Hoping for a return of Seattle’s 24-hour diner culture

There’s something special about a place where night owls and late-night workers can huddle at unusual hours.

Anna Arntz and Alex Jahn talk as server Jon Arnold arrives with their dinner orders at the North Star Diner in Greenwood on Wednesday, September 15, 2021. The coronavirus pandemic has forced North Star Diner and most 24-hour diners around the city to reduce their overnight hours, or shut down indefinitely, like Beth's Cafe on Aurora Avenue. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

In Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper famously calls 24-hour room service “one of the premier achievements of modern civilization.”

That may be overstating things slightly, but there’s a core truth in Cooper’s quip: Being able to dine out not just late at night, but in that godforsaken time before sunrise, is part of what makes a place feel built-up, inhabited and real — like there’s so much life happening that it has to spill out over the edges of convention into the dead of night.

Which helps explain why the (hopefully) temporary closure of Beth’s Café, situated near the edge of Green Lake, packs so poignant a punch. The long-running greasy spoon had already pared back its hours during the pandemic, no longer serving its famous 12-egg omelets at midnight. And now one of Seattle’s most renowned 24/7 restaurants will have an even longer road back to round-the-clock service, although, breakfast gods willing, it will return in some form.

Beth’s Café isn’t the only once-24/7 eatery to suffer from the twin challenges of staying staffed and weathering a pandemic. Before North Star Diner in Greenwood reduced its hours, you’d often find my wife and I there sharing French toast sticks after seemingly everyone in the city had gone to bed. Lost Lake, which now has the “24” in its “Open 24 Hours” sign artfully papered over, has saved me and countless others on Capitol Hill from going home to raid the fridge. And the long-running 24-hour staple, 13 Coins, now closes before 1 a.m. on weekends.

As of this writing, I believe the only 24/7 restaurant in Seattle city limits is IHOP, not counting fast food. And even though pancakes from a national chain will do in a pinch, many of us would prefer late-night spots with more local flavor.

North Star Diner in Greenwood, which is now only open until 10pm, is pictured on Wednesday, September 15, 2021. The Shanghai Room karaoke bar, part of the diner, remains open until 2am. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Let me be clear: This is light years away from being a major problem for Seattle — a city that’s currently dealing with a housing crisis, a continuing pandemic and a spike in gun violence. I’m aware that it’s a luxury to be able to wax nostalgic about something so seemingly superficial as late-night eating — and I spend the majority of my time thinking about more pressing problems. Seattleites can live without club sandwiches during the witching hour.

Restaurants also have enough to worry about after a year and a half of COVID-19, combined with the difficulty of hiring enough employees to keep their doors open. Hundreds of restaurants closed permanently because of the pandemic, and that list continues to grow. When all this is over, we’ll have lost a huge swath of eateries, not just the ones that never locked their doors.

But there’s something special about a city where night owls can huddle around diner booths, and workers coming off graveyard shifts can enjoy a hot meal at an unusual time.

Anna Arntz talks with Alex Jahn as they wait for their dinner at North Star Diner in Greenwood on Wednesday, September 15, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Before the pandemic, Seattle already tended to close early. A smattering of bars stayed open until 2 a.m., but most restaurants switched off their lights by 9 p.m. Those of us who come alive under cover of darkness — the insomniacs and the eccentrics — clung to the few places with 24/7 hours for some sense of connection to the outside world. After the hot dog carts got wheeled away, after Dick’s slung its last burger, we stayed in our little sleepless corners until everyone else woke up and sent us scurrying back home.

I’m under no illusions that Seattle needs to be New York-esque in its offerings during the wee hours. We’re a much smaller city. We caffeinate early. And we don’t have the same diner culture here, as much as I would like the egg cream to gain a foothold in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll never be the kind of place where you can order off a book-length menu anytime we please.

Beth's Cafe, which is closed indefinitely due to slow business amid the coronavirus pandemic, is pictured on Wednesday, September 15, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

But for a while there, across a wide span of the city, stretching from Beth’s up on Aurora to 13 Coins down at SeaTac, we aspired to be that kind of place, and maybe that’s what I’ll miss most about our bygone 24/7 days — the feeling that we were trying to fill the darkness and make space for misfits.

But while I wait to see if we can ever sustainably be a 24/7 Seattle again, I’ll keep going to the places that always had a table for me when I needed it most. Turns out, the French toast sticks at North Star still taste good when consumed during actual breakfast hours. Who knew? And when Beth’s Café reopens, I’ll join the line.

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