Best downtown dives
In an ever-gentrifying Seattle once rich in bar history, it's increasingly difficult to find a good, old-fashioned joint to go slumming. But among the few remaining dives the competition is, well, stiff. On lower Pike, The Turf (107 Pike, 682-2323) and its wanted-poster crowd can probably lay claim to being one of the last great downtown grunge locales (grunge in its original sense). But with the demise of the Mirror Tavern across the street, the Turf no longer sponsors the Budweiser Exchange Program, wherein a patron thrown out of one bar could stagger across Pike into the other. Now, they have to waddle all the way to the venerable Gibson's on Second Avenue (116 Stewart, 448-6369), where the clientele remains reasonably scruffy and the service is occasionally rude enough to qualify for divedom. Long gone, of course, are the chrome cooler-door covers behind the bar in which patrons could see the leggy reflections of barmaids bending over to grab a brew. But on a wall remains a reminder of the bar's heyday as both dive and media hot spot: A fading Seattle Times column (written by the fading Rick Anderson), recalling the night a group of sportswriters got fried at the Gibson, fondled the piano player, spilled drinks, then tripped out the side door when the tab arrived—an epic tale of "America's guests," as sports columnist Art Thiel calls them. But farther up Second Avenue is the Rendezvous, still first—or is it last?—in the lower order of lounge lizardry (2320 Second, 441-5823). There's just something about—as one bartender puts it—"arriving for work at the same time Medic One is pulling up."
Best dive outside downtown
Jimmy Woo's Jade Pagoda (606 Broadway E, 322-5900), as far as we can tell, is the equivalent of The Shining's haunted hotel. The Chinese dining establishment appears to have undergone some similar form of haunting or perhaps a lethal case of food poisoning in the late '70s/early '80s, leaving its unremodeled architecture, set yet empty tables, and back patio eerily silent. If you listen closely enough, however, you might hear . . . wait, yes, that is Diana Ross' voice drifting through the door to the right of the dining area! Enter Jade Pagoda's bar and discover a cozily warm (yet smoky) room containing a wet bar, tabletop candles, and Christmas lights that respect the dimness of the space. You will also find diversity: The bartender with handlebar mustache and leather vest, the couple in shiny club outfits sharing a Bloody Mary, the drag queen sassily snapping fingers for a waiter's attention, the music scenesters fresh from a gig at the Crocodile. Despite their differences, the junkies, the yuppies, and the circuit boys sitting next to one another all share a passion for Jade Pagoda's underground vibe. Drinks about as stiff as they come don't dent the morale, either, but I can't make any promises about the pot stickers.
Best bowling alley
The PBA recently made a stop at the Sunset Bowl in Ballard (1420 NW Market, 782-7310), where the lanes are well maintained, the rental shoes have nifty velcro flaps, and they serve those great Budweiser bowling-pin bottles. After nine o'clock (especially on the weekends), Sunset can become a bit overrun with the hipster set, and the waiting list can get rather long. Of course, you can spend time singing karaoke or sitting at the pull-tab counter next to the chain-smoking woman who will inevitably begin coughing and ordering hot toddies. Don't come after dark if you can't stand really loud "modern rock" (if you're lucky, they'll be playing the '80s tape instead). If you really want to go whole hog, however, there's no better place than the Skyway Park Bowl (11819 Renton S, 772-1220), a veritable megaplex of guilty pleasures: bowling alley, indoor miniature golf course, karaoke lounge, and casino. Plus, bowl in view of armed security!
Best gay dance club
Despite Spintron's efforts to compete by throwing overpriced underwear parties and the Cuff's brand spanking new (pun intended) dance floor, the beautiful beats behemoth of ARO.space (925 E Pike, 320-0424) continues to reign as Seattle's premiere queer nightspot. With a cast of fire-fingered DJs, sexy-as-sin bartenders and doormen, funky-fresh art shows, and a vegetarian restaurant that holds its own without the aid of a strobe light (try the Southern Vegetable Plate), this is as close to cosmopolitan club chic Seattle comes, gay or straight. Highlights include the legendary Saturday night Snackbar, a collage of egoism, tank tops, pecs, pretty boys, and the Barbie-esque drag emcee Marina (who should shake her thang a little more often); also check out Hot Box, first Friday of every month, with the loveliest lesbians north of the Golden Gate. If you tire of posing, feast on some wide-screen porn idols, lounge on an upstairs couch, or convert one of those breeder bartender babes already.
Best place to be (or see) a hipster
From outside, Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen (506 E Pine, 329-9978) and its accompanying Cha Cha Lounge (504 E Pine, 329-1101) seem to offer only a Mexican flag and a shady spot of sidewalk. Next to the Lounge's door a sign states, "If you are racist, sexist, a homophobe, or an asshole, don't come in." If you are a hipster, however, or at least an admirer of hipsters, you've found home. Se�Bimbo's y Se� Cha Cha serve Seattle's coolest kids with a side of the best Mexican kitsch this side of Baja. While munching on scrumptious bargains such as the Enchiladas Cha Cha or a Basic Burrito stuffed with Garlic Roasted Potatoes, feast your eyes on the gaudy jungle of Virgin Marias, chili peppers, and sombreros while you forget the questionable weather outside. Experience a staff as cool as the customers, whose groovy thrift ࠬa mode fashion and Capitol Hill attitude would give Calvin Klein's grittier models a run for their money. After dining (and a psychedelic trip past the bathroom walls), head on through to Cha Cha with the other hip boys (dyed black hair, shrunken faded tee, and pasty complexion recommended; horn-rimmed glasses helpful) and girls (dyed black hair, shrunken button-up blouse; heeled sandals with pink toenails) to drag on a cig, down a tequila, listen to some music, or mark your spot among the eternally hip.
