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The Best Dive Bars in Seattle
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Seattle dive bar enthusiasts (or, as they might prefer to be known, "drinkers") recently received the devastating news that Johnny would no longer be making the drinks as stiff as boards at Chinese restaurant/dive bar Moon Temple. It's the latest in the epidemic of disappearing neighborhood dives, a sad trend in a city whose technology-driven economy has fewer people joining the regulars to shoot the shit and more people tweeting about their cocktails on smartphones. Mike Seely, who quite literally wrote the book on dive bars in this town (it's called Seattle's Best Dive Bars), points out that 15 to 20% of the bars he wrote about in his book have either closed or changed hands since it was published in 2009. He mourns the loss of bars, and the laws and changing city that cause the loss, but adds, "since Seattleites must live in the city as it is, I'd say people need to get off their phones and remember where social networking started: in neighborhood bars."
When you find the right bar in Seattle, the phone goes away—at Loretta's, it's by request of a handwritten sign hanging from a saw. At the Sloop you'll need both hands on your giant mug of beer. At the Zoo, you'll get too involved in shuffleboard to tweet, and at the Waterwheel, the bingo game will keep you occupied.
The best dive bars are defined not by what you drink (though it's mostly beer—rarely do the mixed drinks have more than two ingredients), but by environment and patrons. At a great dive bar, the regulars look like they've been on their stools for years. The diviest bars still smell faintly of smoke, even though the smoking ban was put in place most of a decade ago. Most importantly, though, the best dive bars help you forget the stressors of the outside world, and camaraderie is built among patrons through a definite sense of place.
The Waterwheel Lounge
"Better than you'd expect," announces the motto on the Waterwheel's website. Looking from the street, you'd be hard pressed to expect anything: set back from the street and dwarfed by its giant patio, you can barely see the low-roofed main part of the bar. The door is camouflaged further by the mural that spans the Waterwheel's façade. Hidden inside is a haven of karaoke, bingo, trivia, and live music depending on the night, a fried-chicken dinner special that could feed a family, and the most ridiculous ladies' room around (think swirly gold walls, pink toilet with a wood seat, curtain stall-doors, and a comfy chair). The endearing regulars enthusiastically play bingo for free drinks and random prizes such as a hamburger-shaped salt and pepper shaker set.
The jukebox is a draw at the Nitelite, both for its excellent selection of tunes (belt-out-able classic rock is essential), and for the mesmerizing pattern that decorates it. Mesmerizing is a theme for the Nitelite; from turquoise walls to the faux-gold striping on bar. Even after a remodel, there's something innately divey about the décor at the Nitelite. It could be the Budweiser Clydesdale parade carousel light hanging from the ceiling or the fact that the small set of stairs between rooms seem to have been purposely designed to cause the maximum number of stumbling drunks to trip. The strong drinks are dirt-cheap every night of the week, and the crowd waffles between quiet weeknights with regulars complaining about taxes to rowdy evenings filled with nacho and beer-seeking spillover from concerts and comedy shows at the attached Moore Theatre.
The Sloop Tavern
The Sloop is best known for its boozy adaptation of McDonalds' most famous sales tactic: you can Slooper-size your beer for $1.75, upgrading it to 34 ounces of ice-cold domestic suds. The giant mug packs a hefty punch, but not just in terms of alcohol: "The first time I ordered one," travel writer Amanda Castleman says, "a female regular turned to me and said, 'honey, hold it with two hands, so you don't chip your pretty teeth.'" Like most great dive bars, you know you're in the right spot when the regulars take up chit-chatting with you. The Sloop is one of the few old Ballard fisherman bars that hasn't been torn down in the fever of condo-fication. It stays committed to dive bar staples: casual atmosphere and dirt cheap beers, with pull-tabs behind the bar to keep the old fisherman happy, and Buck Hunter for the new generation of Slooper-sizers.
While the front of the Baranof is a diner, the back is a dive bar in the best sense: full of nooks and crannies where people drink strong drinks and let their true selves show. At 11 on a Tuesday night, a guy talks about his struggles with strangers at the bar, the bartender hands out pull-tabs tickets, and a girl flirts using her pool cue as an accessory. The mixed drinks are strong as an ox and after one or two, the $2 Jello shot seems to be an increasingly good idea. Look for them advertised on handwritten signs that, along with the fishing nets hanging on the walls, substitute as décor. The Baranof's Greenwood location keeps it from being too much of a destination and cements the neighborhood feel—besides, nobody should be traveling too far after those drinks.
The Baranof 8549 Greenwood Avenue N, Seattle WA 98103 (map) 206-782-9260
Ostensibly, Bush Garden is a sushi restaurant. At 9:30 in the evening, though, the sushi bar is closed and what's open is the faux-Japanese façade that frames the bar. Inside you'll find the most diverse and welcoming karaoke crowd in town. Praising a place for producing terrible singing is a backhanded compliment, but at Bush Garden an elderly Japanese man belting out Cole Porter is followed by hipsters doing David Bowie and nobody really cares if any of it is any good. The servers' and karaoke host's warmth is contagious, everybody cheers everyone else on, conversations cross tables, and generally it feels more like a family gathering than a bar—as long as your family is big on strong mai tais and lychee-vodka drinks.
The ceilings are low, the walls are wood-paneled, and the only beers listed by name on the menu board are the regional macro-brew lagers Rainier and Olympia. Loretta's is the embodiment of a Northwest that has all but disappeared in the rest of the city. Remember the loggers who were the reason everyone wore all those flannel shirts in the 90s in the first place? Loretta's offers cheap-ass burgers that can be eaten in the bar or in the Airstream trailer parked on patio, near the outdoor fireplace. Most people come in alone, but the bar bubbles with conversation and the bartender cashes out while sitting among the regulars at the bar, beer in hand. Whether about sports on TV or something going on in the world, the whole bar always seems to be yelling about the same thing—and we wouldn't have it any other way.
The Zoo Tavern on Eastlake
The Zoo may risk its dive-bar status when it fills up with University of Washington students on weekends. The rest of the time, though, it filters any possible natural light through windows so darkened with the years that it always looks like its twilight inside. Meals won't help you tell the time of day here either, since two of the four food options come out of bubble gum vending machines, and another from a jar marked "$2" (the bartender couldn't solidly say what it was). However, the cash-only bar will serve you good beers and the large room will make sure that you can always find a spot to perch. The hours are easy to spend here, between pool, shuffleboard, pinball, and Skee-ball, or just listening to the bartender talk about the guy he had to call the cops on earlier that day.
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Of course, everyone has a favorite local dive—which Seattle bars would you add to this list?
About the author: Naomi Bishop is a Seattle based food and travel writer. Find her wandering through words and worlds on her blog, TheGastroGnome, where she claims that being a GastroGnome is not about sitting idly on the front lawn of culinary cottages. Follow her explorations of cooking and culture around the world at @GastroGnome. Get restaurant suggestions and locate local eats in the Northwest from her app, Unique Eats of the Northwest.