The first drink I down at Smith Tower is not 35 floors up beneath a mesmerizingly ornate ceiling. Instead I find myself in a ground-level, decidedly kitsch Irish pub. This is not a unique experience, I gather. Though I’ve arrived with a friend at the circa-1914 skyscraper on a dreary Seattle afternoon—spitting, gray—a vested man with a newsboy cap inside the building’s golden doors tells us it’ll still be a 20-minute wait to nab a table in the speakeasy overlooking the city. But, he adds quickly and with nary a wink, we can check out Shawn O’Donnell’s in the meantime.
His next-door bar rec is so rehearsed as to rouse suspicion. Nice arrangement, I’m primed to think at the foot of a kickback-era relic. But with little else to do in this limited time, we find ourselves sliding into a booth in the building’s base. I’ve only just ordered a Prohibition Manhattan when my phone brightens with a text. Our table is ready upstairs. We have 10 minutes to claim it.
We bottoms-up, pay, and scurry next door. Woozy, I remember that a cage surrounds the observatory deck rail, thank god. I’ve often squinted up at this viewing area during walks around Pioneer Square, a haunt for transplants like me who appreciate a little sepia in their city from time to time. The neoclassical terracotta of Smith Tower, a once peerless Seattle skyscraper, more than suffices.
The vibe of the building’s observatory isn’t quite so historical. Don’t get me wrong: The gilded elevator ride up gives new meaning to Gold Rush. And at the top, the labyrinthine design of the former Chinese Room’s ceiling draws our eyes off the Sound once we’re seated. But a top-floor speakeasy was always going to require some imagination. Sure, you can read about Roy Olmstead’s bootlegging hijinks on the wall, and you can spot old painted ads on nearby brick buildings. But the setting is still Seattle in 2021. Modern, shimmering neighbors now block views on one side of that grated deck. And Patagonia, not cocktail attire, abides.