Best Bars

The Smart Drinker’s Guide to Seattle

By James Ross Gardner, Jessica Voelker, and Christopher Werner April 21, 2009 Published in the May 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Do you tip more for a flaming drink than a bottle of beer?

WHERE TO GO, who to know, what to order (Hint: It’s all about classic cocktails). Seattle Met has the lowdown on the city’s 25 best bars right now. Plus, there’s a whole new deal at happy hour: High-value venues where you can snack and sip the best for less. And don’t miss Sauced serving up quality conversations with Seattle’s all-star bartenders.

This Ain’t Your Father’s Tini Bigs (It’s Jamie Boudreau’s)
Even Jamie Boudreau himself—cool, media savvy Jamie Boudreau—betrays a certain dismay at the fact that he’s at Tini Bigs, the Lower Queen Anne bar that, until he joined the staff eight months ago, was little more than a novelty lounge whose very name conjured an era when drinks were not taken so seriously. “It was sort of stuck in the ’90s,” Boudreau says, the vowels strained through a Canadian accent, “with really big, really juicy drinks.”

Not a natural fit for a chief instigator in that ever-growing cabal of young drink slingers who eschew party mixers (Sex on the Beach, appletini) and advance classics like the Manhattan and the old fashioned—drinks that celebrate spirits rather then masking them behind a cloak of fructose.

Lured here from Vancouver’s Lumiére—one of the spawning grounds of the BC cocktail revival—to head Seattle’s Vessel, Boudreau soon found himself in the middle of a management shake-up that left him barless. Then Tini Bigs’ Keith Robbins tracked him down. “The owner called me up. The goal was to do classic, alcohol-forward drinks.”

And that he has. Under the lounge’s ornate tin ceiling, Boudreau’s long, handsome face and black shirt slide back and forth behind the bar, arms flailing maestrolike, as he powers through antiques (Morning Glory, the Presbyterian) and originals (Jerry’s Ruin: spiced rum and hints of cranberry, lime, and cinnamon). The effect on the bar: “It’s not as packed as it used to be. We’re busy but not packed,” confesses Boudreau. But those patrons who do flock there—they aren’t drinking appletinis. You won’t either. Tini Bigs, 100 Denny Way, Lower Queen Anne, 206-284-0931;

The Doctor Will Serve You Now
Cap Hill cocktail cognoscenti, forgive our blabbing. But did you really expect us not to spotlight Erik Chapman, bar manager at Sun Liquor? The man is, after all, a gin genius whose made-from-scratch resurrections of old-school classics like the Martinez and the Corpse Reviver #2 will instantly become your new staples. Not sure what to order? Not a problem. It’s with enviable élan that Chapman greets noncommittal customers with “Well, whatare­yaintorightnow?” Give him one ingredient—bourbon, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, even coconut milk—and he’ll mix magic. And maybe it’s the caffeine kick he gets before every shift from nearby Top Pot, but the man loves to chat, and anyone looking for an eager ear finds it whenever Chapman’s behind the bar. As one regular put it: “He’s like the neighborhood doctor.” Sun Liquor, 607 Summit Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-860-1130;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide
{page break}

Some of Casey Robison’s mouth-watering mixed drinks.

Image: Barrio

The Redeemer
Say what you will about the “meh” food and the corporate vibe. At upscale Capitol Hill Mexican restaurant Barrio (a second branch in Bellevue is set to open soon) bar manager Casey Robison is serving up some seriously delicious south-of-the-border specialty drinks. Here, his tricks of the trade.

How do you know when you’ve got a winner? It takes a lot of experimentation; a lot of thought. With the Lado del Sur [Reposado tequila, mint, grapefruit, and lemon]—that’s my baby—I probably did 14, 15 variations before I figured out what I really liked. The pisco sour [pisco brandy, lemon, lime, grapefruit, honey, and egg white] was fairly intuitive.

You were the first to bring the Michelada—currently huge in NYC—to Seattle. How did you come up with your signature version? From my understanding, the Michelada comes out of Puerto Vallarta. The recipe is hot sauce, lime juice, beer, and salt on the glass’s rim. We took it a couple steps up and made a Spicy Maria-beer, a savory drink using housemade Bloody Mary mix, my own recipe of sangrita verde [tomatillo, jalapeño, onion, black pepper, and citrus], Carta Blanca beer, and Mexican sea salt, which is wet and flavorful.

