Essex and Vessel, the subjects of this week's dual review, are each deserving of a visit - albeit for very different reasons. One bar has a surplus of old-world charm, while the other bar's aiming for urban glitz. One bar's serving up masterful cocktails, while the other bar's an ideal setting for drinking wine. I'll let you read the review to learn which bar's which.
But as very young bars, both establishments have to contend with the same problem: They haven't yet acquired the casts of customers which make public drinking worthwhile. Most of the guests flocking to Essex, the boozy offshoot of Delancey, and Vessel, the reincarnation of Seattle's legendary cocktail haven, are drawn by hopes of being wowed. They're not looking for barkeeps to sympathize with their troubles, or fellow patrons with whom to swap stories. That's a trademark of what cocktail historian David Wondrich calls an "old man bar," which is a good way of describing a dive bar with character.
Not every bar has to feature dim lighting, an outdated jukebox and a motley group of drinkers, of course. Bar diversity is a very good thing. But bars of all calibers should promote conversation among strangers. Sadly, I witnessed very few unplanned chats at Vessel and Essex, where customers appeared to stick with the ones who brung them.
I'm not faulting either bar for the lack of fluky bonhomie. It's terrifically hard for a newcomer to instigate casual conversation, as I've learned from my perch behind the keyboard.
In my dream world, folks would feel as comfortable voicing their opinions here as they might in an old man bar. But my readers seem to be a quieter crowd: Of the last dozen reviews I've written, only four of them have prompted any comments. While I could flatter myself by imagining that every person who reads my reviews believes I've drawn the exact right conclusions, it's highly unlikely that thousands of people are in precise agreement about Seattle restaurants.
Interestingly, the readers who seem most inclined to care - the restaurant enthusiasts who book tables on opening nights and food fiends who Instagram their meals - should have plenty to say, since their experiences are liable to be very different than mine. As New York Times dining critic Pete Wells rivetingly demonstrated in a recent review of Talde, restaurants now focus so intensely on impressing during their first two months that their best days are often behind them by the time professional reviewers show up. When I'm not keen on a restaurant, I'd love to hear from the eaters whose visits weren't marred by overcooked salmon or dry chocolate cake.
But it doesn't take a different experience to produce a different opinion. Two people can eat from the very same bowl of pasta and dispute whether it was oversauced. Nobody's opinions are gospel. But I always hope my opinions will at least serve as a springboard for conversation.
Fired up yet? You've got two reviews this week to consider, question and debate. Have at it here. And if you'd rather avoid contention, we can all agree that Kevin Casey's photos of Essex and Vessel are lovely.