New Seattle is hot! As in literally: Record-setting heat has become the rule, not the exception, with four out of the five hottest documented years ever happening this decade (thanks, climate change!). While old-timers complain when temperatures climb past, oh, 72 degrees, everybody else looks up at the glorious blue skies and thinks: Now is the time to be outside with a view of this very beautiful city and a very cold drink. And when it gets an inkling, New Seattle has money to spend: Hence the new era of the upscale rooftop bar.
Downtown’s front-row skyline perch The Nest and South Lake Union’s contemporary-cool Mbar are the old-timers here, relatively speaking — they’ve both been working the rooftop bar angle since 2016. Now two more spots have opened up in the air for your drinks-with-a-view pleasure: Fog Room, also working the downtown angle, and Mountaineering Club over in the U District. At all four, craft cocktails come at an open-air premium — looking isn’t free, people. Oh, and they’ve all got food, too — though that’s more of an afterthought at some than at others.
So which one is your best bet? We bit the bullet and went to find out what they each do best. Because we care and because these places are very popular, we also got the details on making reservations, and we’re telling you how to go the cheapskate route, too. Enjoy! (And hurry, before the wildfires start!)
BEST SURPRISE: Mountaineering Club
4507 Brooklyn Ave. N.E., Seattle (inside Graduate Hotel); 206-634-2000; graduatehotels.com/seattle/restaurant/mountaineering-club
Height: 16th floor
House cocktails: $13 each
Drink for cheapskates: Rainier (or, oddly, Peroni?!) for $5
Reservations: Available for parties of all sizes on Resy
Bethany: This brand-new rooftop bar offers a top-of-the-world lookout: so many distant mountains (two whole ranges!), plural lakes, the miniaturized University of Washington campus and much more. That’s the gorgeous surprise here in the otherwise flat U District — well, flat except for the monolith of UW Tower, the one looming impediment to Mountaineering Club’s view. And nota bene: Plenty of new high-rises are on the way — enjoy all that you can see here while you can still see it.
Tan: The space is outfitted with tools and bric-a-brac of the eponymous trade. Two bigwigs from Los Angeles, Marc Rose and Med Abrous, are behind this spot, and they also run the hip cocktail bar The Spare Room to Hollywood and acclaimed restaurant Winsome to Echo Park.
Tan: The cocktail theme: camping. Can a drink taste like trail mix? The “Palouse Is Loose” ($13) — cognac and whiskey with salted barley malt syrup, apricot liqueur, coconut and toasted pecan bitters — gets there with a nutty, dried-fruit flavor. The not-so-secret ingredient of the brandy drink “We Put Nettles In This” ($13) is dry nettles steeped like tea, carbonated and then mixed with aloe vera, grapefruit cordial, gentian root liqueur and lime celery bitters. It’s the way to go on a sweltering afternoon. These wild concoctions come from the wacky but brilliant mind of Jabriel Donohue. He does something that I don’t see a lot of bartenders do anymore: have fun behind the bar. Donohue took some risks and just went for it. It’s easy to make a drink taste like s’mores, but he doesn’t take the easy route.
Bethany: Agreed on the pretty, pale lemon-lime-colored Nettles In This: Both refreshing and warming, it had a pleasant, faint vegetal quality and a tiny acidic bite, and the complicated-sounding ingredients result in easy drinking. I would not say the same of the rye Manhattan-esque “Looking Under Logs” ($13), in which the liquid and the cinnamon-stick “log” argued violently with what tasted like a nacho-cheese-dust rim (aka “Creole spice lick”) — an unsettling meeting of spicy V8 and Christmas. Another drink had a pretzel as garnish: A wet pretzel is just not a good thing. But points for fearlessness behind the bar!
Tan: The rooftop doesn’t have a kitchen, so with a when-life-gives-you-lemons attitude, the L.A. impresarios made camping food the theme. A tin can of Loki salmon gets crowned with mashed avocado for $12.50, while shrimp gumbo served in a bag of Tim’s potato chips ($9.50) is an homage to those ready-made meal pouches for hikers. Tasty? Eh, not so much. In any other bar, even someone high or drunk would be like, “What the hell are you feeding me!?” But the boys from Tinseltown sprinkled some hocus-pocus to sow a wilderness mirage, and no one seems concerned about the weird food options. These pros really know how to sell a story.