Where does Barrio sit in the cocktail revolution sweeping Seattle? The best line I’ve ever heard was from Murray Stenson. He reminded me a long time ago that it’s the hospitality industry, not the cocktail industry. It’s about taking care of the people and making them happy, making their day better.
Barrio, 1420 12th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-588-8105 and 10650 NE Fourth St, Bellevue;

Something to Talk About?
Dives are great for rambunctious fun. Wrought-iron accented, dramatically lit cocktail bars are perfect for when you want to get your socialite on. But when it comes to truly unwinding we’ll take the Fireside Room, the octagonal lobby of Sorrento Hotel, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The drinks are strong (we like the Megan’s Manhattan or the Goose Hunt Martini), the conversation heavy (recently overheard: “I told her, ‘Don’t even come over, then’”), and the vibe intimate (lots of lovers staring longingly at each other on plush couches). Fireside Room, 900 Madison St, First Hill, 206-622-6400;

My Kid Could Pour That
After years of struggling to get a gallery on its feet, Erik Guttridge, an artist and former gallery worker, found the way: booze. So he sold his house to finance a space on Capitol Hill and in January 2008 opened Grey Gallery and Lounge different kind of bar, which, in addition to rotating exhibits of work by local artists every two months, features lectures, silk-screening parties, DJs, slide shows, and theater performances. An impressively stocked bar with three beers on tap and a menu including salads and savory and sweet organic whole-wheat crepes are enjoyed on salvaged black walnut and Douglas fir tables and a sprawling black leather couch. All combine to create, in Guttridge’s accurate estimation, a “community-centric melting pot of sight, sound, and really comfortable seating.” Grey Gallery and Lounge, 1512 11th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-325-5209;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide
{page break} 

Zig Zag Café’s famed bartender Murray Stenson (left) and fellow mix master Erik Hakkinen.

There’s new blood behind the bar at Zig Zag. Just don’t call him Murray Stenson’s apprentice.
“Oh, jeez. I learn as much from Erik as he learns from me.” That’s Murray Stenson, aka Mur the Blur, responding to the claim that he’s a mentor to yet another Seattle bartender, in this case fellow Zig Zag Café mixer Erik Hakkinen. The two pour some of the best drinks in Seattle at the Pike Place canteen—Stenson, the high priest of prodigious potations, a man most consider one of the best bartenders in America, Hakkinen a baby-faced newcomer many assume is an apprentice studying under the master.

Hogwash, says Stenson. “Erik’s very deceptive. He’s half my age. And he’s way knowledgeable.”

Hakkinen, 29, joined the staff in May 2007 after nearly a decade of slaving at downtown bars and restaurants—including a stint as a bar back at Typhoon, where he first met Stenson. He used to do what so many ambitious bartenders do in this city; he hung out at Zig Zag, whiling away the hours talking shop with Stenson and owners Ben Dougherty and Kacy Fitch. “I heard they were looking to add a new bartender,” recalls Hakkinen. “I expressed interest… and ended up being hired on.”

Though his powers are subtler than the miss-it-if-you-blink pyrotechnics of the Blur—he fittingly showed up for his shift last Halloween dressed as Clark Kent—Hakkinen is slowly becoming a legend himself, holding court among Zig Zag’s drink-nerd contingent, studious men who sit hunched over the bar filling notebooks, as if the bartender were some exotic bird whose behavior is yet to be understood.

Also, adds Stenson, “Erik brings in the girls.” Zig Zag Café, 1501 Western Ave, Ste 202, Pike Place Market, 206-625-1146;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide
{page break}

Prohibition-era cocktails at Knee High.

Seating Room Only
Speakeasies tend to conjure images of stuffed-to-the gills cellars filled with skinny-limbed ladies in flapper dresses mixing gin in the bathtub. But find yourself in one of New York City’s many modern-day underground clubs, and it’s all about calm conversation and bargain libations. And so it is at Knee High, Jack and Michelle Valko’s bitty little bar where Pike/Piners chat it up over cheese plates and spiced nuts and specialty drinks that start at $5. If the bartender looks familiar, you’re probably no newcomer to Seattle’s own speakeasy scene: Dalilah Rambo was the clandestine cocktail mixer at the much-missed McLeod Residence. Knee High, 1356 E Olive Way, Capitol Hill, 206-979-7049

What You Should Be Drinking, But Aren’t…Yet
Tequila. The thought sends your gag reflex trembling, right? Well, Quentin Ertel, owner of The Saint, thinks it’s time you got over that. In April 2008 the New York transplant transformed the former Wingdome on Olive Way into a teal matador-themed watering hole. His mission: tequila salvation. “The goal was to do something that elevates tequila. It hasn’t been given its proper form yet,” Ertel explains. “If you look at tequila for what it is, it’s not just Cuervo Gold and vomiting—it’s elegant.”

