Belltown by night is three different worlds, each a skinny block removed, yet so socially different, you practically need to develop a new psyche or hear a different writer...
Belltown by night is three different worlds, each a skinny block removed, yet so socially different, you practically need to develop a new psyche or hear a different writer in your head for each avenue.
Third Avenue, clutching greedily on to “old” Belltown, once the down-and-out capital of Seattle, remains a Bukowski poem, raw and frightening, like a fresh-punched nose. And as for entertainment, there’s not much to be found, on this part of Third. (Les Amies, a huge reggae club, keeps opening and closing like a saloon door.)
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Second Avenue, bookended by the venerable Crocodile Café and new Viceroy, seems like a Tom Waits song, growly and almost proudly unpretentious, full of characters, full of music … full of beer.
Where beer mugs crash together on Second, martini glasses gently tinkle on First Avenue, which begs for a new Fitzgerald to hone in on its young and ambitious. What alcohol-fueled dreamers, what opposite-sex schemers, what Gatsby-ites prowl this bustling street by night.
Much action takes place in these few, crowded blocks, bordered by Blanchard Street to the south and Battery to the north. Starting around 9:30 or 10 on most weekends, they creep along First Avenue with hip-hop booming from their rides, looking for that nightlife Holy Grail, the free parking spot. Even the pay lots are jammed by 10:30, and so those without limos park blocks away and hoof it back, all the while working cellphones, like soldiers in the field on walkie-talkies.
Some of the First Avenuers pop into the Apartment, one of the newest spots in Belltown, a sleek, thin, polished First Avenue joint catering to the sleek, thin, polished crowd. No cover here, so it’s a good place for the aggressive partiers the men with hunters’ looks in their eyes, the women moving like hungry, dangerous lionesses to fuel up with a martini, First Avenue’s drink of choice.
Like Belltown molecules, these hustlers and hustlettes ping off each other, bouncing from bar to bar, from Axis to Bada to Jai Thai to the Frontier Room. The latter is one of those recently renovated (or is it rehabilitated?) dive bars that is now tricked out, going from mosh to posh. “That’s why you’re here, for the cocktails and beautiful ladies,” the Frontier’s doorman lectures a few young men getting restless at the front of an entrance line. A Rolling Stones song blares from inside …
Particularly on First Avenue, restaurant owners cater to the youngish crowd, putting DJs to work in their lounges to attract patrons after dining hours. Jai Thai, Ohana, Tia Lou’s and Torero’s (Mexican) all follow this food-to-spins formula.
Ohana is a Polynesian-style sushi restaurant and tiki lounge, with colorful decorations, DJs and Sunday-night karaoke. You might expect tranquil island music but instead are met with reggae/hip-hop.
While Ohana is a smaller, relatively mellow spot, across the street is the Mecca of First Avenue, Axis, an appropriately named, spacious restaurant with two levels of cologne-heavy bar/lounge. Light hip-hop plays in the background, as small packs of rabid singles move around Axis, heads swiveling like bobble dolls to make sure they don’t miss anything, more lines dropping than a fishing tournament.
Bada Lounge, a few doors down, has a sleek, bright entryway, suggestive of an art gallery. After the long, narrow lobby, it expands significantly, with giant, cut-out booths, an impressive big-screen for visuals, a prominent DJ booth and even a few pool tables. Bada reminds one of a hip Manhattan club, with its retro ’60s design.
The weekend after Thanksgiving, Bada was slamming, filled front to back with a line awaiting admission. Next door, Tia Lou’s Mexican restaurant by day, bling-bling scene by night also had a growing line, with excited young men plunking $10 each for a chance to make moves on the female clientele, the latter flashing the two-sizes-too-small look.
So much glam, so little time. … And yet, if you walk the short block up Blanchard or Bell to Second Avenue, an entirely new world unfolds.
