Small Bars: The Biggest Thing in Booze

There's at least one positive by-product to our new culture of downsizing.

There's probably no service-industry business more difficult than serving booze. Aside from the daily matters of selling a controlled substance for profit, there's the alchemy of instilling a place with the proper design and personality in order to predict certain social and psychological outcomes. No watering hole lives for long on concept alone, as a giant fish tank loses its ability to inspire awe among regulars about as fast as a martini loses its chill.Architects don't make great bars—people do. And in a time when drinking dollars get snipped with every dwindling paycheck, the watering holes and joints that thrive are the ones that make people feel as though they belong. While the cockamamie faux-speakeasy trend captured ink over the past few years, a more interesting development took root in its midst: hole-in-the-wall bars, which attract people not by the affectation of exclusivity but by being utterly and completely their tiny little selves.Over the past few years, boîtes like Hazlewood, Sun Liquor, Sambar, Chez Gaudy, Faire Gallery, and The Living Room have opened their doors. These bars are as small as small can be, which plays off the sense of exclusivity offered by faux-speakeasies. Some take advantage of a more literal interpretation of liquor laws, offering limited food within the Liquor Control Board's regulations, which in turn allows them to keep overhead way down.In this way, these small bars echo a sensibility similar to that of our growing food-cart scene. In this next decade, downsizing will affect our lifestyles in many ways, but this example is an exciting by-product of this otherwise depressing trend.Hazlewood opened in Ballard in 2006 to a bit of incredulity. Its downstairs can be traversed in a hop and a skip, and it's devoid of seating save for one low bench and four barstools. The upstairs is a low-ceilinged loft the size of an apartment living room, and arranged as such.Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd, Steve Freeborn of the Rendezvous, Drew Church, and Keith Bartoloni own the bar; the latter two handle the daily operations."When we first saw this space, we both thought, 'It's way too small; it's never going to work,'" admits Church."But in Europe, they've got small spaces everywhere," adds Bartoloni. "People are forced to stand up and drink—no reason we can't do that here."The limited space became an opportunity to rethink everything. "It was like building a bar on a boat," Bartoloni adds. When choosing liquor, Church says, "We really had to edit. So our rule was that we only wanted stuff we liked, and [we] cut out the redundant stuff and things bars think they have to carry. We've got four vodkas." ("That's two too many," Bartoloni replies.)Asked about Ballard's Friday- and Saturday-night influx of the party-as-verb set, the two shrug it off. "The party kids are the ones who come in for a shot and realize it's not their scene," says Church. "Part of that is music and atmosphere. We do what we do. We don't advertise, and we like people to find us in an organic way."He describes Hazlewood's design as romantic and a little raucous. The chandeliers and lavish details also make it "a little Vincent Price," Bartoloni says."The stereo is the best doorman you'll ever have, but everyone's welcome," he adds. "I think when the bar's smaller, you're forced to talk to people, forced to interact. Not everyone goes for that."While some bartenders around town fondle their hand-carved ice balls and spend too much time on press kits, Church and Bartoloni are happy to play the part of friendly smart-asses, naming drinks before coming up with recipes and treating their nights at work—and customers—as if they were at home.The bartenders at Sun Liquor on Capitol Hill may not own the place, but they give a level of service to that effect. Bar manager Erik Chapman has mixed drinks here since the beginning, and quietly serves some of the steadiest cocktails in town.Sun Liquor's meticulous decor immediately helped the bar make its mark when it opened in 2006, with mid-century detailing and decidedly non-tiki rattan, all lorded over by a giant mural of monkeys playing with fireworks. It feels like a 40-person waiting room for who knows where, and specializes in drinks you might tip back while on vacation.The house sangria is as much a draw as the mai tai. But the bar has gained a reputation for serving offbeat classics, like the Red Hook, a variation on the Manhattan made with rye whiskey, maraschino liqueur, Punt e Mes, and bitters. "The growth in the last few years has been great. People come in and ask for something dry with gin, or really simple with rye. It's great to have customers trust us," says Chapman."We aren't against kitsch, it just didn't come into play with this space," says Mark Klebeck, who owns and also designed Sun Liquor with his brother, Michael. "We dealt in small details, except for the one wall of murals, because it's a small space and those details add up." The duo also started Top Pot, the first location of which is next door, where a similar design sensibility is evident.In a neighborhood that gets stereotyped for its hipster residents, Sun Liquor's crowd can't be pegged. Older residents from the north end of the neighborhood, college kids, and a roving herd of cocktail appreciators cram the spot nightly, no doubt for the respite they feel, surrounded by the echo of another time and place, if only for one drink.Take Summit Avenue from Sun Liquor to Olive Way, and you'll hit a confluence of tiny bars, both stand-alone and attached to restaurants. The Buck, Chez Gaudy, and Dinette are bookended to the south by two businesses: Faire Gallery and The Living Room.Longtime bartender and project manager Monika Proffitt and business partner Clay Roach opened the latter only three months ago, and the space is a slightly larger mirror image of Hazlewood's footprint. With those extra hundred square feet, Proffitt and Roach have added a small seating counter, a couple of tables, and a couch to their bottom floor, while the upstairs—big as a tiny living room, with a fake fireplace—looks like your cool aunt's place. The room is dark, with hints of midnight blue and warm orange."Our architect said we could do anything we wanted, but really the bar had to be this size and it had to go there," says Proffitt. "We added an extra layer to the bar so that people might sit closer to each other and interact, especially in the early evening."The Living Room's drinks concentrate on subtlety, and the selection of spirits includes many amaros and vermouths. "We use a lot of sherry, port, and sparkling wine in our drinks as opposed to heavier liqueurs, mainly because those flavors interest me," says Proffitt.The name wasn't an accident. It's not unlike the two owners to have a conversation with every person in the room by 10 p.m., a feat made possible only by the bar's size. "We tend to attract people who want to get out of their studio but still maybe want to be able to have a conversation," Proffitt says. "We're a breathing space."For a bar, being small can be an asset if an owner sticks out from the pack. Focusing on selection and having a distinctive, driving personality allows a space to find a niche, as opposed to chasing after any crowd that'll pay its bills. In the end, people find the bar, the bar finds its people, and everyone lives happily ever after.msavarino@seattleweekly.com

 
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