibitions with unrivaled diversity: the new Benaroya glass art wing (open since January), a salute to The Simpsons filled with animation cels (through December 31), and a striking assemblage of Native American portraiture (through March). All in a museum compact enough to be fully explored in an afternoon.
When was the last time the Emerald City created anything as whimsical as the new outdoor slides of Point Ruston? Like a game of Chutes and Ladders come to life, six outdoor flights of stairs stack 50 feet uphill from the Point Defiance ferry terminal, flanked by six gleaming swoops. The all-ages playground overlooks the city’s newest park, colorfully named the Dune Peninsula after the sci-fi book written by Tacoma native Frank Herbert.
The city literally reshaped its smelly industrial past into this 11-acre teardrop of paved trails and manicured lawns, building atop a Superfund site. The ASARCO copper smelter that once stood here boasted the world’s tallest smokestack; now the park is a monument to rectifying environmental mistakes. Not that the waterfront is a downer; next door the new condo-and-commercial acres of Point Ruston pipe music into a waterfront plaza while harbor seals bob their heads in the waves.
The new development is a tiny flapping fin on the larger Point Defiance peninsula, location of the resurgent Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. Thanks to a slice of a $198 million bond measure, the animal haven opened its Pacific Seas Aquarium last year, home to hammerhead sharks and sea turtles. Across the zoo, in its second major fish tank, visitors can don a dry suit and drop into an underwater cage. Sand tiger, zebra, and black fin sharks glide past with prehistoric grace, a shockingly up-close sea life encounter that asks only $75 and an hour (and no experience).
Tacoma has gone all in on its saltwater roots. While Seattle sweeps bits of viaduct away from its neglected shore, here unbroken miles of waterfront parkland and eateries stretch north from downtown. Those paved trails? Ideal for the ubiquitous Lime electric scooters, something Seattle won’t get until next year.
If the Dune Peninsula is serious history reimagined for caprice, the new McMenamins Elks Temple in the middle of downtown is a somber shrine to the ridiculous. In April the 1916 beaux arts shell reopened as a hotel and music venue. In true McMenamins maximalist style, no less than seven chandeliers hang from the small lobby ceiling; dozens more fixtures glow in tight hallways, though guest rooms pair the chain’s signature hand-painted headboards with restrained lighting.
Other guests may have better luck finding Elks Temple’s hidden bar, one of four drinking holes inside the property’s multilevel labyrinth. I stumbled upon only a dead end of false doorways and a dozen doorknobs, with signs that read This Way?, That Way, and The Other Way in Alice in Wonderland–worthy absurdity. Washington’s second city found its niche in the Pacific Northwest with this sense of humor. Still waters may run deep, but below Tacoma’s placid, once-industrial surface, it’s a delight to discover its personality is positively weird.