Even the food is different. Where the offerings on First Avenue are upscale Thai and gourmet seafood, on Second Avenue it’s the likes of the low-budget Noodle Ranch, a Cuban bistro, homey Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, and, of course, Shorty’s, hot-dog heaven. At Shorty’s, Seattle’s mini-Coney Island, 25-ish men and women in hooded sweatshirts and jeans slam pitchers of beer and pump quarters into pinball machines.
“Second Avenue, I think, is the last holdout of the older Belltown,” says Jerry Everard, who has seen quite a change since he co-founded the Crocodile in 1989. “You can generalize by saying if you start at Western (Avenue), you have the hardcore bridge-and-tunnel Pioneer Square crowd, with (Club) Medusa and Belltown Billiards. When you come up to First, it gets mixed more empty-nesters and more well-to-do professionals. Then Second Avenue is the last bastion of arts-oriented, funkier neighborhoods that Belltown used to have.”
At the Lava Lounge, it’s freaky-tiki, dark portholes going nowhere and ditto for many of the customers, settled in for a night of pitchers or well drinks, with old-school soul spins from a DJ.
Tula’s, an unpretentious jazz club, is cozy and decidedly glam-free, a relaxing, sophisticated oasis from all the low-brow, deliriously mindless nightlife swarming in the blocks around it.
A block north is a newer in its reincarnation, at least entertainment hot spot, the Rendezvous, which has had quite a riches-to-rags-to-riches roller-coaster ride. When it originally opened, in the Roaring ’20s, it was one of Seattle’s most splendid spots, a motion-picture screening room and lounge dubbed the JewelBox Theater. By the mid-’90s, it had slowly sunk into a seedy pit, dirty, dank, smelling like a New Year’s Day hangover. A team of new owners including Everard, one of the original Crocodile owners who would later go on to open Neumo’s, took over the Rendezvous three years ago, practically giving it CPR to rescue it from its bleary, beery coma. Now, on most weekends, the Rendezvous is a crowded, busy, multitasking space, with three distinct areas (bar, lounge, theater).
The Rendezvous is quite a hangout for the suave-on-a-budget crowd, with some of the most fascinating (if erratic) entertainment around. The bookings range from the extraordinary, such as a three-night stand by local experimental jazz guru Wayne Horvitz this weekend, to the kooky, e.g. Monday’s “Cineoke,” in which the brave sing in front of footage from movie musicals, and film nights like Wednesday’s “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”
Two doors down from the Rendezvous is Viceroy, the newest lounge on the block, which seems like it drifted down from Capitol Hill in some sort of invisible landslide. Viceroy’s owners include Linda Derschang, one of the architects of Capitol Hill nightlife, who has been in on the Capitol Club, Chop Suey, the Baltic Room and her namesake, Linda’s Tavern. Viceroy is an odd combination of rustic and urban hip, with cozy leather couches and chairs, a stuffed boar’s head, exposed stone, metal sculptures and chic lighting.
The See Sound Lounge also brings some Capitol Hill flavor to Belltown. The bright, spacey venue is on Blanchard, between First and Second avenues, and appropriately enough seems to be somewhere between those two worlds. Plan B recently had a fascinating show here, mixing laptop beats, guitar and violin. “Belltown meets Berlin,” is how Plan B mastermind James van Leuven describes See Sound.
No story on Belltown would be truthful in spirit, let alone complete, without mention of the Crocodile. Just about every important Seattle band, from Nirvana to Death Cab for Cutie, played regularly here before moving on to bigger things. The godfather of Second Avenue, the Crocodile defined this street’s substance-over-style attitude. It’s far from the most attractive club in town but almost always has interesting music, local and national acts.
Austin slacker-rocker Bob Schneider is at the Crocodile tonight ($15), with local bands Slomo Rabbit Kick and Bugs in Amber playing at the Second and Blanchard club tomorrow ($7). The Crocodile also has its goofy side, as evidenced by Wednesday’s show, when Kane Hodder, Dolour, Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson and others will sing Disney covers.
It’s about as close as Second Avenue will ever get to Disneyland.
Tom Scanlon: firstname.lastname@example.org