Secret Service

Speakeasy-style bar owners find hush-hush brings big buzz.

By Jessica Voelker October 23, 2009 Published in the November 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Tub club Belltown’s Bathtub Gin lives up to its name.

SEVERAL TIMES EACH WEEKNIGHT (and much more often on weekends) people walk into Txori, the Basque tapas joint on Second Avenue in Belltown, turn to the line cooks stationed near the entrance, and ask where Bathtub Gin is. “Around the corner and in the alley,” the cooks reply, sometimes two in unison, rarely bothering to look up from the oil spitting out of their frying pans. It’s a scenario Marcus Johnson probably didn’t envision when he chose Bathtub Gin and Co.’s limited signage: one small plaque affixed to the wall next to an otherwise unadorned entrance between First and Second avenues on Blanchard Street. But he did intend to make it hard to find. “Seattle’s a Scorpio kind of town,” says Johnson, who owns the brick-walled bar, a former boiler room, with his girlfriend, Jessica Gifford. “If you make something hidden, people will want to go.”

It seems he is on to something. There are three new speakeasy-style bars in Seattle, defined as such by their incognito digs, by their menus full of whimsically monikered pre-Prohibition cocktails, and by the baited breath with which nightlife types await their openings.

The first was Knee High Stocking Co. Unveiled last March in the Olive Way space that formerly housed Il Forno Pizzeria, Knee High is the progeny of Jack and Michelle Valko. The Valkos tore out the pizzeria’s kitchen and built a new one. They painted the walls (leaving a mural of snogging cherubs intact). They hung a dark velvet curtain around the entrance. Evenings, Jack Valko sits inside this curtained area, checking IDs and ushering guests to any open tables, where they receive a near-theatrical amount of hospitality alongside their (just okay) drinks and (hit-or-miss) small plates.

For bar goers just in it for the drinks, the pageantry at Knee High can be a bit much, but they haven’t seen anything until they’ve witnessed the Prohibition era–inspired pyrotechnics at Tavern Law, owned by chefs Dana Tough and Brian McCracken and managed by bartender David Nelson. (The young trio also runs Spur in Belltown.) Long before its August opening, rumors swirled that the new spot inside the Trace Lofts building at 12th and Madison would boast a secret upstairs bar. This turned out to be true: There is an upstairs bar, and it is secret. Guests are granted access via a phone that calls up to the bartender. There are no menus in this hidden chamber; the ’tender on duty asks each drinker his or her spirit of choice, then mixes that spirit into a cocktail of his choice. The drinks are served in elegant stemware: silver-rimmed tulip cups, floral-etched champagne coupes, and they’re generally quite good. But the net effect is sufficiently Disneyesque to scare away the cool kids, and the upstairs room is often reserved for private parties; invitees learn a secret phrase to murmur into the phone. If you’re not on the guest list, you’re stuck downstairs in a space that looks more like a law firm than a speakeasy. (Think leather-bound benches and floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with hardbound volumes).

At Bathtub Gin, however, there are no maitre d’s or legal tomes, and Johnson rebuffs requests for private parties. “I don’t want to be elitist,” he told me. “We’re a neighborhood bar.” The neighbors seem to see it that way, too. I recently asked one of the Txori cooks if he minded the constant Bathtub Gin queries. He shook his head no. “It’s a cool bar,” he said, shrugging. Then he tossed some red wine into his sputtering pan.

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