A Tour of Seattle’s 10 Most Intimidating Dive Bars

Notes from a guy who literally wrote the book on the subject.

No collection of characteristics can be melded to truly define what makes a bar a dive. Some have vomit-caked toilet seats in the bathroom; others have cracked vinyl booths in the barroom. Some have nicotine-stained murals dating back to the Depression; others have drink prices that seemingly haven't wavered since then. Some are the most welcoming places you could ever hope to encounter; at others, if you're not homeless or an ex-con (or con-in-waiting), people will look at you as though the jukebox should stop immediately. Still others split the difference: Given the right amount of lubrication, two previously unacquainted patrons will be just as likely to embrace at the end of the night as to beat the snot out of one another.And for every barkeep who considers being lumped into this misunderstood category a slur, there'll be two others who consider such branding a gesture of affinity. To the overwhelming majority of bars in my soon-to-be-released book, Seattle's Best Dive Bars: Drinking & Diving in the Emerald City (due out in April, Ig Publishing, $12.95), the term "dive" is bestowed with a salty spoonful of love. By and large, these places are the most distinctive, preservation-worthy bars in a city where watering holes of their ilk are swiftly disappearing. What they have in common isn't so much attributes, but a state of mind—you just know one when you see one. And if I had to encapsulate precisely what this moment of recognition feels like, I'd do it through the eyes of an old soldier named Wayne, whom I encountered in a downtown Everett bar in the fall of 2008.With a few hours to kill before a Saturday-night rock show down the street, I sidled up to the bar at the Doghouse Tavern on Colby Avenue. In the cooler were cans of Old Milwaukee and Schmidt (if there's a telltale sign you're in a dive bar, Schmidt's it). Behind me was seated a stoic gentleman, slowly nursing a beer and talking to nobody. The small TVs were tuned to nothing particularly important. Playing pool was a middle-aged Latino fellow who confessed to having no recollection of how he'd gotten home from the bar the prior night. He also said his head hurt, which couldn't have surprised anyone.Bellied up in the far corner was a beefy, mustachioed tow-truck driver, downing vodka shots and bitching loudly about how retarded his customers were. As I ordered my second Schmidt, a weary fellow named Wayne sat down to my immediate left. He said he'd just returned home from a long trip. I asked him where he'd been. "Cabo," he responded. I said, "Well, that doesn't sound too rough." He looked at me like I'd just killed the Pope, and said, "Whaddya mean?"Turns out I'd heard wrong: Wayne had been in Kabul, having just completed his next-to-last 18-month tour of Afghanistan. Feeling like shit on a shoe, I insisted upon buying Wayne a drink. He took me up and ordered a shot of Southern Comfort. I ordered one too.Wayne is from Alaska, but lives on his boat near downtown Everett when he's not serving his country. (In his divorce, she got the house, he took the boat.) Before heading back to the Middle East, Wayne remarked, the one thing he most wanted to do while home was go kayaking, chilly weather notwithstanding. It's hard to imagine an activity further removed from engaging in combat in the smoldering desert, where Wayne had recently lost one of his best friends to a roadside bomb.After ordering another round of SoCo, Wayne said that the reason he'd come to the Doghouse that Saturday afternoon was because he knew it would be exactly the way he remembered it the last time he'd been here some four years earlier. He'd chosen the bar because it was reliable, a reminder of home that he could look forward to visiting again once his final tour ended. I told him when that day came I'd meet him there, and buy us another round of shots.Seattle's Best Dive Bars chronicles the nooks, crannies, and characters in over 100 bars within the Seattle city limits (including a few outside them—naturally, White Center has been annexed). Of those hundred-plus, the following excerpts account for the 10 most intimidating bars in the bunch, the sort of places that will put the average tippler way outside his or her comfort zone, for better or for worse—but mostly for better.Kelly's2236 Third Ave., 448-2338It's an ominous sign when you approach a bar and there's a paddy wagon parked across the street. It's an even more ominous sign when such an occurrence isn't all that rare at said bar. Welcome to Kelly's, the most frightening drinking establishment in Seattle.On the surface, what separates Kelly's from its main rivals for this dubious honor is its friendly Irish name and