It's not that bars inside the city are inauthentic. It's just that—for the most part—they're often intentional, deliberate: The experience you have has been largely premeditated by somebody else, which can be very good when done lovingly (Shorty's, Linda's) or very bad when not (Medusa). I left town recently to find some unpackaged bars. Which I then, um, lovingly packaged for your perusal.
BOB'S JAVA JIVE
2102 South Tacoma Way, TACOMA 253-475-9843
6 a.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Fri.; 4 p.m.- 2 a.m. Sat.; 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Sun.
In between the pickle warehouses and busted-up storefronts north of Tacoma Mall, there's a two-story building in the shape of a giant coffee pot. Inside, surrounded by what has to be a hundred fake plants and an obscene assortment of tiki, Army rangers are getting drunk on Pabst and studying karaoke songbooks under a low ceiling. Three cute girls—one young blonde, another who looks kind of motherly, and a third with Down's syndrome—enthusiastically perform Madonna's "Vogue" on a small stage. . . .
Suggested approach: The Java Jive loves you, but it's a tough love—you need to love it back. Play the ancient jukebox's Tom Waits, Isaac Hayes, the Chiffons, and Liza. Come back to Bob's often: His daughter Danette shouldn't ever have to close this place down. (Bob Radonich, who ran the bar since 1955, passed away just last month. May he jive in peace.)
Dark secret: Two chimps, named Java and Jive, used to play drums while Bob's son played the organ. (The health department kicked out the chimps years ago.)
Exit strategy: For contrast, follow up with one of Tacoma's more boojie bars—the Swiss, the Spar, Magoo's.
1101 Tacoma Ave., TACOMA 253-572-2038
11 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fri.; 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Sat; closed Sun.
Five minutes away, toward old-town Tacoma, a 75-year-old bassist gets a nice whiskey buzz on at the bar he runs—a dark, wood-paneled L lined with swivel chairs and clamshell Formica tables. He's played with Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald, but now he's singing a lullaby to his sleepy adopted grandson (clearly here at the bar too late). It's a song he wrote for his daughter years ago while touring with Stan Kenton. . . .
Suggested approach: Go on a Saturday, so you can hear both Red Kelly and his mother-in-law, Lucy, sing. Disappear into a smoky booth and talk to Red after the set (he favors his left ear). Ask him about playing with Sonny and Cher ("a horrible experience") and Elvis ("the most boring two weeks of my life"). Study the 500-plus autographed pictures covering the walls. ("Red, did you play with all these people?" "Well, not all of 'em—but they're all friends. Like Louis Armstrong: I never played with him, but we smoked grass together.")
Dark secret: In 1976, Red ran for governor with the Owl Party, vowing to "get the girls out of those sweaty saunas and back on the streets again."
Exit strategy: Have a final round of Grandma Lucy's home-baked cookies, then pile out onto cold Tacoma streets, bellowing Sinatra.
1825 72nd Ave. S.E., MERCER ISLAND 206-232-0800 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Fri.; 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Sat.-Sun.
On Mercer Island, a block up from the long-defunct Leschi-Bellevue-Kirkland-Mercer Island ferry dock, a girl wearing a punk hoodie, camo pants, and a spiked leather bracelet leans into a guy with a white baseball cap on backward; they're cozied up tight in a booth by a fireplace, under the twinkling lights of a converted 1914 house-turned-tavern, the oldest business on the island. . . .
Suggested approach: You won't ever want to leave this warm, cozy warren of booths and little rooms, so plan accordingly. Tuck in for the evening over Rainier bottles and "I-90 Nachos," but spend at least a few minutes bundled up on the front porch, too. And don't be afraid of the super-cute bartenders—they don't live on Mercer Island either.
Dark secret: Most of the Roanoke's patrons graduated from Mercer Island High.
Exit strategy: Never leave. (Or if you do leave, don't accidentally go to The Pleasant Hour up the way.)
DRIFT ON INN
16708 Aurora Ave. N, SHORELINE
206-546-4144. 24 hours daily
Up on Aurora, two veteran Pai-Gow players order whiskey sours over an ornate, mirror-covered bar; the huge oak structure was built in New York City in 1845, and the 28-foot-long solid beam overhead has hand-carved lion's heads at either end. Upstairs from the brick-walled casino's dark card tables, professional male dancers gyrate over a '50s-themed, black-and-white-checkered dance floor, in the same room where Sonja Henie once partied with the Ice Follies. President Truman ate here in 1949. Now there's an item called "I Love Bacon" on the menu. . . .
Suggested approach: Go on a weekend night to check out the dance scene upstairs, or go during a game so you can watch the giant wall-covering television. And for god's sake, don't gamble: The people mechanically playing hand after hand of Pai-Gow and Caribbean Stud are there to subsidize your cheap drinks. Figure it out.
Dark secret: Every children's meal comes with an American flag.
Exit strategy: Ease out leisurely with an old-fashioned milk shake served in the tin.
NEW LUCK TOY
4718 California S.W., WEST SEATTLE 206-937-0105 4 p.m.-1:30 a.m. daily
Over on California Avenue in West Seattle, it's karaoke night. Again. Flickering candles, strange carved Asian totems, and softball trophies line the walls in a grimy bar with duct-taped booths. The bartender serves up stiff screwdrivers through a film of smoke, and a cheerful host wearing red-and-black warm-ups coaxes a young couple into the fat Foreigner backlist. . . .
Suggested approach: Get it over with. You know you're going to sing eventually, so you might as well do it before you start slurring. And appreciate that this is all- pro karaoke—because every night is karaoke night, you're going to see some of the sport's most dedicated players. Clap accordingly.
Dark secret: This was once an excellent place to (a) get drugs and (b) get punched in the face by a guy with a bunch of rings. That, and maybe you shouldn't eat here.
Exit strategy: If you're looking for more trouble than this, stumble to Poggie's across the street.