Call the Washington Liquor Control Board what you will and I’ll agree with you: bloated, anachronistic, illogical, anti-entrepreneurial, puritanical. The requirement that bars wanting to serve hard liquor must also serve hot meals often results in awful food or ridiculous (though more welcome) virtual menus listing frozen entrées. I’ve been batting around the idea of doing a blog box called “Should You Really Eat Here?”, in which I send my co-workers to certain bars to order off the menu, but I’m worried that too few of them have the iron gut to survive the job.
Still, there are times when I appreciate our state’s insistence on no cocktails without food. Two new restaurant-bar-cafes on the northern expanse of California Avenue in West Seattle cultivate a civilized sort of drinking. They’re more focused on being places to hang out than on selling big-ticket items. Are you there to eat? Are you there to drink? Doesn’t seem to matter.
The more barlike of the two is Prost! West Seattle. Chris Navarra, the Linda Derschang for dudes, has launched another in his series of popular German pubs (Prost, Die BierStube, Feierabend). Though Prost West is the tiniest of the four, Navarra has followed the same successful Teutonic-loft template: walls painted burgundy, heavy wooden tables that look like they could survive a swordfight, exposed timbers, and bar shelves stocked with hundreds of branded glasses, including some steins that offer a binge with a handle. Almost everyone in the pub is nursing a foot-high half-liter of draft beer, from the creamy, floral Hacker-Pschorr Weissbier to the coffee-colored Späten Optimator Doppelbock. First-come, first-serve seating means that newcomers have to perch themselves along the rail in the center of the crowded room, stalking a table or bar stool (hint: Check behind the dartboard, where a long, big-party table sometimes stands empty). And while the servers are friendly, they’re outnumbered and blocked by the crowd, so it’s sometimes necessary to order at the bar.
But once you’re seated and served, there’s no reason to move for hours, or at least for dinner. Navarra’s menu includes a few kinds of sausage with sauerkraut, a few sandwiches and salads, and the beloved giant pretzel with spicy mustard. His approach to the food is to buy the best Germanic ingredients he can—sausages from Bavarian Meat, pretzels from Morning Star Bakery, pickles from Germany—and simply to prepare them right. The bratwurst, fat and coarse-grained, is just the faintest pink in the middle; the knockwurst, a blimp of a hot dog, bursts between the teeth with a noise halfway between a squeak and a pop. A plate of one or both of them comes with some very lightly cooked sauerkraut, a couple of triangles of soft light rye, and a pickle so crisp and sour you can feel your meat-bloat waning. And if one dish rises far above pedigreed pub food, it’s the kassler ripp-chen. For those of you who like your pork pink and big, the kassler rippchen is a smoked pork chop the size of a CD case. The lightly smoked chop comes to the table with a steak knife that’s purely for show, since a sharp fingernail could dismantle the tender, massive cut, striped with white fat so creamy you wouldn’t think of carving it off the lean.
Next door to Prost, the Bohemian works a completely different vibe. The six-month-old restaurant aims for Beaux-Arts over Berlin, with an almost grandmotherly fondness for curlicues and Tiffany-esque lights. The deep room, sepia-toned with dark wood paneling and sponge-painted gold walls, is more than twice Prost’s size. Yet it only has a few more tables, providing a higher security clearance for your intimate conversations. An upright piano next to the bar sees use some Thursday and Friday nights, as well as during jazz brunch on Sundays.
The place doesn’t seem to close, though it changes its stripes. During the day, the Bohemian’s a cafe, where you can snack on a muffin or spend a few hours drinking Stella coffees in front of the laptop. Happy hour begins at four, then segues into more substantial food and drink at six. Where Prost is all about beer and pork, the Bohemian’s better suited for cocktails and lamb chops. There’s a short wine list, a few beers on tap, and more important, a full bar that fabricates $6 ($6!) sazeracs with absinthe and $8 saketinis perfumed with yuzu and orange-flower water.
The menu meanders from salted nuts to full-on entrées and back again, making it hard to know just how to order. The dishes that work are all salty, hearty, and small. Ask yourself, Would I snack on this on a rainy day? For example, if the dish in question is grilled romaine salad with radicchio, the answer would be no—a long wedge of barely dressed, slightly wilted lettuce comes with a second wedge of hard, bitter chicory and inexplicable piles of mozzarella balls and undressed cherry tomatoes. Same with a vanilla-scented endive salad with grapes, which smells like a candle shop and tastes like…well, not much; or the “pescivore” entrée of scallops on a farro risotto. When I tried it, the cooks had undercooked and underseasoned some diced root vegetables and tossed them with whole grains, pouring a little cream overtop as if that were going to bring the dish together.
By contrast, say yes to garnet fries, sliced into wide, thin lengths and fried perfectly; choose the smoked-paprika ketchup from the three sauces, which tamp down the yams’ sugars. Say yes to the tender lamb “lollie” chops with roast potatoes and horseradish sour cream, or the whole-wheat pasta. Though overcooked, it’s merely an excuse for wallowing in melted Rogue smoked blue cheese, bacon, and toasted hazelnuts (whole grains, remember, whole grains). And say yes to the raclette #1, an inverted fondue in which diced bits of dry-cured sausage, potatoes, cornichons, and capers are laid out on a cast-iron plate and covered in a funky cow’s-milk cheese, which is then stuck in the oven until it’s bubbling. By the time you’ve used all your bread to soak up the fragrant mess, you’re so hooked on the fat and salt that you’ll keep scraping away at the pan until the last sausage cube has disappeared.
As a dinner destination, the Bohemian’s none too reliable, but as a place to order a couple of snacks and drink a few glasses of wine, it’s just what the neighborhood needs.