shamrock façade. Upon approach, this doesn't look to be the sort of bar that attracts mercurial street urchins, but that's exactly what it is. If you walk through Kelly's doors looking half-presentable, conversations are liable to come to an immediate halt.This isn't so much reverse snobbery as suspicion that you might be an undercover cop, as the Belltown of today is filled with trendy restaurants, high-rise condo towers, and the people who can afford them. But the Belltown of yesterday—not World War II yesterday, but through the first Bush Presidency yesterday—was Seattle's skid row, an area rife with junkies, dealers, pimps, hookers, crooks, and various other ne'er-do-wells. The park across the street from Kelly's used to be the city's most notorious open-air drug market; now it's an off-leash dog park for well-heeled urban dwellers. Or at least it's supposed to be, as most of the folks who should be giving Scruffy a few hot laps are still scared shitless of the corner.If Kelly's sticks out like a sore thumb in today's Belltown, that's only because it's outlasted its contemporaries. Hence, the neighborhood riffraff's tendency to congregate at the last relic standing can hardly be unexpected. Taken in this context, is Kelly's a victim of its own survival, a gnarly needle in a haughty haystack? That's for you to decide, if you dare.Dome Stadium Tavern214 Fourth Ave. S., 624-7771The fact that the domed stadium for which it is named was dynamited to smithereens to make way for a more modern, open-air structure doesn't seem to bother the Dome Stadium Tavern, described by one local scribe as "the dirtiest of the dirty and the seediest of the seedy." The Dome has done much to live up to this description in recent years, which have seen it busted for various drug-related improprieties, eventually resulting in a three-month Liquor Control Board-mandated license suspension that was lifted in February 2008 after many had left the hardscrabble tavern for dead.The Dome is the sort of place that reinforces people's stereotypes of unkempt winos who snatch purses and urinate in public. During happy hour, the crowd often includes half a dozen severely inebriated construction workers shouting to one another in Spanish. There are $2 pints of Busch on tap, and the jukebox is playing P-Funk as an androgynous Native American specimen, whom the bartender addresses as "Alaska," walks in, sporting silver bracelets and flowing black hair. One of the construction workers, still wearing his orange reflective shirt, gets cut off by the take-no-shit female bartender, who's plastered Wonder Woman stickers behind the bar.While the walls are painted earth tones, drinking beer here feels like drinking in the lobby of a fleabag hotel, of which there are a handful in nearby Chinatown. The cooler's inventory includes cans of energy drink, and there are bags of microwave popcorn and rice bowls available behind the bar. Two-dollar hot dogs are also advertised, but I see no evidence of their existence.The Rose Garden13717 Lake City Way N.E., 365-0465It should be said here and now that Seattle has no bad neighborhoods, at least not of the sort that exist in older cities back east. But it does have bars that would be right at home in bad neighborhoods, and the Rose Garden is one of them.Bars that don't accept personal checks as a form of payment are common. Bars that have on their menu board the words "No crack pipes or checks" are uncommon. The Rose Garden's menu board boasts just such a message, and its customers are a motley crew. There's a guy who looks like Kid from Kid 'n Play seated at one corner of the bar, and another dreadlocked guy who looks like a villain in a Steven Seagal movie at the other. The latter's name is Boogie, and he turns out to be pretty cool, remarking that he's cut down on his drinking lately to save money on "rent"—drunkard's code for what he pays the Rose Garden when occupying the barstool.I've been to this place twice, and both times there looked to be at least one exotic dancer enjoying drinks on a regular's dime. Makes sense, considering the Rose Garden is a stone's throw from two strip joints. In Seattle, alcohol is forbidden at flesh palaces, which means the Rose Garden sees more than its fair share of strippers looking either to work up or blow off steam. It also sees more than its fair share of dudes whose ideal woman is, well, a stripper. In other words, the bar attracts a good amount of aspiring rappers, as evidenced by the freestyle rhyme circles that occasionally form outside the front entrance.Other than Boogie, the patrons seem to be in perpetual motion, shuttling between the bathroom and two outdoor areas between sips of booze (man, they must have small bladders). People here seem, um, agitated—and I have a