Bethany: Both the tin plates and “Tim’s Chips Pie” are cute ideas, but the latter tasted like a bagful of creamy, bland fish stew — especially troubling as hot-weather food. The Waygu hot dog represented a waste of undetectable Dungeness crab and no special elevation of the form (for $18.50!). A “Mountain Bacon Sandwich” ($14.50) made Tan say, “Holy cow, that’s not bacon, it’s a slab of pork belly!” Accurate and, again, so heavily rich — the poor lettuce was wilted with grease. The comparatively light (and not hot) “Campsite Spread” — prosciutto, pimento cheese, pickles and toast ($18.50) — appeared most popular here on a warm evening, which makes sense, unlike the menu as a whole. No one’s hiking up here.
Bethany: Yes, I have groused above. But Mountaineering Club offers an exhilarating, expansive, unexpected vantage point including our actual, beautiful, multiplicity of mountains, and you should go. (Just eat elsewhere.)
Tan: I get the panoramic views, but I’m still low enough to the ground that I can still see a man in a Camry below, sipping from a paper cup. I love that I get a clear view everywhere, no binoculars needed. Psst: Book your Fourth of July reservation up here.
BEST DRINKS: Fog Room
1610 Second Ave., Seattle (inside Charter Hotel Seattle); 206-256-7525; fogroomseattle.com
Height: 16th floor
Average cocktail price: $14
Drink for cheapskates: Olympia for $5
Reservations: Available for parties of all sizes on OpenTable or at 206-256-7525
Capacity: 80 seats in bar/lounge, 40 outside
Tan: The sun is skinny-dipping into Elliott Bay, and the views along the pier and the romantic glow of the Seattle Great Wheel look magnificent. Too bad they’re all from a slideshow looping on the flat-screen behind the bar. I think the television is sending the subliminal message that I would get these vistas if those pesky, 40-story towers weren’t blocking our rooftop view.
Bethany: Fog Room only opened last fall — and it actually looks down on the Nest — but new neighbors are already building-blocking its view. Other structures occupy about 90 of its 180 degrees, up close and personal, and your access to the peekaboo that’s left will vary with your seating. And your seating, in turn, is of the bland, generic, upscale-corporate-chain variety, whether inside or out. While we were here, smooth jazz played; we saw far more suits than anywhere else. Charter Hotel Seattle, turns out, is part of Curio Collection by Hilton — hence the anonymous feeling here makes sense. Up side: The chances of running into anyone you know probably approach nil.
Tan: The most comprehensive cocktail menu of the four bars, this is a balanced lineup of boozy and fruity drinks that’s well organized under highballs, flights of spirits, originals and classics. There’s even a drink list that pays homage to world-famous hotel bars like The American Bar at The Savoy Hotel in London and Bar Hemingway at the Ritz in Paris. And for the expense-account set, a cocktail list showcasing top-shelf spirits for $26-$58. Jesse Cyr, one of the bar-stars in the city, has put together one of the best cocktail menus around downtown.
Bethany: Yes! I loved “Beautiful Tragedy” ($14) — fino sherry, Bols genever, amaro, maraschino and angostura bitters, a rounded, rich drink that stayed lighter than its name might make you think. And the pretty-and-pink vodka-and-Lillet-Rose “Firefly” ($12) cut the sweetness nicely with lemon and Peychaud’s. The bar here seems to be doing both dark and light just right.
Tan: We seem to have worse luck the higher up we go to dine, Bethany. First, all the bad food we had up at the Space Needle and other observatory towers, and now these rooftop bars. I imagine some poor plebe with burlap sacks strapped to his back making some Sisyphus-style attempt up the flights of stairs to bring us gourmet fare, but never quite making it to the roof.
Bethany: Hotel food has come a long way, but not at the top of the Charter. The best they could manage was a run-of-the-mill slider with (of course) truffle aioli — and (of course) Wagyu beef, meaning they cost $8 each. Still, so much better than a Dungeness crab roll with the taste and texture of sad tuna fish ($22). Or “Carrot & Cashew” dips ($12), the former too vinegary and the latter just vaguely creamy, served with store-bought-seeming triangles of pita bread. Or oversalted chicken skewers ($16), or really oversalted fried rockfish ($18). Sigh.
Bethany: Come for the drinks, stay if you’re hiding.
Tan: Some of the best cocktails in town, and they’re actually a buck or two cheaper than most fancy spots on Capitol Hill or in Ballard.
