The dive king

If Rick Steves were a drunk, this might be the book he'd write. Seattle's grittiest bars and taverns are the subject of a new guide to local dives, shadowy repositories of the real, slurring-its-words Seattle.
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The Maldives score and play SIFF's silent "The Wind"

If Rick Steves were a drunk, this might be the book he'd write. Seattle's grittiest bars and taverns are the subject of a new guide to local dives, shadowy repositories of the real, slurring-its-words Seattle.

Seattle was built on a foundation laid by drunks. In 1855, the U.S Navy stationed a boatload of sailors and marines in Elliott Bay to protect the our pioneers from hostile Indians. Instead, they should have sent in the Army to protect the grog-soaked sailors from the predators ashore who fed the seamen's alcoholic cravings with moonshine and over-priced whiskey. One sailor paid $10 (!) for a bottle of hootch at the off-limits Elliott House, a den of booze and gambling.

The Navy's disciplinary records, according to historian Lorraine McConaghy, indicate the settlers too were a salty lot. When not fleecing their protectors they were drinking and whoring. The Navy was unimpressed with the cut of the Seattleites' jib. One officer described them as "a set of good-for-nothing cowardly rascals."

So it goes. For all of the city's Nannyism and martini-bar pretensions, it's somewhat comforting to know that the old Seattle still exists underground. Well, if you can call something "underground" that's in plain sight. The documentarian of this ongoing tradition is Mike Seely, managing editor of Seattle Weekly (and a friend and former colleague). Seely's new book, Seattle's Best Dive Bars (Gamble Guides, $12.95) is a plunge into the tavern and bar culture of serious drinking that permeates Seattle, from joints in White Center and Rainier Beach to some of the city's most upscale neighbs, like Madison Park and Magnolia. Seely's found a 100 dives that make his short list, which confirms one thing: the hardest job in Seattle is being Mike Seely's liver.

The best bars are like frumpy singer Susan Boyle, not much on looks but they sing as a gathering place or watering hole (the U District's Blue Moon comes to mind). The worst have a watch-your-back-and-the-vomit-caked-toilets anti-chic where the menu board might read (as it does at the Rose Garden in Lake City) "no crack pipes or checks." The denizens of Seely's dives are no longer our founding pioneer fathers and mothers; most aren't members of the so-called "creative class" that live in condo towers of Allentown. They're populated with folks who like to drink and, sometimes, the rascals who like to make trouble. And many of them are people who make you feel better about yourself.

Scholars and Starbucks execs like to tout the idea of the "third place," hangouts that are neither home nor work. Starbucks has covered the world with its alcohol-free, corporate-tidy version of this place where the drug of choice is a sugar-laced milk drink with a bit of caffeine added. But for the kind of dives Seely seeks out, bar denizens hang out there because their first place is likely a dump and maybe they've been laid off from their second place. The third-place bar offers liquor, wine, and an ice-cold beer for less than the price of a grande vanilla latte. It's a refuge where working-class stiffs and slackers can find a home in a city increasingly hostile to ordinary folks who wear old Mariners caps and drink Rainier. For these people, the Great Recession might hurt financially, but at it least nudges the city back toward a kind of half-remembered affordability and a lack of pretension that was once more mainstream. The city that still wears a Stormin' Gorman Thomas jersey on its Kingdome lovin' heart.

If good journalists go where readers seldom do, then Seely is Stanley in search of Livingstone in his boozy quest. A dive has grit, authenticity — it's not for hipsters and wannabes. It's for Boeing machinists, losers, bikers, swing-shifters, lonely hearts, rockers, Karaoke freaks, gamblers, and sports nuts of every race, creed, and sexual orientation. It's for serious drinkers, a place of 6 am Happy Hours, boilermakers, cheap Busch, and bad barbecue.

Seely sings the praises of the underdog joint. Like the Ballard Smoke Shop where bartenders will pour a bowl of soup to steady steady drinkers, a hallmark that's given rise to T-shirts that say "I got souped at the Smoke." His nostrils flare at places like the Gim Wah in Magnolia, which he says has a "Cheers-like feel" at Happy Hour, but whose men's room gives an "olfactory sensation upon entry [that] is tantamount to being water-boarded with urine...." More positively, he gushes over the mozarella sticks at Wingmasters where they're "closer in size to Jimi Hendrix's erect penis than the deep-fried twigs you'll find at most places." In Seely's world, all of these observations are more good news than bad. No dive bar diver would be put off.

As a reporter, Seely doesn't do drive-bys, fly-bys, and slurp-bys. He makes repeat visits, drinks himself into multiple stupors, and best of all, he talks to the people he meets. Seely doesn't just like drinking, he likes the social life of tavern culture: the humor, the sadness, the plain folks with real opinions and sometimes moving stories. But he's loose about it, not too serious, not too maudlin: he's there to hang out, drink, eat some pizza, shoot the shit. He often comes off as a frat boy, but a thinking man's frat boy.

And Seely, a native of Seattle, a mossback raised in Wedgwood where he began his legal drinking, high-schooled at Blanchet (Bishop Blanchet to you respectful Catholics), has both a strong sympathy for the common and a sharp radar for poseurs. Let's grant for a minute the irony of this: Will most dive patrons buy a guide to dive bars, even though priced, as Seely says, the same as a pitcher of beer? Not likely. Many denizen's of Seely's world are too bleary-eyed and too rooted to their particular dive to take to wandering the city seeking the advice of Mike Seely as if he were a debauched Rick Steves.

Nevertheless he's produced a book that will be useful for both recreational drinkers who will spread the word of obscure finds to friends, and for those who rarely go to bars or dives but want to see a less-polished Emerald City. His book is a sympathetic cultural study of the Seattle many never see or hang out in. His dive bars are often like a bad ride on a Metro bus, only they're serving alcohol.

Seely's been around long enough that he's able to track some neighborhood changes through the evolution of dives, which ones have gentrified, which ones remain resistant to fad or change. His description of the grungy Comet Tavern allows him to add a little social commentary:

[A]t times, the Comet unwittingly serves as a clubhouse for the worst Capitol Hill has to offer. I'm not talking about purposefully emaciated, ironically tattooed, skinny jeans-wearing, trust fund-drawing, coke-snorting, faux impoverished, ultra-cynical Nightlife Nazis who make the Pike-Pine corridor virtually unbearable for people who don't subscribe to their signature look and 'tude. Specifically, I'm talking about the guy with the pierced eyebrows, mascara, pageboy hat, and v-neck t-shirt who pretended not to know which friend's couch he was going to crash on that night. Dude, I saw the purebred puppy in your designer backpack. You're crashing on the couch in the $500,000 condo your parents just bought you, brother. Give it up.

With company like that, Seely'd much rather be hanging with the folks at West Seattle's Tug Inn, enjoying air-drum solos, listening to a bleach-blonde drunken Indian woman hold forth, and swigging $3.50 pitcher of Pabst. And who can blame him?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.