Vito’s opened in 1953, a paragon of style serving cold martinis, a very popular cannelloni and lots of lounge music on Seattle’s First Hill under owners Vito and Jimmie Santoro. Patrons famously included politicians and priests, doctors and hospital staff from across “Pill Hill,” celebrities and — or so it was rumored — mafia, the latter possibly congregating in the Vagabond Room to make wagers and plot next moves. “Here deals were struck, city issues negotiated, bets placed and settled,” as a Seattle Times article put it. In the new century, Vito’s became a nightclub with actual violence rather than intimations of it occurring on the premises, including a fatal shooting on the dance floor. By 2010, it sat empty.
That’s when current owners Greg Lundgren and Jeff Scott restored it from rundown to retro-swanky glamour, with dining, lounge and dancing again circling around the padded-edged central bar, and the grand piano in the spotlight for live music five nights a week in the good-looking dim. The likes of local jazz legend Ruby Bishop tickled the ivories, and a majestic taxidermied cougar named Barbara became the new mascot of the backroom.
The pandemic was particularly unkind to combination restaurant-and-music venues, but Vito’s had made it through by way of to-go Italian dinners and plastic-cupped cocktails. After at last reopening with clinking glasses, disaster struck — upstairs, but close enough. In June, the apartment building above suffered a fire. As Lundgren wrote on Instagram, “While Vito’s itself was spared from the flames, the water that was used to douse the fire” — approximately 20,000 gallons of it — “crashed through the ceiling and wreaked havoc throughout the restaurant.” The closure began as a temporary one, but in August, work on remediating the water damage “was brought to a grinding halt, and gut-wrenchingly, there is nothing we can do about it.”
Lundgren — a wearer-of-many-hats, he also runs nearby The Hideout, Museum of Museums and Lundgren Monuments, and will be a co-producer of Bumbershoot when it resumes next summer — expressed sorrow for all involved, including displaced upstairs neighbors and the music community. “Everyone affected is crushed,” he wrote, with the future uncertain and Vito’s gone dark once more.
Will the iconic Seattle spot rise again? And, if so, when? Unfortunately, Lundgren relates, the uncertainty remains, with prospects perhaps growing more dim as the situation has evolved. The building had been ordered vacated for reconstruction for structural damage from the fire upstairs, which was projected to take a year. “My suspicion is that it will take a lot longer,” Lundgren says now, “as the new construction triggered significant alterations at the city, meaning the building owner now needs to bring the whole 1903 building to 2022 compliance — seismic included.
“It’s entirely depressing,” he says, “but entirely outside of our control.”
Meanwhile, fans and friends will just have to wait with fingers crossed. “The current plan is to put Vito’s into hibernation,” Lundgren continues, “and we’ll see what the world looks like when we are allowed back in.”