Thanks to an arsenal of 85 top-notch blue agave bottles with accompanying sangrita chasers (a little-used mix of orange, lime, and tomato juice, kosher salt, black pepper, and Tapatio) and “I’ll-have-what-he’s-having” cocktails like El Santo (one of the best made-from-scratch margaritas you’ll ever have) and the Angelflower (Patron, fresh mint, homemade blue agave syrup, and cucumber), Ertel’s revolution is slowly sweeping Seattle. In fact, only 3 percent of the Saint’s liquor sales aren’t tequila related, he says. And if you need more proof that “to-kill-ya” has hit the mainstream, witness new agave-centric Lost Lady American Cantina in downtown’s corporate restaurants corridor. If the suity happy hour crowd at Sixth and Union is drinking it, you can, too. The Saint, 1416 E Olive Way, Capitol Hill, 206-323-9922;

More Room at the Inn
There was a time not too long ago when the Virginia Inn, one of Seattle’s oldest bars, was the kind of place where twentysomethings ironically slummed. You know these joints: Hoodies and patchy facial hair at the bar alongside grizzled old timers, everyone drinking Rainier. Then owners Patrice Demombynes and Jim Fotheringham renovated the bar they’d run for 27 years, expanding the space with a dining area and ditching the beer signs that made the youngsters feel so cool.

When the VI reopened in March 2008 many of the kids fled for grimier Belltown canteens. What they left behind was a French-meets-Northwest bistro and bar that outclasses some of the best restaurants in the city, a place that hosts, says Demombynes, “an eclectic collection” of tourists (the patio is the best perch in the city from which to behold Puget Sound), architects in angular eyewear (there’s a firm across the street), and, yes, a few of those hoodied bar stool excursionists, who, if they’ve wised up at all, are too busy devouring moules frites and sauvignon blanc to pine for Virginia’s divier days. Virginia Inn, 1937 First Ave, Belltown, 206-728-1937;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide
{page break}

A Seattle ‘Fleet Fox’—a common sight at Redwood.

Five Ways to Look Like a Redwood Regular
1. Dress the part. Redwood, a former Laundromat hidden on Howell Street, is where Seattle’s Fleet Fox–folk flock. Read: The skinnier your skinnies, the chunkier your faux grandma glasses, the bushier your beard, the better. 2. Do not compare to Linda’s. Make your way past the sourpuss bouncer (try and make him smile; seriously, just try it), and once inside, keep the obligatory “Huh, this reminds me a lot of Linda’s” to yourself. Yes, there are antlers, but only Redwood can boast that towering, spray-painted mural of a bear and a bar accented with rows of bullet casings. 3. Plug the jukebox—with a mix of modern and classic rock; it’s arguably the best in town. 4. Drink what they’re drinking. This is not a martini bar, people. Order a pitcher from one of seven taps, or try a whiskey sweet tea. If you are strong of stomach (and weak of palate), go with the house favorite, Old Crow. Then hunker down with a bowl of peanuts or some down-home, Southern-style comfort food like green-bean casserole or creamed-corn nuggets. 5. Toast part owner Mat Brooke. After leaving indie super group Band of Horses, the current guitarist for Grand Archives founded Redwood in 2006. Mat: You may have missed out on some serious royalties, but cheers to you for creating our favorite hipster haunt. Redwood, 514 E Howell St, Capitol Hill, 206-329-1952;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide
{page break}