pretty good idea why that might be. It might have something to do with the aforementioned no-checks sign, as well as another sign near the bathrooms that limits occupancy to one at a time. There's also a woman with a Bluetooth in her ear who's constantly exchanging "low fives" with certain patrons. You figure it out.But even if exchanging low fives in between forays to the bathroom isn't your bag, there's a lot to like about the Rose Garden. A few of the tables are set up with checkers sets, they have Mickey's Hornets (a rarity 'round here) in the cooler, and the cocktails are stiff. Instead of darts in the dart case, there are earrings for sale—and the daytime crowd is older and more into classic soul than the nighttime crowd, which tends toward rap.Joe'sFifth Avenue and South King StreetUpon entering Joe's, a shabby oasis of downtrodden Americana in Seattle's bustling Chinatown, I'm greeted by two drunkards—one white, one Mexican—about to duke it out over the color of one another's skin. With the Marshall Tucker Band providing the only semblance of noise in an otherwise silent bar, the two would-be combatants end up hugging instead."I was cool before cool was cool," says the white guy, exiting the bar with one of the most incomprehensibly awesome one-liners I've ever heard.In the annals of bar snobbery, there are two common types: really swank bars where people look askance at those whose grooming habits don't mesh with the pages of GQ or Elle, and down-home watering holes where those who walk in with ironed pants and a fresh shave are greeted with "What the fuck are you doing here?" looks from the regulars. A lot of the bars in my book fit into the latter category, but very few of them fit into a third category, where if you aren't homeless, you aren't cool. Joe's is of this final realm.During lunch hour in the middle of the week, the bar is populated by maybe a dozen patrons. The smell of unwashed ass and armpit sweat in the air is so thick I could cut it, but that's par for the course at Joe's. I take a seat and order a draft. Next to me is an old two-bit drunk named Tom.Once he settles down and stops inadvertently spitting in my beer, I learn that Tom grew up a few blocks from my boyhood home in Wedgwood and attended the same Catholic grade and high schools as I. Usually when you find such commonality with a stranger, it's a wonderful thing. But looking at Tom, I couldn't help but think that if things were to break a certain way for me—given my taste for hooch and lack of technical acumen outside my flagging profession—I could end up just like him. And that wasn't a pretty thought.The Turf200 Pike St., 682-2324Located underneath a large cement parking garage a city block from Pike Place Market, the Turf—easily identified by a vertical sign that spells out "TURF" in bold green lettering—has long served as a safe haven for freelance street salesmen who, were they to go about their day's business al fresco, would be stationary targets for police officers, warranted or otherwise. If Do the Right Thing had been filmed in Seattle, the Turf would have been a primary location. Wary be the tourist who accidentally stumbles into this place, which used to be located even closer to the Market before a now-closed Johnny Rockets franchise forced it on down the road.During lunch, there are as many construction workers wolfing down hot beef sandwiches and teriyaki as there are flashier types. (They also have oxtail and a host of highly unusual, ridiculously cheap items on the menu). At the dusty, institutional back bar, an elderly female bartender whom everyone refers to reverently takes care of business. But once work lets out, a male bartender with a stud earring who doesn't take shit off anybody assumes the reins; he's not amused when a cat wearing a velour tracksuit tries to pay for his tallboy with a $1.75 bus voucher.At happy hour, R&B permeates the jukebox, and the crowd is mostly middle-aged. Most of them double-fist: a liquor drink and a beer for backup. As an Isley Brothers ditty comes on, two nattily-dressed gentlemen begin arguing about women. Things escalate to the point that they have to be physically restrained—even the bartender's death stare won't stop them from getting at one another's throats. But eventually, they do the right thing: They chill.The Seattle Eagle314 E. Pike St., 621-7591Unmarked façade near urban intersection: check. Dark, narrow entryway leading to dark, narrow bar area: check. Nonstop guy-on-guy porn projected on large screen near bar: check. Buff, shirtless bartender: check. Shirtless patrons: check. Mysterious caged balcony where unspeakable acts are said to occur: check.Welcome to the Seattle Eagle, a dark, seedy hole-in-the-wall that puts the "stereo" in "stereotypical gay bar." Not that