As noted in my best-selling 2009 novella, Seattle's Best Dive Bars: Drinking & Diving in the Emerald City, there are three types of dive bar. The first is a grimy watering hole that smells like urinal cakes and caters mainly to thirsty street urchins. This type of dive is mainly relegated to downtown and its immediately adjacent areas, with Joe's in the ID being the ultimate example. The second type of dive is one which shares some or all of the above characteristics, yet also carries the added deterrent of being a hotbed of crime. Belltown's Kelly's, the Dome Stadium Tavern, and Lake City's Rose Garden were the best examples of this type of dive; since the publishing of the book, they've all closed (the Rose Garden has since been reincarnated as El Norte, a fantastic tequila bar with taco-truck food).
Up until 2010, when Richard Johnstonbaugh bought Heads or Tails, the small bar at 125th and Aurora definitely fit into this second category. Johnstonbaugh called SW offices last week to complain that our assessment of his bar was woefully out of date, that he'd replaced the scuzzy couches with proper bar tables and begun attracting a clientele unlikely to end up in the back of a squad car after last call.
But is Heads or Tails still a dive? Yes, but of the third kind.
The third kind of dive is a friendly neighborhood bar more concerned with customer service than aesthetics. Yes, Johnstonbaugh has cleaned up Heads or Tails a bit, but it's his programming that appears to be making the most difference. If there's one surefire way to keep ne'er-do-wells out of a bar, it's to hold trivia nights. A close second might be karaoke contests. Heads or Tails now does both, and also features a mean $6.50 Tuesday-night food special that includes two chicken soft tacos, rice, and beans. They also have an inventive array of $1 Jell-O shots; one contains cinnamon liquor and a dried cherry buried within the gelatin.
So, clearly, Johnstonbaugh is trying, and it's paid off in terms of the vibe he's cultivating. No longer does Heads or Tails bear the whiff of nefariousness wrought by one of Seattle's most vice-friendly tracks. Heads or Tails used to be a microcosm of that track. Now it provides respite from it. North Aurora finally has the friendly neighborhood dive bar that many, including me, thought it was incapable of hosting. And Johnstonbaugh and his crew deserve all the credit.