AN OXYMORON in at least two senses, Eastside barhopping presents a formidable challenge to the snide, provincial Seattleite, this writer included. First of all, you can't get properly sloshed in a vast suburban terrain that requires driving several miles from one watering hole to the next. Second, where the hell do you go? It's the ultimate reverse commute to be headed eastward on a Saturday night—yet that's just the direction I'm going on empty I-90 lanes, map in one hand, notebook in the other, steering with my knees.
First stop: Mercer Island. Quiet, empty, and hopelessly dull, you think? Maybe that's the charm of the Roanoke Inn (1825 72nd S.E., 232-0800), which is hardly a bustling nightspot but the only nightspot on the Rock—that I know of, at least. Casual and comfortable, the tavern—no hard liquor—founded in 1914 claims to be the oldest business on M.I. The joint has a lived-in feeling that welcomes a clientele ranging from retirees to college kids. Their common bond? The privileged 98040 zip code and an insular clannishness that makes nonislanders uneasy.
My companion and I feel no different, sliding into our booth, ordering two cold ESBs and a serviceable cheese quesadilla. The front room is pretty empty tonight. Pool balls click and darts thwock in back; baseball glows from the television, while the jukebox veers from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Springsteen to—puzzlingly—Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me 'Round." (Funny—there don't appear to be any other ironists in the place.) Decor consists mainly of vintage beer kitsch. The vibe is homey, not sceney, so we bolt for exciting, cosmopolitan Bellevue.
HERE, OUR DESTINATION is clear: the mall. Circumnavigating the now-closed Bellevue Square complex by foot, we arrive exhausted at the Bellevue Way portal to "The Lodge," which turns out to be an after-hours enclave of four establishments (Starbucks among them). We visit two joints: P.F. Chang's China Bistro (525 Bellevue Square, 425-637-3582) and Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill (535 Bellevue Square, 425-467-5911). The latter, we discover, is a sad, empty, unsuccessful ethnic variation of Chang's downstairs. Z'Tejas' bar faces the scenic eastern portion of the mall's covered garage, making parking a breeze—if you can find the damn entrance.
Settling into Chang's, we're confronted by the bar's inescapable TV and cringe under the disco blare. "Brick House" and "Shake Your Booty" seem intended for the perky, too-cheerful staff's benefit (dancing periodically erupts behind the bar). "They're coked up?" my companion speculates. Both of us also wonder where, apart from a few blondes with bad '80s haircuts, are the hot-to-trot Bellevue singles? (And what does P.F. stand for? Pseudonymous Founder?) It's a sedate Wild Ginger-wanna-be scene, with a predominantly boomer crowd.
FINALLY WE REACH Kirkland, glorious Kirkland, a little bit of swinging L.A. on the staid Eastside. Based on its name alone, I've already decided on the Shark Club (52 Lakeshore Plaza, 425-803-3003), and the place doesn't disappoint. How to find it? We just follow the crowd. (The under-21 set heads to nearby Dynamite.) An '80s pop-funk cover band is ably rendering Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two" as we push through the clean-cut, energetic crowd. It's a racially mixed throng by Seattle club standards, cheerfully diverse and young—but with a few suits and parental types boogying along with their kids in a nonthreatening, nonpierced, nontattooed environment.
The fun, cheesy '80s vibe is augmented by $1.25 Jell-O shots and big-screen TVs. Around us are Tom Cruise's fans, Britney Spears' people, MTV's disciples, and they go wild when the band cranks out Madonna's "Holiday." Free from pretensions, devoid of hipness, it's like time has stood still at the Shark; that quality is emphasized in the ladies' room, where my companion overhears excited squealing: "Omigod! It's everyone from high school!" One women is celebrating her 40th birthday—and why not? In a region that's too tired and grown-up, the Shark provides a kind of safe, silly oasis of immaturity.
So will we ever return for another tour of Eastside nightlife duty? "No," my companion sighs with relief as we head back across 520.