Best Bars

Neighborhood Bars: Belltown

The late late show

By Allecia Vermillion April 3, 2016 Published in the April 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Sarah Flotard


By the time 11pm descends on Belltown, the lines are long and the pants are tight at the nearby clubs already throbbing with untz-untz music. But on Second Avenue, amidst its unceasing wall of nightlife, the circus lights and faded striped awning outside Shorty’s promise a night bent and distorted like your image in a fun house mirror. An urgent drum riff blares on the sound system, all but drowned out by the clack-clack-pling of pinball machines. The circus murals are creepy and everything smells like hot dogs, though the hot dogs themselves actually taste pretty good. Shorty’s isn’t one of those artfully contrived dives. It’s the kind where the bathroom doesn’t have a proper door and the graffiti inside is a colorful milieu of who wants to do what to whom. But then there’s the Trophy Room, the sort of bar within a bar in back. Most of the joy of passing a night here lies in the high-backed, electric blue leather swivel chairs around the bar. They’re oddly grand, like something Dr. Evil might occupy if he conducted his evil business on a nineteenth-century clipper ship. If you see a couple squeezed into one of these chairs, you can assume their date is going well.

The adjacent building was here back when Seattle took giant water cannons to the steep slopes of Denny Hill, chiseling the city’s terrain into something more accommodating. Now the landscape is rising up again; there’s a mixed-use project proposed for this block. But Belltown won’t give up Shorty’s without a fight. Neighborhood outcry (and a city Landmark Preservation Board vote) have saved it from redevelopment…for now.

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Image: Sarah Flotard

The 5 Point

Where Belltown gives way to Uptown lies Seattle’s temple of sloppy nights and redemptively greasy mornings. The 5 Point spent 86 years accumulating its legend—the ancient clutter on the walls, the plates of eggs and toast, the brook-no-bullshit bouncers and bartenders. But the reality is ever changing: Some nights the fries are crispy and the service is cheerful. Other nights are soggier and more abrupt. You never know what a night at the 5 Point will bring, which is exactly why we go.

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An Old Fashioned at Rob Roy.

Image: Jeff Wilcox

Rob Roy

It helped cement Seattle’s identity as a cocktail town and proved Belltown’s cultural shift from Tom Waits song to a district of old-fashioneds with hand-hacked ice blocks needn’t cede the neighborhood to insufferable tools. Rob Roy successfully combines two worlds often separated: cocktails on the forefront of the national conversation and a staff equally, genuinely, hospitable to shot takers and rhum agricole sippers alike.

Two Bells Tavern

Over the past 70-odd years, maritime and warehouse hands, artists, and now neighbors young and old (drinking no-nonsense Rolling Rock as often as small-batch local IPAs) have pretty much worn the varnish off the wood bar top at Two Bells. Since the kitchen was added in the early ’80s, much of that wear comes from the elbows of people grappling with deliciously unwieldy burgers served on grilled sourdough baguettes that stand up to the juice dripping off fat charbroiled patties. 

Cyclops Cafe and Lounge

The likes of Kurt Cobain frequented the original incarnation of this artist’s mecca. Twenty years later it remains quietly eclectic and funky, a callout to the era of peak coffeehouse, but with bottles of tequila and pints of PBR, and the house Eye PA, brewed by Boundary Bay. Today the slowly blinking eyeball sign outside is just as likely to draw intoxicated barhoppers as regulars who’ve been ordering the Happy Hippie veggie burger for eons.

Mecca Cafe and Bar

Two Sides of a Coin

Set one foot in the door, and Mecca presents an immediate decision: Veer right and  find yourself in a well-lit, checkered diner with black vinyl booths—a sort of Route 66 roadside joint, a little dingy but a good place to put down a cup of black coffee and late-night eggs and bacon. Go left, though, through a narrow threshold, and things get a bit darker:
a bar the width of an apartment hallway, covered lengthwise by stools, so you have to squeeze behind drinkers to get to the pocket of booths in the back. It’s the sort of spot where patrons become privy to one another’s conversations, a space that livens with energy every time a new group comes in from the street, having just made their choice. In Lower Queen Anne, on a stretch populated by classy comfort food at Toulouse Petit and organic groceries at the Metropolitan Market, Mecca provides a seedy destination—or not. Depends on what you’re into that night.

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