Several recent transplants to Seattle have brought to my attention an idiosyncrasy about this city: For all our global aspirations, things shut down super-early at night. One reason I moved to New York as a younger man was the thrill of being able to get a full dinner at 1:30 a.m., even if that habit may not have been the best for my health. While I don’t think Seattle needs to go quite that far, it might be good to think about why our dining window is so small.
A 2 a.m. curfew on alcohol certainly contributes to the short evenings; many cities with more vibrant nightlife allow service until 4 a.m. or at all hours. Attempts by former mayor Mike McGinn notwithstanding, that doesn’t seem likely to change. Seattle’s sprawl doesn’t help either: Unless you happen to live near one of the few late-night hotspots (Capitol Hill, Belltown, Ballard), getting home after an evening out, even when sober, is fraught with the perils of infrequent buses, surge pricing, and construction-related road closures.
Yet not only bars are affected. Even late-night dining is rare here; while a 9 p.m. dinner reservation is trendy in New York City, many of Seattle’s best restaurants are locking their doors not long after that. Unless you’re in the right location, offer a late-night happy hour, or happen to be a restaurant-industry hangout (or all of the above), you probably don’t do much business past 9.
Frankly, I don’t expect that to change much. For one thing, given the current labor and minimum-wage laws, it just doesn’t make much sense for a restaurant to pay cooks, servers, bartenders, and others to work outside peak hours. A few random couples looking for a post-movie snack or a dessert to share don’t offset those costs. It’s also been my experience that those late tables don’t tend to order much alcohol, and that’s where the real margins are.
That’s not to say that skittish restaurateurs are to blame: I also think it has a lot to do with our latitude and climate. When it’s pouring rain and the sun sets at 4:30 p.m., the idea of a 9:30 dinner seems kind of ludicrous. The ideal time to dine is definitely later during the summer months, but even then Seattleites seem to turn in on the early side. Whatever the reasons, our lack of late-night dining and drinking seems likely to confuse and disappoint transplants and visitors for the foreseeable future.