Dive bars are sort of an indicator species. In Seattle many quirky neighborhood joints have closed, including 30 of the 100 featured in the 2009 book “Seattle’s Best Dive Bars.”
It’s the early side of happy hour on a sunny Wednesday and the only patrons at Ed’s Kort Haus are regulars.
Greg Waas goes all the way back to 1972. Paul Stover, a few stools down, started hanging in 1996 and met his wife here. Both live within walking distance of the 65-year-old Phinney Ridge bar. They don’t come for Ed’s cocktails or exotic meats, though the menu includes kangaroo, gator and more.
The main attraction is simplicity, familiarity, camaraderie. You can spend a few hours here and not see anyone fiddle with their phone.
But what will they do when Ed’s closes — temporarily, insists owner Ed Warrington — while developers build a four-story apartment building where it now stands? “I’m going to Ed’s house for its terrible ambience,” Waas said.
Seattle dive bars are sort of an indicator species. They can only survive in certain environments, nourished by a friendly habitat. Surrounded by craft cocktails and microbrews featuring oyster shells and rose petals, their ecosystems are threatened like never before.
One after another, longtime neighborhood bars have closed, including 31 of the 100 in Mike Seely’s 2009 book “Seattle’s Best Dive Bars.”
The fallen include Seely’s top-rated dive bar (Rimrock Steakhouse in Lake City), his best biker bar (Alki Tavern), and the spot with the strongest drinks in town (Wallingford’s Moon Temple). Seely called Ed’s a “quintessential Seattle dive.”
Lost in each closure is some community. “The dive-bar scene was your social-media site before Facebook and all that stuff was out. It’s what you did, where you went to check in,” said Gill McLynne Jr., 33, who managed the Alki for his parents in its last years.
The Alki closed in 2013 after its property and adjacent ones were bought by foreign investors. Its fate was probably inevitable, given its unobstructed view of Puget Sound.
Don’t expect a replacement to pop up in West Seattle. Neighborhood taverns that serve only beer and wine, like the Alki, “just aren’t happening anymore,” said the senior Gill McLynne, the Alki’s owner for 37 years. “It’s just the demographics.”
Not all of the shuttered dive bars were victims of gentrification. At the Viking Tavern in Ballard, the owners weren’t so much forced out as they opted to cash in.
As owner Tim Cannon explains it, change was destined for the Viking’s corner of Ballard, at 6404 24th Ave. N.W.
Zoning allowed for a six-story building. Ballard’s residents were becoming younger, more affluent, more transient, more likely to rent than own a house. And Cannon, 69, was poised to retire. Selling the Viking to local developer Bill Parks, who built loft-style apartments at the site, amounted to a pension plan for Cannon and his wife, Peggy.
It’s doubtful, though, that Ballard will see another bar that sells fresh eggs to go from a farm in Brier.
Lack of pretension is key
What makes a dive bar?
They can have many characteristics, according to Seely. Some are shabby and stained and flip the bird to fashion. Others appear unwelcoming, or suspicious of newbies. Still others are marked by simple fare and prices that seemingly haven’t changed in years.
“What they have in common aren’t so much attributes, but a state of mind,” Seely wrote, “you just know when you see one.”
He said he doesn’t associate dive bars with “particularly negative drunken behavior.”
For Cannon, a dive bar — which he prefers to think of as a neighborhood watering hole — is defined by its lack of pretension. As his father, a bar owner in Florida, told him: “There’s nothing more personal than taking gold and silver out of someone’s pocket and putting food and drink in their mouth. You know right away if it’s a fair deal and you’ll come back,” he said.
Just what makes for a place worth saving in the face of ravenous market forces may be a question for City Hall.
Voters in San Francisco — Seattle’s political guide star — last year approved Proposition J, which creates subsidies to preserve “legacy” businesses. Those are defined as having been around for at least 30 years and contributing to a neighborhood’s history or identity. They can’t have more than 100 employees.
Prop. J offers up to $500 per full-time employee. Landlords can qualify for up to $22,500 in grants if they sign a 10-year lease with a legacy shop. These annual subsidies could cost $3.7 million in the measure’s first year, according to the city controller, and grow to $94 million annually in 25 years.
Qualified applicants are nominated and approved by city officials.
Prop. J was fueled by evictions of cherished bars and restaurants, said Seely, former editor of the Seattle Weekly. He thinks something similar may be needed in Seattle.
Seattle law allows for preserving landmark buildings. “But you can’t landmark use,” Seely said, recalling a loud 1989 battle to save the Blue Moon. Open since 1934, the University District bar claimed a rich history as a hangout for writers; author Tom Robbins called Pablo Picasso’s house — collect — from the Blue Moon one night in the late 1960s.
But city law would only protect the building, not the bar.
“That gets sticky. You can’t say this location is going to be a bar forever,” Seely said. “So you’ve got to look at ways to incentivize property owners to keep cafes, bars or stores when rents are dramatically rising.”
Blue Moon owner Gus Hellthaler, 67, said he’s in the process of selling the bar and expects to wrap the deal in May. The Blue Moon’s lease runs until 2034, Hellthaler said, and the buyer, whom he declined to name, wants to keep it as is.
The San Francisco law is a good idea, he said. “Small business have absolutely no chance of paying the rent that goes with increased property values. Anything pre-1950s in Seattle is likely to disappear in the next few years,” he said.
As people crave authenticity in the face of sweeping change, “these places are so important,” Seely said. “They’re a crazy symphony of humanity you can’t get in newer, more buttoned-down places.”
Determined to reopen
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Back at Ed’s, a dart league is under way, the Stones rock the jukebox, and the crowd has filled out with younger customers.
Warrington said he grew up a “project rat” in White Center and bought the bar 35 years ago when he got out of the Army. He’s managed to hold on to it through a heart attack, two divorces and shifting trends. (In the 1990s, he said, he had a standing rule that cellphones weren’t allowed “because only cops and drug dealers had them.”)
His lease protects and all but guarantees Ed’s future at North 68th Street and Greenwood Avenue North, he said. Although he expects to take a year off during demolition of the bar and construction of the 57-unit Phinney Flats, Warrington says he will reopen and “we’re going to keep some of the character.”
But it won’t be the same timeworn space. It will be bigger. Tobacco-stained tiles that have lined the ceiling for decades will get cut up and hung over the bar, he said, like artifacts. Warrington, 67, won’t be bartending seven days a week. He hopes to be more like a manager.
Gill McLynne, the Alki’s owner, has retired to Belfair with his wife, Cathy. (The two met because she was on a softball team sponsored by the tavern.) He doesn’t get to Seattle much these days, but if he were to have a beer in the city it would likely be in Georgetown, he said.
“Georgetown has bars that have the feel that old bars used to — but in a sneaky way. They’re a bit more upscale. They run them with $5,000 cash registers,” he said, pausing and adding, “there’s nothing wrong with a shoe box.”