BEST FOOD (BY FAR!): Mbar
400 Fairview Ave. N., Seattle; 206-457-8287; mbarseattle.com
Height: 14th floor
Average cocktail price: $15
Drink for cheapskates: Miller High Life (the Champagne of beers!) for $5
Reservations: Available for parties of all sizes at mbarseattle.com, on Instagram and on Facebook
Bethany: We know you don’t go to a rooftop bar to eat — you’re celebrating a birthday (or just the fact that it’s sunny and it’s Friday), or impressing How Very Beautiful Seattle Is upon an out-of-towner (or a date). But Mbar’s menu represents a stunning improvement on that of the other battle-of-the-rooftop bars — and the view isn’t too shabby, either. There’s a sliver of silvery Puget Sound with the Olympics in the distance, the Space Needle standing solitary, Queen Anne looking like Mister Roger’s neighborhood, lovely Lake Union plied by valiant-looking sailboats, the many glinting windows of Capitol Hill. This spot feels both above and part of the city — including the fact that a brand-new building has recently sprung up very close by, blocking part of the view. C’est la vie — and you may actually be happy for its looming when the sun goes behind it on a hot day. Also: partytime points for playing Lionel Richie.
Tan: I’m so morbid that I keep looking east to the ant-line of cars inching along Interstate 5, and it relaxes me knowing I’m not in that traffic jam. More than the other rooftop bars, I get a sense of place here. You know you’re in Amazonland, with the blue-badge techies and conversations in Japanese, Mandarin, German and Hindi.
Bethany: The menu here is the work of Jason Stratton, he of “Top Chef” (and also Seattle’s vaunted Spinasse) fame, so it’s no shocker that it rises far above the rest. A plate of octopus ($18) looked summery-colorful-gorgeous with radishes, which also lent crunch, while plenty of high-quality olive oil gave a subtle luxury. Slabs of fresh-tasting halloumi ($14), grilled to a deep brown and complemented with crunchy pistachios and spicy carrot purée, made for a perfect hot-weather snack. We had quibbles: The octopus came in disappointingly small bits, while the halloumi had overly large, overwhelming pieces of medjool dates. But we were so happy to find rooftop food that makes you stop to think about it — to love it, even. Doesn’t love always involve quibbles?
Tan: The $35 grilled trout with za’atar and fenugreek was pricey for rooftop food, but the blackened skin was ideally offset by the soft flesh and sweet, caramelized onions (though the latter were poorly distributed to just one end of the fish — sorry, Bethany). The dish cries for some grains or veggies, but instead we got avocado and labneh — a little heavy on the creamy-rich-softness. Orecchiette pasta ($14/$25) — perfectly cooked to a bouncy al dente — comes with bright, crunchy raab, spicy breadcrumbs and anchovy for an umami punch. It’s a savory, buttery dish that needed a tad of acidity. But after eating at all the other rooftop bars, I happily embrace this pasta.
Tan: Cocktails are on the fizzy, beachy side — I wanted more whiskey-and spirit forward options. But the mescal spin on the paloma called “Vanjie” (with allspice, lemon and grapefruit soda, $16) was a pleasant surprise: It’s hard to find a smoky, savory drink that’s actually refreshing. Even better was the “Cascade Sunset” (tequila, aperol, lime, mint and some three-fire-alarm bitters, $15): This agave drink had that pleasant tartness you would find in the best margaritas and daiquiris.
Bethany: My Mbar cocktail experience was decidedly mixed. I loved “Cascade Sunset” with its cooling cucumber slice, gentle apricot scent, sweetness and spicy heat. “Fizzy Kiss” ($15), however, did not at all live up to its menu-marketing as “Your new favorite fruity spritz” — so much Campari! “HHURTFULLY BITTER,” according to the notes in my phone. That’s two Hs worth of hurt!
Bethany: Mbar’s rooftop deck feels urban but not closed in, and the festivities feel carefully tended to. If it gets cool after sundown (or after sun-behind-neighboring-building), there are blankets. And the food alone makes it worth going to, view or no view.
Tan: It’s the best bar to hit after 9 p.m. when the wind picks up and the weather drops 15 degrees — it gets cold up there, people, so there are fire pits, heaters and wind shields. Of the four rooftops, it’s the best bar for all four seasons.
