Play It Again, Sams

A week's worth of ivory tickling, tonic, and gin.

It's not every weekend that a bunch of generally unglamorous twentysomethings choose a piano bar as the preferred watering hole—in fact, it's not usually any weekend. Not the twentysomethings I know, anyway. What's kept us from this world for so long? Is it the fact that we can't hear the words "piano man" without thinking about him "making love to his tonic and gin"? Seems a good enough reason, actually, but in an effort to dispel the notions that (a) piano bars aren't as fun as our usual haunts, and (b) all piano men have creepy cocktail fetishes, I dedicated a week's worth of evenings to exploring the piano bars and lounges of Seattle.

El Gaucho (2505 First Ave., 206-728-1337, www.elgaucho.com) is foremost a steak house, and one that demands elegant attire. At 10 p.m. on a Friday, the large dining area was full, and a piano was sequestered near the back bar wall. The performer, Daniel Davison, was breaking, so we followed a woman in black feather boa and heels downstairs—past the cigar room with its comfy-looking chairs and grandfatherly clientele—to the Pampas Room, where jazz musician Floyd Standifer performs weekly. When Davison returned upstairs, we did, too, but his standards could scarcely be heard over the din at the bar. Patrons jockeyed for reasonably priced drinks from the mirrored bar, where the top-shelf liquor was in ornate containers that looked sculpted from ice.

At midnight, we moved to Lower Queen Anne's dueling piano bar, Chopstix (11 Roy St., 206-270-4444, www.chopstixpianobar.com), where buttoned-down college boys and tan, skinny girls were swaying drunkenly to "Lean on Me," which roars simultaneously from a young man's piano on the right and an older, suited gentleman's on the left. Eclectic requests are purchased for $1, and the option of singing along onstage during "Friends in Low Places," "Mr. Brightside," "Ruby Tuesday," or "Under the Boardwalk" is always open. But as the piano man said to an unsuspecting dancer: "We have a rule here at Chopstix—if you bring your drink onstage, you have to chug it!"

On the same Friday, a couple blocks from this debauchery, the Mirabeau Room (529 Queen Anne Ave., 206-217-2800, www.themirabeauroom.com) was hosting a DJ night, though local legend Howard Bulson helmed the piano during happy hour, as he does each weekday and all night Sunday. Before it was the Mirabeau Room, Sorry Charlie's was among the best-known piano bars in town. Bulson manned his Steinway there from 1987 until the lounge closed in 2003. Bulson's many longtime fans probably would have rioted if the Mirabeau hadn't left room for him in its new programming.

A jaunt to Daniel's Broiler (809 Fairview Place N., 206-621-8262, www.schwartzbros.com/daniels.cfm) on South Lake Union in the wee hours of Saturday morning found the piano man a bit reluctant. "Another washed-up musician," he announced 20 minutes after we sat with our martinis in the walnut-shaded bar area. He enthusiastically performed instrumental standards and '80s classics like Christopher Cross' "Sailing," but seemed disturbed by our attention. It taught our novice group an important lesson: Never watch the performers. Best to check the ESPN scores on the bar's TV and leave piano men in the background, like Muzak.

Daniel's Broiler has a Bellevue location as well (10500 N.E. Eighth St., 21st floor, Bellevue, 425-462-4662), though the piano bar at Calabria Ristorante Italiano (132 Lake St. S., Kirkland, 425-822-7350) may be a better Eastside bet. On Thursday and Saturday evenings, the Side Project cover everything from Franz Ferdinand to Supertramp. Alternately, try the Third Floor Fish Cafe (205 Lake St. S., Kirkland, 425-822-3553, www.fishcafe.com), where George Emerson plays a handcrafted glass-top piano accented by neon lighting.

The loss of the Camlin Hotel's Cloud Room—a bastion of cool where Michelle Pfeiffer sang in The Fabulous Baker Boys— is still being mourned, but many piano lounges remain in downtown's upscale hotels. The Fairmont Olympic Terrace (411 University St., 206-621-1700, www.fairmont.com/seattle) is the grandest, hosting piano in the sweeping main lobby on weeknights, and the comfortable Roosevelt Hotel lobby (1531 Seventh Ave., 206-621-1200, www.roosevelthotel.com) features Jimmy J on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Mission accomplished, I learned to apply to piano bars what I've known about the drinking scene all along: No two places are alike, and with so many options, there's no reason to stick to just one.

rshimp@seattleweekly.com

 
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