A pearl of a place: Pearl Bar and Dining in Bellevue

The New Eastside Story
In the beginning there was Bellevue, a little city with a ragged skyline of towers anchored by eateries splashed with neon and conceived by men in corporate boardrooms. Then came Seattle hospitality vet Mikel Rogers and chef Bradley Dickinson to rescue the people from menus and floor plans and servers that looked the same in Bellevue as they did in Bakersfield or Dallas. They opened Pearl Bar and Dining in November 2008. In back, Dickinson dished Northwest fare. Up front, Rogers lorded over the bar. Concoctions like the Perfect Pearl Martini (with Spokane-distilled Dry Fly vodka) and the Shiso Wild Drop (shiso leaves ground with huckleberry sugar and wild berry vodka) lured patrons, who beheld the silvery, spangled scene—the shimmering glass sculpture, the speckled bar top reflecting galaxies of light. All this gave the impression that one was not just a warm body with a credit card, but special, a pearl sitting inside an oyster shell. And these patrons, these acolytes of this new oyster cult, drained the spirits from their glasses and thanked the heavens for Pearl. Pearl Bar and Dining, 700 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, 425-455-0181;

A Little Mystery 
Know what? We’re not even going to tell you the best thing about The Buck, the cowboy-themed bar that opened on the hill last September. Because the best thing about the Buck isn’t the thin-crust pizza, the boot-shaped shot glasses made for throwing back whiskey, or the way your Olympia arrives in a mug frostier than a Ford Bronco’s windshield on a Wyoming winter’s day. The best thing about the Buck, the thing that encapsulates the overall playfulness of the place—even more than the log-cabin paneling or the servers’ habit of climbing into the booth with you—is in the restroom. Yes, the restroom, the one to the left, to be exact. Go. Look. And you’ll keep coming back, partner. The Buck, 1506 E Olive Way, Capitol Hill, 206-329-2493;

Drinks Lab 
You go to Canlis when Grandma turns 90, when Cousin Fred makes partner, when the divorce papers are final. You do not go to Canlis for experimental cocktails. But you should. Because back in the lounge, bartender James MacWilliams is quietly leeching phenolphthalein from fruit skins, steeping botanicals in special stills to create potent oils, cooking garnishes sous vide on his induction burner. The results—drinks that change color, consistency, and taste as you sip them—are simply not to be missed. Canlis, 2576 Aurora Ave N, Queen Anne, 206-283-3313;

Raising the Bar Fare
Maybe it’s an ante raiser born from the law requiring them to serve food, but for some reason Seattle bars serve up some of the world’s best pub grub. Case in point: Oliver’s Twist, where chef Dan Braun (he co-owns with Sarah Braun) is quietly redefining fun food. How we could go on about dipping the mini grilled cheese sandwich into a foamy tomato soup “cappuccino”; smothering fingerling potatoes dripping with duck fat in homemade aioli, and finishing the meal off with a melty chocolate-and-marshmallow-brioche sandwich. If we weren’t so distracted by Braun’s bites, we’d surely be gushing over the drinks named for Dickens characters (Mr. Sowerberry packs a puckery grapefruit punch). Made with fresh herbs and juices, they are, in a word, perfection. Oliver’s Twist, 6822 Greenwood Ave N, Phinney Ridge, 206-706-6673;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide

{page break}

JJ Wandler and fellow Gainbourgian Clarita Hinojosa at the Greenwood watering hole.

Growing Up Gainsbourg
“It’s our baby,” says Hannah Levin, a KEXP DJ and Seattle Weekly rock journalist. “It’s a chain-smoking, alcoholic baby, but it’s still our baby.” She’s talking about Gainsbourg, the Greenwood “French tapas” bar she recently opened with longtime Seattle bartender J. J. Wandler. To get this baby up and crawling, the couple called upon friends. Jake Nelson, props guy at Teatro Zinzanni, sewed the brocade curtain toppers lining the front windows. Antique chrome bar stools—the sort you simply must spin around on—were a gift from Max Genereaux, owner of Sunset Tavern. Scott Kannberg, erstwhile Pavement guitarist, became the café’s third partner, forking over much-needed funds. Musicians traveling through town quietly perform unannounced secret shows, lending Gainsbourg a certain cool-kid cachet. But, says Levin, Gainsbourg is not just “some hipster bar.” “She comes in every day,” she says, waving toward a gray-haired neighborhood woman who sits perched at the bar reading a novel, a glass of riesling resting on the counter beside her. Gainsbourg, 8550 Greenwood Ave N, Greenwood, 206-781-2224;

Essential Drinking 
Want the best cocktail experience in Seattle? Stand up. Grab this magazine. Go to Ballard. Go to Hazlewood. Order the Hazlewood, invention of part-owner Drew Church. It’s Bushmills, honey peppermint tea, and a splash of amaretto, garnished with a Theo Chocolates truffle and Nat Sherman ciggy. Carry your drink upstairs. No spilling—this concoction set you back $10. Sink into a plush sofa. Recommence reading magazine. Drink drink. Eat chocolate. Close magazine. Walk out onto Market Street. Light cigarette or just give it a deep sniff. Smell those cloves. Relish, and repeat. Hazlewood, 2311 NW Market St, Ballard, 206-783-0478;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide
{page break}

