Linda Derschang was standing backstage at Sasquatch!, where a pop-up version of her Capitol Hill bar, Bait Shop, had been filling rock stars’ cups with her signature drinks throughout the Memorial Day weekend.
Not far away, Macklemore was literally riding a wave of frenzied fans in an inflatable raft when a crew member shouted, “Family and friends to the side of the stage!”
Derschang went along and took it all in: a kid who had grown up in the same Capitol Hill neighborhood where she had grown her businesses, at the top of his game.
“I am looking out at 30,000 people and thinking, ‘This is so crazy. Here I am with all these young people,’ ” Derschang told me other day. “But then I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
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This “why not?” philosophy has gotten her far.
For two decades, Derschang, 55, has been the lamplighter of the Capitol Hill scene, and in the process, become a major player in establishing Seattle’s nightlife aesthetic.
It started almost 20 years ago, in 1994, with Linda’s Tavern, which has a rustic, broken-in-boots feel, a place where anyone can clomp in for a cold one; a man cave with a powder room, all deep wood and neon.
Derschang followed it with a veritable hit parade of timing, location and design.
The Capital Club in 1997. The Baltic Room that same year. Chop Suey in 2003, followed by King’s Hardware in 2006 and Smith in 2007. Oddfellows opened in 2008 and then Derschang took a four-year break — thank heavens — before Bait Shop opened in 2012.
You wonder where it came from; Derschang’s sixth sense about what it takes to make a bar stand out and stay up, when so many have fired up and burned out.
Over coffee at Oddfellows, Derschang’s airy, humming cafe tucked between Pine and Pike streets, I fished for the roots of her recipe: What was the first bar you ever walked into?
She furrowed her brow, looked to the side.
“Certain things I remember clear as a bell,” she said, slowly. “I remember a lot of little mountain bars near Crested Butte” near where she grew up in Colorado. “Linda’s Tavern has a little of that spirit.”
Asked to define that spirit — is it clean or kitsch or cool or retro? — Derschang scanned the room for an answer. This isn’t the first time she’s been asked, but that doesn’t mean she has come up with a solid response.
“My bars are all different, but that ties into my design,” she said. “I like creating different feelings in each one of them … I don’t really think about whether I’ve made an impact. I’m just trying to create places where people want to go.”
Oh, they go, all right. Enough so Derschang was able to buy a pied-à-terre in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.
As we spoke — Tim Keck, publisher of The Stranger, has his own table, and various folks stopped by for a hello or a hug — Derschang spotted an email that she knew contained her monthly financial reports.
Always a gracious hostess, she held off from peeking to take stock. But it was a bit of a struggle.
“The number side of business, to me, is like doing a crossword puzzle,” she explained. “I geek out.”
It was a pretty sure bet that the numbers would be good.
“It’s a good time now,” she said. “When I was young, my only goal was to have an interesting life. And to me, that means to be around interesting people, whether it’s my staff, my guests in the business, friends or old friends … I feel really blessed. It continues to be engaging.”
Derschang came to Seattle in 1987 and opened a clothing store called Basic. It was a place where punk lived in the racks, and where Derschang dressed some of the city’s tastemakers.
She was a regular face around Seattle’s burgeoning music scene, and had her own stage cred as the former bass player for a band called The Chelsea Girls.
She befriended SubPop Records founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, who, newly flush with money from Nirvana’s success, wanted to open a bar. Would she run it? That bar became Linda’s Tavern.
At the time, she was a single mother to daughter Tallulah, now 24.
“As an entrepreneur, sometimes you just do things,” she said.
These days, she’ll make a few early stops most nights, asking the bartender, “Is there something you want to make me?” or asking for her standard Old Fashioned or a beer called The Old German.
Then she’s home to her Westie, Jack and the stack of books next to her bed. (Recent reads: “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn; and James Salter’s “All That Is.”)
“I bet I make it to midnight twice a month,” she said.
Derschang indulges herself in magazines — she buys some 15 at a time at the neighboring Elliott Bay Book Company. The New Yorker. British Vogue. Tatler. Food & Wine and Saveur, even though she told me twice that she doesn’t cook. And she always has “a hunk” of The New York Times in her purse.
Other passions include the opera, good bags, regular yoga and skiing at Snoqualmie.
“One fantasy is being a seventy-something ski bum,” she said.
But Derschang is far from finished. She is preparing to open Tallulah’s, a cafe and bar named for her daughter and slated for an October opening on 19th Avenue — an area Derschang sees as having a new energy and a need for a casual neighborhood cafe.
Of course, that won’t be her last venture.
“I won’t be done,” she said. “Some people think I will just step away, but I can’t step away. I think it’s an enjoyment of design, and working with the amazing people that I work with.”
Another smile, and another glance around the full, buzzing room.
“I’m just trying to create favorites,” she said. “And always hoping that I’m right.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.