The Atmosphere: It has been described as "pre-fab dive bar," and that seems pretty spot-on. The place just opened in December, and it fills the niche of a dirt-cheap place to booze on the Ballard Ave. strip. The most prominent feature behind the bar is a cooler stocked with cans of Milwaukee's Best, Schmidt's, and Icehouse--the Holy Trinity of low-end brews. The walls are dark crimson with black trim, and there's a little mezzanine level with seating for about 20 people. Two tabletop arcade games (Ms. Pacman and Galaga) and a stack of board games are kept behind the bar. It was very quiet (read: nearly empty) during a recent happy hour.
The Barkeep: Matt Hays. A Montana native, he got his start in Seattle at the wine bar Bricco on Queen Anne, which is owned (like Harlow's and nearby Moshi Moshi) by Kevin and Tracy Erickson. As for Harlow's, Hays says proudly "We're a shot-and-a-beer bar."The drink special on the day we stopped by was a can of Milwaukee's Best and a shot of Canadian Club, a killer combination if ever there was one. Hays was a little hesitant to serve up the one-two gut punch and decided to mix a cocktail instead, as if to prove that his bartending repertoire extends beyond cracking cans of swill.
The Drink: The Manhattan he made would definitely get the Don Draper stamp of approval. It was nothing fancy--just Maker's Mark, vermouth, a dash of bitters, and three cherries neatly impaled on one of those little plastic swords. The drink was smooth, strong, and refined. Perhaps a little too refined for a bar that features microwavable Hungry Man dinners on its food menu.
After Hays gestured toward the nearby cooler of death and confessed, "I like serving this stuff--just 'cause it's easy," it was nothing but cans of Olympia for the rest of the night.
The Verdict: The Manhattan was quality, but it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out you can get five $2 cans of Olympia for the cost of one $10 cocktail. Hays was right: It's a shot-and-a-beer kind of bar.