BEST VIEW: The Nest
110 Stewart St., Seattle; 206-623-4600; thompsonhotels.com/hotels/washington/seattle/thompson-seattle/eat-and-drink/the-nest
Height: 13th floor
House cocktails: $16 each
Drink for cheapskates: Miller High Life (“high life,” get it?) for $5
Reservations: Available, however: “A $50 couch fee is applied to ALL reservations during the months of October-April due to the limited seating availability” (ouch!). Parties of up to eight are booked on Resy at the website above; parties of 9-30 at TheNest@thompsonhotels.com; 31 or more at SeattleSales@thompsonhotels.com;
Sunscreen and blankets available.
Capacity: About 80 inside and 150 outside, actual seats for 50 inside and 80 outside
Bethany: The view at The Nest is absurd — Seattle just doesn’t get more beautiful than this. You’re both hovering above and almost on the brink of the incredible, sparkling expanse of Elliott Bay, while tiny tourists below enjoy Pike Place Market’s picturesque fray (aren’t you happy you’re here with a drink instead?). The Great Seattle Wheel goes around and around (the line for that looks painful, too, come to think of it). The world’s most adorable ferries glide back and forth (but all beer must be consumed indoors if you’re aboard). So what if Mount Rainier is behind an unfortunately placed building — the majestic Olympics have never looked better, and same with the ruffly trees of West Seattle. Even the cruise ship leviathans don’t seem so bad, and hey, you’re on the deck of The Nest instead. Cheers!
Tan: As I watch the ferries plowing through the Sound, I feel like I’m on a lido deck, bound on a cruise for Bequia. I need a daiquiri in my hand, only…
Tan: The bar was so sardine-packed on a recent Friday, we couldn’t get a drink and left, returning on a slower night. There is a disconnect here: The cocktail menu is designed for a 35-seat den, when it should be tailored for a clubbing-size crowd. Some of these house cocktails are too elaborate to execute when the gatekeeper allows more than 200 party-hardy people up here. I see bartenders not shaking or stirring drinks long enough. I see ice flying everywhere. They’re in the weeds. It’s an unrealistic cocktail menu that is taxing for the bartenders and tests the patience of customers who endured a long wait to get up here, only to get in another long line to buy a drink. The second bar up there is not enough to ease what is the bar version of the Mercer Mess. The Nest needs cocktails on tap, or at least to make some cocktails in batches.
Bethany: They’re trying to be crowd-pleasing, for a certain crowd — even the brown-liquor drink we taste-tested, called “Good Fellas” (all house cocktails are $16), was as sweet as a boozy cake, with bourbon, rum, cherry and orange syrup … Others are clearly ready for Instagram and tailored to the Sour Patch palate, like the vibrantly violet-colored “Pea-Diddy” (drink names here skew cute). Tan agreed that they hit another sweet-and-sour one, “Melon Ball,” on the head. “It’s just meant to be a melon margarita,” he said. But: “I hate this drink.”
Bethany: You might have high expectations for a rooftop from the upmarket Thompson Hotel chain, but … Beef skewers ($11) featured a sweet, lowest-common-denominator version of kalbi sauce and a scant sprinkling of untoasted sesame seeds, sided with a tiny pile of tough pieces of “charred”/not-charred leek, on the grill way too briefly. Grilled albacore tuna — four smallish slices for $17 — was tough, too, on the outside, that is; the interior of the fish, which should’ve been glowy-delicious, was mushy, cottony-tasteless and (alarmingly) a wrong, dull color.
Tan: Our grilled tofu ($14) had more flavor than that tuna. It’s hard to dine well under the stars in Seattle simply because most places don’t have a full kitchen up there. But I thought The Nest cracked the code when it plopped a giant grill in the middle of the rooftop. I mean, if all you did was marinate your meat in a day-old vegetable oil from the hotel restaurant below along with salt and pepper, your grilled food would be above average. I don’t know how The Nest messed up what is essentially a backyard barbecue.
Tan: When a place claims a view like this place does, it apparently can charge $50 just to make a reservation, and offer a $150 punch bowl on its menu. That’s when you know you’ve already won. You’re pretty much bulletproof from Yelp and hacks like me.
Bethany: I guess it’s true — you don’t have to try hard if you’re nearly incomprehensibly beautiful, though people like us will hate you a tiny bit for it. Still, yes, we’d go back to The Nest … though next time, without an expense account, we’d go the cheapskate $5 Miller High Life route.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.