there's anything wrong with that; some gay bars are very welcoming and comfortable environments for straight men and women, some aren't. The Eagle is of the latter variety, and there are like-minded Eagles—not to be confused with the august fraternal organization of the same name—in many major cities.With a neon beer sign in a small window serving as the lone signifier of its existence, from the outside the Eagle looks like it could just as easily be the storeroom for neighboring Benson's Grocery, a mini-mart that serves a largely transient population. Last time I visited the Eagle, it was Bareback Thursday, where customers get a dollar knocked off their drink price if they take their shirts off. This doesn't result in cheap drinks, however—my bourbon-soda set me back $7.50. It was, however, plenty strong, and the bearlicious bartender was super-sweet—even to the ladies.Fortune Sports Bar664 S. King St., 223-0123A lower-key cousin of the Rose Garden, Fortune Sports Bar caters mainly to older dudes who are either down on their luck, down on their supply, or down to get down with the happy-hour bartender, a lovely young Asian woman in a short denim skirt who is flirtatious to the point where you feel as though a complimentary HJ might be in the offing. But don't let this fool you; when it comes to enforcing Fortune's "no bagpack after 8 p.m." rule, homegirl can hold the line. That rule (bagpack = backpack) is one of two designed to deter homeless freeloaders from sidling up to the bar, the other being a ban on "overnight tabs" (what is this, Cheers?) that the bar chalks up to the current "economic downfall."While some regulars flock here for the chicken gizzards and fish balls, others speak in tongues, such as a guy who proclaimed he'd had five back surgeries before announcing several other things we couldn't make heads or tails of. Upon entering this sparsely decorated Chinatown establishment, patrons will pass two pool tables before encountering the bar, which boasts a pair of bizarre white liquor cases which look as though they've been pilfered from A Clockwork Orange's milk bar. The more drinks you order, the stiffer those drinks will get. And if you order beer, the bartender will try—repeatedly—to cajole you into ordering a shot, punctuating her pleas with a sassy "woo-hoo!" (If you decline to order actual shots of liquor, she'll fill a shot glass with peanuts.)Half of Fortune's space is devoted to a high-ceilinged club area, with a stage for karaoke or live music (the Tittleholders—not Titleholders, Tittleholders—was one recent act) and a small, elevated VIP area consisting only of a sectional couch. While the women's bathroom is surprisingly clean, the men's latrine features spackled walls and crumbling tiles.Like the Rose Garden, Fortune is the sort of place that can be filled with customers one minute, empty for the next five, then filled back up again five minutes later. We'll venture to guess this has something to do with the deep conversations occurring on the sidewalk out front, as well as the patrons who stroll in and out of a mysterious "Employee Only" area with impunity.Angie's4915 Rainier Ave. S., 722-7771Before Columbia City became Wallingford with a slightly browner median skin color, the once-slapdash neighborhood's linchpins were the Busy Bee mini-mart and Angie's Tavern, a longstanding watering hole that one expatriate of the nation's capital aptly describes as "more D.C. than Seattle." In other words: The music is thumping, the crowd is mostly black, the apparel can be flashy and suggestive, pool hustlers hustle, the drinks are cheap, the bouncer is big, and the interior design an afterthought. Simply put, a weekend night at Angie's is a party—combustible in the best and worst senses of the word.At Angie's, Bud pitchers can be had for the low, low, non-happy hour price of $5.50, and the bartender is a ringer for NBA star Nate Robinson, who played his high-school ball a couple miles south on Rainier. But one thing that's in short supply at Angie's is top-shelf liquor. Check that: Medium-shelf liquor is tough to come by here; they don't even have Jack Daniel's. If the top shelf is going to be that low—and we're talking Gentleman Jack and Cuervo low—the drinks had better be stiff and cheap. On this front, Angie's delivers, offering Olde English tallboys to boot.As Columbia City continues its march toward gentrification, Angie's is bound to come under increased scrutiny. Occasionally you'll hear the place mentioned as a hotbed of drugs, drunkenness, and violence. Not to say that sort of thing doesn't exist to some extent at Angie's—it does at just about every bar—but when a neighborhood tends to get too full of itself, hyperbole often masquerades as truth. Let's hope cooler heads prevail in Columbia