A bar can mean many things in different times and places: a port in a storm, a secret sanctuary, a safe house for cutting deals and making assignations — a foretaste of oblivion before the grave. In merrye olde days, it offered a refuge from wolves and highwaymen. Ideally but only rarely, it’s the Great Good Place, the heart of a community, the local, where neighbors meet and newcomers become neighbors and strangers, who aren’t drunk or hustling, talk to each other.
I can remember when a bar or tavern really meant something on Queen Anne, the neighborhood I landed in when I washed up in Seattle 32 years ago. In part that was because there were so few. There was the Hilltop Tavern, a dark, smoky red-vinyl joint where worn-looking men hunched over cheap schooners of Rainier’s Brew 66. And there was Targy’s Tavern, which was (and is) an improbable grandfathered-in survivor from the days when zoning didn’t keep them out of residential neighborhoods.
Targy’s was a smoky dive, too, but a more affable one. It was a clubhouse for a borough that was still more blue-collar than blueblood; in the early 1980s Queen Anne was the last close-in neighborhood save Beacon Hill and, maybe, the CD without draft ales and espresso. After Redhook and Grant’s Ales, the first local microbrews, debuted in 1982, I begged Targy’s to get them. The manager shrugged and kept pouring Bud and Miller Lite: “That’s what our customers want.”
The bland beer and raspy smoke were a drag, and the latter finally drove me out of Targy’s for good. But the social tableau kept me coming back longer than my lungs could stand. To sit at the bar was to be instantly admitted into a social frieze that had been unfolding for decades, populated by characters whose edges hadn’t been worn off by generic gentility. One night a guy everyone called “Chief” laid a steaming roast salmon on the bar and invited everyone to dig in. Another guy with a Z.Z. Top beard had moved to Marysville or some such place but still drove down to drink Bud with his buds. Evidently he drank too much. Once at closing time, without noticing, he backed his van over a 20-foot maple on our parking strip, flattening it to the ground. I tied a rope between it and my rear bumper and pulled it straight. It grew fine.
Today trees stand unmolested on Queen Anne’s parking strips, often with exquisite flowers and bushes planted around them. Dog owners wouldn’t think of leaving unscooped turds there. These are all very good things, small pieces in the jigsaw assemblage of amenities that make a neighborhood desirable. Espresso and ales are everywhere, and a single block of Queen Anne Avenue offers more varied dining and drinking choices than the whole neighborhood did then. The neighborhood has even become something of a nightlife destination. Folks from elsewhere actually come here to eat, to try the new sushi bar or Ethan Stowell’s latest culinary outpost. Young dolls wearing tiny dresses in winter scamper giggling across the Ave to the Paragon, which started as a jazz club and became — on Queen Anne! — a meat market. Once I even saw a limo parked in front.
Nearly next door, the Hilltop Ale House succeeded the Hilltop Tavern in 1991, just as the neighborhood was becoming chic; it’s now the patriarch of the strip. Its oaky décor and wall of taps are way beyond red vinyl and Brew 66. But as a third place it’s a bust, for acoustic as well as social reasons: Strangers couldn’t talk to each other over the overamped music and ambient clatter, even if they wanted to. And its status as a neighborhood institution is undercut by the fact that it’s a clone of another neighborhood’s institution, the 74th Street Alehouse on Phinney Ridge — a formula since replicated again in Columbia City. If there’s any there there, it’s somewhere else.
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