Restaurants are a good way to introduce someone to a place. They often show off a city’s gustatory habits, its culture and subcultures. In strange surroundings, your first taste of a city’s food often leaves an indelible impression of place, even if the food isn’t particularly memorable.
Which is why I remember certain meals and how they influenced my sense of the city where I ate them. A friend took me to the Carnegie Deli in New York to show a white-bread guy of Nordic ancestry what a real Jewish-delicatessen pastrami sandwich was like. Another pal took me to Schaller’s Pump on Chicago’s South Side, a hangout for White Sox fans and foot soldiers of Mayor Daley’s political machine. They served big chunks of butt steak unadorned on your plate, and cheap beer. The city of stockyards, big shoulders and red meat politics — I get that now. When I lived in San Francisco, I used to frequent the Cliff House, a tourist trap perched on a bluff above the Pacific, in the fog belt of the Richmond District. Shrouded in mist and sipping innumerable Irish coffees, I listened to seals barking in the gloom, suspended in a pure, perfect dream of the city.
In Seattle, when I have taken newcomers out for their first “real” Seattle meal, my preference has been for old-school diners that cut against expectation. Seattle has an infinite number of places that offer seafood with a pretty view, but in a city of newcomers, where are the “real” people?
For years, I chose the Dog House, the legendary dive in the Denny Triangle, a 24/7 haven for senior citizens, musicians and used-car salesmen. Choked with smoke, a place where the elderly waitresses daily challenged the myth of “Seattle nice,” the Dog House was a greasy spoon that served pretty decent cheap food to a following that would defy demographic targeting.
On the wall was a mural showing a sad mutt destined for banishment to the doghouse, and a confusing tangle of paths with signs pointing the way to doom. “Blondes,” “Brunettes,” “Redheads,” and “Private Secretaries” were hazards along the inevitable road to ruin. In the bar, Dick Dickerson tickled the ivories in a scene that recalled a "Saturday Night Live" lounge skit. In the foyer, a pinball machine rattled on, even in the age of video games. The clientele seemed largely made up of downtown dwellers in an era when no one really chose to live downtown. Denizens appeared to be rejects from the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross: “Third prize is you’re fired.” Go straight to the Dog House.
The Dog House is no more. It closed in 1994, in part because much of its aging clientele had died. A spinoff called the Puppy Club lived for a short time, and the old Dog House was replaced by a place called the Hurricane Cafe, but I’ve never stepped inside, preferring to remember it as it was. I’m happy the Dog House was euthanized instead of being turned into a hipster haven, or, worse, gentrified into ironic respectability. Of course, gentrification at the Dog House would have been as simple as a smoking ban and reliably clean forks.
It was a sad day when it died, and it took away the best cheap date for newcomers to get a memorable glimpse of something uniquely ours that would never show up in glittering Emerald City brochures. Its appeal, really, was that it was a kind of anti-Seattle, pre-Microsoft, pre-Starbucks. If the Dog House embodied a kind of Northwest loser sensibility, it embraced all who entered with an old-shoe egalitarianism.
I recently exchanged Facebook messages with a guy I took to the Dog House for his first Seattle meal back in the ’80s. He remembers it still and even went back, which could be risky. “I once pooped a bowl of Dog House chili all the way to China,” he said. He has me to thank for those Pacific Rim memories.
Today, the Dog House exists in the ivory tower. One of its menus is in the collection at the University of Washington, where it might help someone get a graduate degree. I recently read an academic paper about food at world’s fairs that described national menus as “hegemonic gastronomic enculturation,” which means asserting your identity through national or regional dishes. I liked to “enculturate” visitors by taking them to where un-hip Seattle experienced the “hegemony” of questionable chili served in a Marlboro haze. Somehow, it seemed important for people to know we aren’t all fresh salmon and fresh air.