Are neighborhood ale houses losing their allure?
The front line of gentrification, as in most revolutions, is often the most dangerous spot. After a while, the avant-garde and new is no longer the target of those who resist change. It becomes a tarnished has-been, and, like all has-beens, has to go. Take the corner of 34th & E. Union, long occupied by a pharmacy, where Burke Shethar opened the Madrona Eatery & Ale House in 1995. He was on the leading edge of a transformation in Seattle neighborhoods, from clusters of tiny, service-oriented businesses (dry cleaners, convenience-store groceries, barber shops, and so forth) to broader commercial uses (cafes & diners, clinics, dress shops).
In the intervening years, the neighborhood ale house, well-lighted and family-friendly, found its place in the Seattle landscape. Here, kids could sit in front of a fireplace while dad ordered a fish & chips and a Manny's, and mom waited for a chicken-pesto flatbread and a glass of chardonnay. Shethar's Ale House prospered, as did the businesses around it.
A block away, the venerable High Spot serves robust breakfasts. Across the street, celebrity chef Ethan Stowell has turned a difficult space (three owners in five years) into a mid-price steak house, Red Cow. A street-level winery, Wilridge, is surmounted by a wine-tasting bar that just renewed its lease and applied for its own liquor license. A much-loved dinner house, St. Cloud's, prospers.
Quiet and tree-lined, Madrona was abuzz this summer with news that the Ale House – essentially neighborhood's anchor for two decades – was being forced to close. The landlord, who lives in Hawaii, didn't want to renew Shethar's lease. A not-for-attribution neighbor suspected the landlord has fallen under the spell of a property manager whose primary interest is in writing a new lease and pulling down a new commission.
Neighbor David Brewster mounted a petition on Facebook to try to change the landlord's mind. Brewster, who lives a block from the Ale House's front door, has a thing for community gathering places. Founding publisher of both Seattle Weekly and Crosscut Public Media, he was also the driving force behind the short-lived Mark Tobey Pub in the Alexis Hotel. Brewster's open letter to the landlords stated, "We are very concerned about the looming loss of this crucial neighborhood gathering place...The Madrona Pub has been anchoring the commercial neighborhood and the wider residential neighborhood for 20 years. It is that rare place where whole families can gather, where people can watch sports, get good food and good ales as in a European pub."
No response from the landlord, so Shethar went ahead with plans to auction furnishings and equipment, then lock up and walk away. Ever the good boss, he lined up jobs for his staff with a bar group in Ballard. "The reality is sinking in that this 20-year run is coming to an end," he says, recognizing that he now has to find a job for himself as well.
Eventually, new owners were found to lease the premises, though not the business name. Peter Johnson and his wife Adrianna live in Madrona, and own three other pubs around town: McGilvra's Bar & Pub in Madison Park, Finn McCool's in the University District, and The Chieftain on Capitol Hill. It’s unsure what they have in mind for the space, but judging by their three pubs, no one would be surprised if it were called Madrona Public House.
Veteran real estate agent Tom Graff of Ewing & Clark, who was not involved in the transaction, points out that they may be paying heavily for the privilege. Re-tenanting a space is extremely expensive. In a case that drew a fair amount of attention on Queen Anne three years ago, a landlord broke four leases (putting 20 people out of work) in order to bring in new tenants at a cost of well over $100,000. If the new tenant is expected to lease the adjacent space (currently occupied by a hair salon) as well as Shether's 2,750 square feet, there would be very high costs to meet Seattle building codes.
Despite this last-minute development, a cynical observation: they're not universally popular, these neighborhood ale houses. Youngsters don't always see their fire pits and play areas as quiet zones, don't always play well together, or use their inside voices. The burgers are not always what you'd call "gourmet."
Yet these unsung local favorites are welcome alternatives to break-the-bank trendy dinner houses, no baby sitter required. Look what's surviving: Hilltop Ale House on Queen Anne; the Canterbury in Capitol Hill. Coopers in Lake City. The Traveler in Montlake, which was launched as the Montlake Ale House by none other than Burke Shethar. The next restaurant from celebrity chef John Howie is an ale house in Bothell, of all places.
All this may point to a smooth sailing for these sorts of establishments. But in the 20 years of the Madrona Ale House's existence, many of Seattle's dive bars and beer-soaked taverns – relics of the town’s blue-collar roots – have been self-consciously transformed into tarted-up, retro-chic lounges: Shorty's, Blue Moon, and more. The fishermen's hangouts in Ballard and saloons in Georgetown are fading, replaced by craft-cocktail watering holes. It took some last-minute saves to keep The Comet and whatever replaces the Madrona Ale House in the beer peddling business, so perhaps the tide in this area as well.
Perhaps the neighborhood ale house will someday be seen as a transitional institution, in the way that early motel chains displaced fleabag motor hotels, or the first craft breweries challenged Budweiser. A good thing, a cultural inevitability, but with a limited life span, not unlike the fern bars of decades past.
Shethar is licking his wounds. “You spend $250,000 and 20 years building the business, and you get back maybe $10,000,” he said after auctioning off some kitchen equipment and decorative tap handles. “Pennies on the dollar.” Since the lease had run out, there was no business to sell; the Johnsons will simply wait a few weeks for a new liquor license to come through.
For the moment, Madrona is spared, the ale house “tradition” still a-glimmer, but the hammering of recent construction still echoes at 34th & Union. They point to a possible future, in which Seattleites walk through neighborhoods, and remark: "Remember when we used to walk to the ale house, before they turned everything into condos and sushi?”