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The White Horse is a magnetic mix of British-style pub, antique book store and small-town warmth--and this is a bar in downtown Seattle! It's situated

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Joe Gilmartin of White Horse Tavern: 'Kids in Their 20s Aren't Ready for a Place Like This'

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The White Horse is a magnetic mix of British-style pub, antique book store and small-town warmth--and this is a bar in downtown Seattle! It's situated in the heart of bustling Pike Place Market, but just hidden enough in Post Alley to make it feel like you just discovered it. White Horse has been in Seattle for eight years. Before that, it was in California--Old Town Pasadena and San Francisco--where it had all the same swap-meet trimmings and shoebox-sized charm, but was known as Black Horse. The man who owns the popular drinking hole is usually serving and chatting behind the bar. His name is Joe Gilmartin and the best part of his day is talking to you. The owner-operated tavern is tiny, but is overflowing with heart and soul. And Pink Floyd.

In this week's Grillaxin, Gilmartin talks about the two things that inspired White Horse, why it's the place to close the deal with ladies, and why he's on the label of a beer bottle.

SW: How did this Post Alley location come about?

Gilmartin: It was empty. No one wanted this space, so I found it. It's in an alley, it's hidden, and I like that. The rent was good and I just moved the tavern like a house [from California] and just put everything back up the way it was. It's a transplant tavern. Dark, no light, no view, so I said, "That's perfect for what I want."

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Dark & Stormy, just like the bar.
How would you describe this place to someone who's never been here?

It's a dark room. It looks very much like the drink establishments of North of England. There's a lot of dark wood and candles. It's a basement bar. It's Old World. It's a European-style drink establishment.

Would you call it a pub?

I call it a tavern. In this area, a pub means a place that might actually brew beer and serve you the beer. We don't brew beer, so I stay away from [the word pub]. We're a tavern. That's what my license says.

And it's also part book store?

Correct. We're licensed to sell used books and collectible books. Mostly English literature and English history and really good stuff. I've hand-picked every book in here. We're a late-night bookstore that just happens to have a tavern-like setting. So, you can have English beer or wine and hang out. That's the whole business concept right there.

Do you have people who just come in here to read?

A few, not a lot . We do have a lot of book clubs that meet here, though. It's kind of a literary hangout. People do buy the books. They come here to shop. We sold three books this weekend. For an antiquated book store, that's not too bad.

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Antiquated book store.
Where does your affinity for English culture come from?

I like English beer and I like Pink Floyd. Those are actually the two things that went through my mind when I was creating this business when I was 24 years old--more than 20 years ago. Those were my influences. I wanted something that would fit the images in my head and that was Pink Floyd, a dark English pub, and English beer.

Where is the Pink Floyd influence?

It's only when I play the music. There's no pictures of them in here, but I play their music all the time. Usually around midnight until close we'll play some Pink Floyd. I've got a 24-hour Pink Floyd radio station that I stream live from London.

Is there a certain brand of beer you like to serve here?

We stick with Samuel Smith for now which is a beer company in Yorkshire that has many different flavors. You can run a whole bar off of Samuel Smith beers. There's other companies in the U.K. like Fuller's, Young's, and a lot of larger names like Bass Ale and Newcastle. I've carried all of those through the years. Sometimes I have been known to switch over to those beers. Right now, we're sticking with Samuel Smith. It's good.

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Angel & White Horse
Where did you find all of the knick-knacks to decorate this place?

Just through trading. Antique stores, trade shows, people bring me things, some of the things I made myself. Everything in here has a story.

What's the story with the name White Horse?

It's a generic English pub name. White Horse Tavern. It's probably the most over-used drink establishment name in all of the U.K and no one was using it here so I took it.

What's the story with the big Angel & White Horse sign hanging from the ceiling?

That sign is very, very old. It came off of the Samuel Smith brewery in England and as a way of thanking me for buying their product, they shipped it over and gave it to me. So, that's off the original first location pub in the U.K..

And the table that's actually a door?

That's an old church door. I bought it for about $40 and converted it into a tall table. The No Begging sign is where the doorknob used to be, so I just put the sign there to cover the hole.

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No begging for your beer, you hear?
Is the vibe in here always jazzy, dark, and relaxing? Before you crank up the Pink Floyd?

We play Blues from time-to-time and the weekends are very busy here. It's packed. You can't move. Weekdays can be mellow, you know, a few people sprinkled here and there. It's a conversation-based bar, so we don't do live music or sports. We do card playing and such. People come here to chat and hangout.

Who's your clientele?

Probably 90-percent regulars. Local people. I have a large following. I've been doing this for a long time, so people from as far as Hong Kong to Paris, they know this place. If they're coming through town they'll come by. About 10 people a week accidentally stumble upon this place. About three come back. That's how I've created a following. My philosophy is that the business belongs to the customers because you guys are paying for it. You're paying to keep the place here. It's about the customers.

Is it a younger crowd that drinks here?

We get mostly 30-year olds, 40-year olds, 50-year olds and up. We get some 20-somethings, but not that many. People in their 20s, I don't think, are ready for a place like this.

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Gilmartin chatting with customers.
After all these years, what still excites you about this job?

The conversation is the only exciting part of the job. And the different people you meet. Everything else is rote. It's just the same thing over again every day. So the conversations you look forward to.

This is a great date place, by the way. This place is known for what's called closing the deal with a girl. This place is popular for that. Very much so. And we're also popular for people who are dating people they're not necessarily married to. It's popular for people who are having affairs.

Why is this the place to close the deal?

You'll have to try it sometime. Bring someone in. I don't' know what it is about this place.

What's the craziest thing you've seen here?

I've seen it all. I've seen an 85-year old man who's completely cross-dressed dancing to African music and deciding to take off some of his clothes, which we put a stop to. And that was an average Tuesday, so you can see things like that. We know this gentleman and he'll do it again if you ask him to. We do marriages.

You do marriages? Are you an ordained minister?

I'm an ordained bartender. No, I don't perform the ceremonies. They bring in people for that. They use the premises.

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It's Joe!
Why is your face on a Samuel Smith bottle?

We're the single largest seller of Samuel Smith beer in North America. Because of that, they have a winter release beer called the Winter Welcome and it comes out every year around this time. And they always put a different picture on the label. This year, the theme was a toast to tavern keepers and barkeeps around the world, so they chose me to put on the label. It was a total surprise.

Tell me what this potent drink is that I just polished off.

It's the Dark & Stormy. It's extremely popular here. It's about a shot-and-a-half of ruby port blended with a very dark, strong brown ale. You mix them together and it's fantastic. It has nothing to do with the rum cocktail. As far as I can tell, this drink originated in Scotland in the 1700s or earlier.

Would you ever open another White Horse in Seattle?

No. I like just running one place. More than that and it would just burn you out. It's like girls--one at a time.

Check back tomorrow for part two of this week's Grillaxin as Joe Gilmartin shares some of his favorite recipes (one to eat, one to drink).

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