Best place to spot a drunken scenester
Why do tippling hipsters flock to the Seawolf Saloon (1413 14th at Madison, 323-2158)? Is it the quaint Pacific Northwest decor or the grizzled, gay-man ambiance? Actually, it's neither. The draw of this little hole-in-the-wall is location—namely, around the corner from the Breakroom, which is fabulous but, it should be noted, serves only beer and (very bad) wine. The Seawolf, on the other hand, serves vodka, rum, gin, and other flavors of hard liquor. During and after Breakroom shows, there's a veritable parade of alterna-types scurrying along 14th for liquid sustenance. The Seawolf's regulars don't seem to mind being invaded by tipsy heteros—even tipsy hetero women. A toast to you, gentlemen!
Best new drag performer
Though Summer Camp won this year's first annual Cherry Bomb drag contest at ARO.space, it was her only contender, Veruca Vain, who raised everyone's plucked eyebrows. A child of the techno nation, Vain seems more NYC than Seattle. She cuts a striking figure with her androgynous looks—short bleached hair, fiercely drawn eyebrows, and a multitude of weird and wonderful costumes that Wade Blackman designs himself. Vain is the natural extension of early-'90s club kids, in platforms and rave-y costume wear, all worn with a glamorous, kitschy twist. He currently hosts a campy drag/art night one Wednesday a month at ARO.space, drawing in a cross-section of folks who always sit on the cutting edge of drag.
Best kept DJ secret
As the head of 1200 Records and the record buyer for Groovetech.com, DJ Masa's a well known but reclusive figure in the dance music community who can spin everything from jungle to house to techno (though he's primarily known for the latter). A longtime fixture in the scene, Masa was one of the first to spin acid house when he was a resident at the Vogue nearly 10 years ago, and, more recently, was one of the early purveyors of drum and bass in Seattle, pushing breakneck breakbeats on the confused masses. His label serves up an impressive array of minimal, stripped-down techno, but few Seattlelites know of or understand his music here: Actually, Masa and his label are more famous in Germany than their own hometown. But should you catch one of Masa's rare DJ appearances, you'll get a quick lesson on why experience, knowledge, and technique go a long way in the fly-by-night dance music industry.
Best dance night
You know that jungle's arrived in a big way when the city's most boisterous night out happens on a Tuesday. But they come to the Baltic Room (1207 Pine, 625-4444) by the truckload—or as many as you're likely to fit—week after week to wreak havoc on the plush surroundings of this cozy club. Though the night's been hit with the bridge-and-tunnel kids of late (you know, folks who three months ago wrinkled their noses at the mere thought of jungle), there's still a sizeable portion of Seattle toughest junglists in tow. Whether there's an out-of-town DJ like Rinse from SF, London's jump-up wunderkind Aphrodite, or one of the local jungle crew 360 BPM, a packed, hot, sweaty dance floor is always screaming for a rewind.
Best club renovation
Though all the owners did was remove the wall that used to separate the lounge from the main room, my, what a difference that made! Walking into the Showbox (1426 First, 628-3151), especially during its new dance night, Dedicated, you are awed by the sheer size of the room, with its tremendously high arched ceilings and lasers and lights shooting every which way. Seattle suddenly has a Big Nightclub, and, for a second, you might feel as if you're in NYC's Twilo or San Francisco's 1015 Folsom. Though the Showbox has lost its quaint, small citybig town feel and its lounge, which employed the best down-tempo and hip-hop DJs in the city, the loss is made up for with one simple subtraction.
Best-kept-secret dance night
As everyone and their mother flocks to the Showbox every Saturday night, true house heads save themselves for Sunday night's Flammable at Re-bar (1114 Howell, 233-9873), currently the longest-running weekly dance night in Seattle and the only one really dedicated to bringing a large variety of underground house DJs from across the country. Over the past three years, resident DJ and promoter Brian Lyons has played host to Derrick May, David Alvarado, Thomas from Wicked, San Francisco's Spun, Vancouver's Czech, and the homegrown talents of Brent Laurence and Wesley Holmes, giving good local jocks an opportunity to play to an educated, older crowd in a cozy atmosphere. Though the night's been popular for a while now, there's still enough room on the dance floor to shake your booty without bumping into someone who's just there to cruise the scene.
Best low-budget light show
A rock concert without a light show is like a car without wheels. But most bands don't have tons of dough to spend on fancy lighting rigs and guys named Sparky to run things. That's what makes Seattle power-pop act Alien Crime Syndicate so inventive. Rather than rely on the usual setup provided by the club, guitarist-vocalist Joe Reineke and bassist Jeff Rouse assembled a small cache of lights that make even the most intimate Alien Crime Syndicate appearance ring with the authenticity of a flashy arena-rock show. The quartet strategically places three beacons, two strobes, and two swirling pen lights onstage, which get switched into action whenever the band rocks out. Still an unsigned local band, the Syndicate can't afford a Sparky, so Reineke operates the attention-getting light show from a foot pedal.
Best local use of vinyl
Larry and the Gonowheres came out with a self-titled, vinyl-only release this year on the Puke Records label that will have you scrambling to get your old turntable working again. It looks like a 33, plays at 45, sports a pure punk sound, and features such lyrics as "It's time to drink!/You know it's time to drive!", "Judge Judy and Current Affair/That's where you learned to/Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk!", and "No more recess/No more books/No more scenesters'/Dirty fuckin' looks!"
Check out the rest of the critics' picks: spots, wonks, geeks, bites, acts, and clerks, Or, go to the 1999 Best of Seattle main page.