City, and Angie's is embraced as the cultural and commercial forerunner that it is.Heads or Tails12534 Aurora Ave. N., 440-3288With its cheap, throwback motels and vast swaths of archaic, forget-me-now storefronts, it's no wonder Highway 99—once the main artery connecting the United States' entire West Coast—has devolved into Seattle's foremost thoroughfare of cheap and sleazy vice in the era of eight-lane interstates. It's not the sort of environment that lends itself easily to cozy neighborhood pubs, to put it mildly, and the rare drinking establishment that does emerge tends to reflect the strip's transient nature.Like the road it rests along, Heads or Tails is a bar without a cohesive aesthetic. In one corner are plush love seats and a fireplace, and the pool table is so close to the front entrance that you're apt to get poked in the gut by a cue's backswing. Between the fireplace and felt are three or four tables, and a random couch sits near the one-room bar's southern wall.The crowd of a couple dozen is all male, save for the bartender and a woman in a shiny shirt rubbing her ass against the crotch of an Ian Holm lookalike dressed in a sweater and a crisp pair of Dockers. It would be no reach to assume their relationship is that of client and service provider, but then the picture gets blurry, as two other dudes—one a soused guy in khaki chinos, the other a beady-eyed grease monkey—converse frequently enough with the pair to make it evident that they're a party of four, and probably not a party of four that will morph into a three-on-one at the Motor Inn across the street once someone sinks (or snorts) an eight ball.After they finish playing, they duck outside for a smoke—along with what seems like half the bar, including the bartender. Again, this being Aurora, it would be easy to assume that wherever they've gone, they're up to no good. But old guys in khakis? It doesn't add up.The Locker Room9633 16th Ave. S.W., 762-9805One magical night at the Locker Room, when the bartender ran out of proper glasses to pour draft beer into, she decided to charge me half-price. That's right: a mere 65 cents for a pint of Busch, which she shrewdly rounded up from 62.5 (capitalism, baby). I felt like I was drinking during the Depression with an aristocrat's wallet, so I drank a lot. When I called back to confirm that this hadn't, in fact, been a dream, I asked the employee who picked up the phone if hers was the place that served the super-cheap Busch. "No, not really," she replied. "So what's the price?" I inquired. "A dollar twenty-five," she said. I then asked what it would cost to rent the utility closet, so I would never have to leave.A gloriously divey watering hole on White Center's main drag, the Locker Room is full of colorful drinkers from 6 a.m. to close, with no real lull in the action. In White Center, this can be a curse as well as a blessing. While the neighborhood has gotten considerably safer in the past couple decades, becoming a destination for Seattle diners in search of delicious ethnic food (especially Mexican and Vietnamese), it's still looked upon fretfully as a DMZ by most city residents. While a small part of White Center rests on the Seattle side of Roxbury Street, its main commercial strip, where the Locker Room sits, is technically in unincorporated King County. The City of Seattle has tried in recent years to annex the whole of White Center, but has been met with opposition from Burien to the south. The net result is a neighborhood that sits right on the edge of two police departments' jurisdictions, creating an ideal atmosphere for drugs, prostitution, and gang violence to flare up, as it still does at times, usually within fairly close proximity of the Locker Room's front entrance.The daytime regulars don't so much talk as cackle. The crowd is a fabulously diverse cast of characters, ranging from an old-timer in suspenders playing solitaire alone at a table to an antsy younger couple guzzling mixed whiskey drinks who feel as though they have to plot their escape from the bar. There's also a mustachioed alpha male who gets real grabby and loud with the women who stroll in, an elderly couple who appear to be spending their lives' savings on pull tabs and Milwaukee's Best, and a gaunt, silent, bearded man drinking those cheap glasses of Busch by himself at the corner of the bar. These people all know each other, and know that at the Locker Room, they're not going to be judged.mseely@seattleweekly.comA limited run of discounted advance copies of Seattle's Best Dive Bars can be purchased at seattleweekly.com for $10 (plus shipping and handling). More information on the book can be found at seattleweekly.com/divebars or igpub.com/seattle.html.

 
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