“Is this the men’s room?” asks my cousin-in-law, Missy, when the valets outside of El Gaucho Seattle show her to the front doors to the restaurant. The double-door entrance features two gold-plated sketches of a thinly mustachioed man in a hat and pañuelo.
It’s the El Gaucho logo, and they stamp it on everything.
At the front desk upstairs from the restaurant, there is a wooden case of sleek gold matchbooks and a glass vase full of shiny gold-wrapped mints, all with tiny logos on them (I pocket a couple of each; they’re just so shiny!). This, of course, is nothing compared to the mustachioed man you’ll find staring up at you from the gold-wrapped toilet paper in your hotel-room bathroom.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The answer to Missy’s question is yes. This is the men’s room.
Or at least it would have been 65 years ago, when the building was owned by the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific (SUP). The space served as housing for union men during strikes, with upstairs units for retired sailors. On the main floor and basement, you could find a restaurant, a barber shop, a theater and two boxing rings, among other amenities.
Today, the building is no longer home to retired sailors, nor is it exclusive to union men. Instead, the one-stop-shop model that made the building a great place for union workers to wait out strikes now makes it the perfect place for a “staycation” — one that’s particularly heavy on the “stay.” With a restaurant and bar just downstairs, and another bar and a movie theater one floor below that, plus in-room dining and a free happy hour in the lobby complete with snacks and wine, you never have to leave the building.
The Friday I arrive, I head straight to the inn, and the smooth vocals of Frank Sinatra’s “I Won’t Dance” greet me. Considering the old boys’ club vibe I got from the El Gaucho website, I expected nothing less. The lobby itself — all whiskey tones and leather couches — doesn’t disappoint. A wall full of black-and-white photos of iconic Hollywood celebrities and a fireplace framed by a half-moon of cocktail tables make the lobby look like an old jazz club, the kind of place where you might’ve found the real Ol’ Blue Eyes singing back in the day. (And the kind of place where Ella Fitzgerald would’ve had to enter through the back door, if she were allowed in at all.)
The inn only has 17 rooms, which means that Susan Hickman, who was working the front desk alone that night, is also in charge of turndown service and setting up the 5 p.m. happy hour. But it also means the staff can add several endearing little personal touches.
Hickman hands me a small, bedazzled black envelope with the key cards in them. My name is handwritten in gold ink across the front. When I open the door to my room, I’m greeted by jazz music playing softly on the TV, warm lighting and a humane temperature — a nice contrast to the usual dark, overly air-conditioned hotel-room entrance. The lobby’s palette of oranges and browns continues in the room, though I’m told the renovations will soon switch out the bourbon and scotch shades for “Revere Pewter” gray and “Black Fox” black. A goodie bag (also logo-ed) with cookies inside awaits on the bedside table, along with a personalized handwritten thank-you card. After the third handwritten note, these personal touches begin to sprint past endearing but, happily, stop just short of creepy “Misery” territory.
The 5 p.m. happy hour in the lobby is poorly attended, but features a nice selection of wines and a spread that includes chocolate-covered espresso beans, both of which I enjoy fireside. It’s cozy enough to tempt you into settling in and skipping the trip downstairs for a real dinner.
But steak and whiskey beckon.
The route to the restaurant is as unremarkable as a roadside motel, but once the doors open, the space glistens like a Mariah Carey concert jumpsuit, and you’ll probably feel your wallet have a small seizure. (Pro tip: Book your room using one of the hotel’s packages to get a $75 credit for dinner.)
The room is dim — like this-might-be-a-front-for-a-Lovecraftian-cult dim — but several small lights over the bar make its many, many bottles of whiskey cast a bourbon glow. At the bar, you can get more reasonably priced eats, including a burger often bragged about, during two happy hours. (One starts daily at 4 p.m.; the other runs Tuesday through Thursday from 9 p.m. to close and Saturday through Sunday from 10 p.m. to close.)
But if you’re looking for the full El Gaucho experience, you’ll want a full table — and a full wallet. The tableside service here means more than just having your meat carved for you. If you order the Tableside Hickory Manhattan ($35) you’ll get a performance that includes your whiskey glass being smoked over a pile of hickory the server lights on fire right next to your table.
Our hickory-smoker for the evening is Jeffrey Young, whose easy manner and uncanny resemblance to Tom Cavanagh have me half-convinced we’re about to become the unfortunate bystanders to a supervillain’s fight with The Flash. Elsewhere, larger fires rise up from skillets right next to tables, among guests and their charming tuxedoed servers. Young continues the performance at our table, using the miracle of physics and an ice-ball maker to transform a square of ice into a perfect sphere for my $35 Manhattan.
The whole restaurant is like a very genteel magic show, complete with a blue-lit piano man (tonight it’s Daniel Davison) who smiles and seamlessly moves from one jazzy tune to the next. And then, of course, there’s the occasional sighting of women being escorted across the room on young men’s arms.
The first time I witness this ritual, I think I’m seeing a couple adorably unaware of the century in which they live. But another sighting prompts me to ask our server, Gina Ferraro, who tells me that this is actually part of the duty of the male staff — escorting female guests to the restroom. Ferraro laughs at the face I make in response and again when I conspiratorially ask if she ever offers to escort the men. She has, she says. They never say yes.
Sure enough, when I get up to photograph Davison at the piano, a male server is at my side before I’m two steps from the table, offering his arm and asking if I need an escort to the restroom. I’m thrilled to say no.
But it’s not all performance and gentility. There’s nothing polite about how good the food is here. I definitely let slip a couple of excited expletives when I tried the Steak Trio ($90), a sampling of three steaks and sides — New York steak with snow crab claw and bearnaise sauce; filet mignon with prawns and diablo sauce; sirloin with mashed potatoes, crispy shallots and porcini truffle butter.
It tastes every bit the 90 bucks I dropped on it, particularly the butter-soft filet mignon and the crab claw side. I’ll leave the creative adjectives and meal analysis to the foodies. But for me, knowing that I could take what was left of my 12 ounces of steak back to my hotel room right upstairs, and have the most delicious (and expensive) leftovers I’ve ever eaten in my pajamas later on, is one of the highlights of the El Gaucho staycation.
Full of steak and whiskey, we saunter down to The Big Picture theater. There’s a bar where the concession stand would be, and with no velvet rope to make sense out of the crowd, patrons form a nonsensical blob and shout drink orders at the four bartenders behind the bar. I order something called a Super Manhattan, and preorder a second one to be delivered during the movie.
Halfway through our comfy viewing of “Ocean’s Eight” (a particularly refreshing women-centric film given this old boys’ club staycation), I’m shout-whispering “Ri Ri!” whenever Rihanna appears on the screen, and the second preordered Super Manhattan arrives just as I realize what’s so “super” about my Super Manhattan. I almost regret ordering the second one, before remembering that a comfy bed and roughly 4 ounces of three different steaks await me upstairs.
In the morning, I regrettably forget the rest of my leftovers in the mini-fridge, and walk four blocks to Biscuit Bitch to cure myself of the Super Manhattans, before walking leisurely home to do a little more staying.
The beauty of the staycation is that it removes so much of the stress that often comes with travel — the long flight or drive, the urge to pack your day with every tourist attraction, figuring out how to get around a new place. But even with a staycation, you still usually have to figure out where you’re eating and how you want to spend your time (you probably don’t want to pay for a hotel just to channel surf in your room).
The beauty of an El Gaucho staycation is that it’s all planned out and ready for you. All you’ve got to do is walk downstairs.