Image: Vessel

The Best Drinks Menu in Town
And by that we mean actual menu, as in the physical 16-page menu Vessel keeps at its tables. The lounge itself is a sort of shrine to 1862’s The Bar-Tender’s Guide author Jerry Thomas, for whom it held a party this past Presidents Day. The menu, meanwhile, traces the history of American cocktails (“The Sazerac dates back to 1838 and is credited with being the first American cocktail”). So you can order a Morning Glory (“At the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, Thomas was earning $100 a week, more than the Vice President of the United States”) and sip it while poring over the stories behind each drink. And if that isn’t enough time to boost your cocktail comprehension, just ask. The bar will gladly print you a copy. Vessel, 1312 Fifth Ave, Downtown, 206-652-0521;

We Still Love the Lava Lounge (and You Should, Too)
It’s been around forever. It’s a little bit too dark, and a lot too dingy. So why is the Lava Lounge still your best bet for a night out in Belltown?

The Crowd: In a city where neighborhood lines are drawn like EU territories, the Lava overflows with a confluence of Seattle cultures. Queeny fashionmongers mingle with girls in American Eagle; nerds hunkered over computers sit alongside gruff old-timers in biker jackets. There’s lamé ladies and Polo preps right next to scruffy (and sketchy) old men. People-watchers, behold your paradise.

The DJs: Whether your flavor’s Hall and Oates, Motown, or Millenium Hip-Hop Party (you know, that 1999 compilation with Dre, Tone-Loc, and Grandmaster Flash), thanks to the always-reliable playlists, every night you’re here, you’re bumpin’.

The Tiki Kitsch: The Gilligan’s Island pinball machine is just the beginning. Nowhere else in Seattle will you find the tiki aesthetic so expertly and enticingly executed. Many a Hawaiian garage sale must have been raided to stock this 14-year-old treasure chest. Lava Lounge, 2226 Second Ave, Belltown, 206-441-5660;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide
{page break}

A pairing paradise: Quinn’s gastropub on Capitol Hill

Pair Up 
Like to eat where you drink? Quinn’s Gastropub is nothing short of a pairing paradise. Regan Vaughn, Quinn’s wine guy, recommends ordering a glass of Domaine Alary, a white Rhône from Southern France, with the pork pâté—the wine’s acidity cuts delightfully through the piggy richness of the pâté. General manager Roddy Lindquist, meanwhile, suggests sampling the hot-cold, spicy-citrus combo that is fried frog legs smothered in hot sauce washed down with an Allagash White, a Belgian-style wheat beer from Portland, Maine. Quinn’s Gastropub, 1001 E Pike St, Capitol Hill, 206-325-7711;

It Sparkles, Shimmers, Shines
A far cry from the rollicking dives one block over, Capitol Hill’s newest hangout is also its prettiest. Tucked up a flight of stairs across the hall from the Century Ballroom (dance instructor extraordinaire Hallie Kuperman owns both), restaurant and champagne lounge The Tin Table is a word-of-mouth wonder bathed in a sparkly glow of candlelight that adds a warming shimmer to the long metallic bar and bounces playfully against the variously shaped stemware lined up along a glass wall near the entrance. The Tin Table, 915 E Pine St, second floor, Capitol Hill, 206-320-8458;

Heart of the Hood
Back in March, we were shaken to learn that Linda Derschang’s latest venture, Oddfellows Café and Bar, had lost chef and cofounder Ericka Burke. Bringing in Burke—she of Volunteer Park Café fame—was, we thought, the whole point of this node in the Derschang empire (which includes King’s Hardware, Smith, Rob Roy, and Linda’s Tavern). Good thing Derschang still knows how to make a place ooze with ambience—big airy space, repurposed wood tables, shelves of old-timey soda pop bottles. And when she refers to Oddfellows, a hangout as equally inviting for a midmorning latte as it is for rowdy rounds in the wee hours, as “Capitol Hill’s living room,” well, we tend to agree. Oddfellows Café and Bar, 1525 10th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-325-0807;

The New Deals: Our Happy Hour guide

Show Comments