First things first: Good Bar is a stunning room.
So stunning you can arrive for your initial visit on, say, the afternoon of an M’s home game, when it’s packed to the loft tables, decibels crashing as if the late great Dave Niehaus himself were belting “My oh my” directly into your ear—and the room would still be the thing you notice. The white-railed loft. The marble bar top with black tufted barstools. The vintage bank vault doors. Like other recent Pioneer Square openings, Good Bar reflects the urban neighborhood’s historical roots, but in an ubermanly way. It’s like the London Plane for boys.
When owners Josh and Nancy Kelly found the space, Josh, a chef, had been dreaming of a restaurant for nearly a decade—one that would satisfy the elevated culinary dreams he had developed working at Portland’s Wildwood, the Dahlia Lounge, and Marination Ma Kai with owners Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton (silent partners in this endeavor). Instead, Kelly ran into the strict standards enforced by the building’s National Historic Landmark status; standards which, in fact, wound up limiting his vision to two induction burners and a convection oven. “So I decided I wasn’t trying to win a James Beard award,” he says. “Now I was doing a bar with food.”
He set up a beer program with Stoup Brewing partner Robyn Schumacher and snatched up cocktail connoisseur Adam Kachman from Portland to mastermind the booze, with results you’d expect: impressive beer lists combining locally beloved drafts with global atypicals, and a merry glut of liquors, especially brown ones. One such, a bourbon, participates in the Kachman innovation called Joe’s Drink: an aromatic composition of bitter and tart and creamy, complex with cherry heering, with a tweak of burnt lemon for smoke. Intriguing and seamless.
Then Kelly put two smart things on the menu: an all-star and a deep bench. The former is the sloppy joe, a lush extravagance of Painted Hills beef sweetened with tomato and a drizzle of caramelized onion aioli, deepened with stout and a lengthy reduction. It all gushes out from between two halves of a Macrina ciabatta bun—which, hats off, masterfully stands up to the goo. But you’d be a fool to try this thing with your hands; this is knife-and-fork food. The accompanying wet nap looked laughably unequal to the task: a trowel for a lava flow.
This sloppy joe was perfect, a phrase I’m not sure I ever saw myself writing, and has in Good Bar’s six months become one of this city’s great craveables. In my visits I spied it on probably half the tables, with at least two solo diners, regulars by the look of their rapport with servers, who slunk in just to order it. That’s addiction behavior, folks. (Not to mention all the proof we need that this chef helped create the ridiculously craveable Marination Ma Kai.)
But there’s more on this menu, and much of it is very good, and that’s where the deep bench comes in. Potato salad deconstructions, all the rage in Seattle at the moment, don’t get much better than the egg-and-mustard aioli dip served alongside salted and gilded halved fingerling potatoes at Good Bar.
“When we experimented with this we thought, ‘This could be our french fries!’ ” Kelly told me excitedly, referring to his kitchen’s lack of a fryer.
Indeed—the kitchen’s lack of practically everything renders the triumphs well earned. A dish of steamed mussels swam in a delectably briny broth of roasted garlic, wine, butter, and kalamata olives. Besides the sloppy joe, the only other entree-size dish on the menu was a meaty hunk of pork loin offset with hints of mustard seed and bourbon and maple and served over a decadent wedge of blistered scalloped potatoes. An ice cream sandwich riff for dessert, with housemade vanilla ice cream between a drizzle of fudge and a chewy layer of brownie, was gloriously full flavored; sheer joy on the palate.
As for failures, I found none—unless you count the dishes I didn’t much want to eat. A tart tangle of crunchy marinated beets, dolloped with creme fraiche. Baked oysters, served in their shells with a pleasant 1950s-era topping of crisped ham with cream, bread crumbs, and chives. Fat sardines with sherry-vinegar-marinated corona beans and a puckery gremolata. Boiled peanuts.
“I didn’t not like them,” my companion remarked carefully about the beets, and I felt her. A good deal of Kelly’s menu holds mysteriously little popular appeal. The boiled peanuts, a nostalgic delight across the South, are an especially acquired taste and (soft) texture here in the Northwest, especially when you’re asked to fish them out of an Old Bay Seasoning swamp, then gnaw through their shells in order to enjoy them. (Er, another five wet naps please.)
Not bad, I repeat, in any critical sense: just lacking popular appeal. It points to a fascinating divide right now in this stadium-adjacent district, where the pursuit of spectator sports is crashing headlong into the pursuit of connoisseur dining. Here it should be noted that Good Bar’s staff was, to a person, affable and accommodating—but the ones serving us lacked the menu knowledge you might expect in a bar peddling artisan cocktails, charcuterie plates, radicchio salads, and nine-buck plates of three tiny baked oysters.
On the other hand, for every fernet-angostura collision in this noble room—there are a whole slew of beer cans. Good Bar has both elitism and populism in its DNA; perhaps it needs to know itself little better before the right balance can be struck. Marginally Better Bar, anyone?