The Watering Hole: Joe’s Bar & Grill (the Red Front Tavern to longtime regulars), 500 S. King St., 223-9266, INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT.
The Atmosphere: There are three reasons to drink before 8 a.m. on a weekday:
1. You are an alcoholic.
2. Your life has taken a turn for the worse—i.e., your wife filed for divorce, you lost your job, the bank finally foreclosed, or all of the above.
3. You are Episcopalian and it’s Easter.
Joe’s Bar & Grill unlocks its doors at 7 a.m. to welcome all these early-morning boozers with open arms and open taps. A whiteboard announces the day’s specials: Jell-O shots and coffee, $2 each.
The drinks are cheap, drawing cash-only patrons who don’t always know where they’ll lay their head at night. But Joe’s isn’t just for the domestically challenged. Cabbies, graveyard-shift workers, and people just needing a jolt to start their morning are all seated at stools for this very first of first calls.
Ralph, a regular, is about to start his shift with a city utility crew. He’s off to clear a clogged sewage drain. “I’m glad you’re drinking before you do that,” says the man behind the bar.
The Barkeep: That would be Jim. He casually keeps full the PBR pints and shot glasses laid out on the bar before him. I’m not surprised when he politely declines to give his last name or be the subject of a photo. But he is happy to pour me a cup of coffee and chat.
The Drink: Jim tips a healthy vodka pour into an ice-filled tumbler. He adds orange juice and a cranberry float. With the cup of coffee, it’s practically a healthy breakfast. “I think people call it a sunrise,” Jim says.
A guy in a Native Veteran U.S. Army hat corrects him. “I think a sunrise has tequila in it.”
“That’s right,” Jim says. “It’s a tequila sunrise. I guess you can call it whatever you want.”
Jim explains that for many of his 40 years as a drinker and barkeep, he was a scotch man. “But I got ‘brilliant’ when I drank scotch, and that’s not always a good thing,” he explains. I take that to mean he turned into something of a smart-ass—bad if you aren’t prepared to take a punch. So vodka, OJ, and cran it is.
The Verdict: The bottom-shelf vodka stings a little going down, and there’s a scent to Joe’s that seems to permeate just about anything you might be drinking. But cocktail craftsmanship is clearly not Joe’s primary purpose.
The early-morning crowd represents four different ethnicities and at least that many income brackets. It feels like kind of a tough place, but everyone is friendly, even jovial, especially to the 30-something female writer who has appeared in their midst.
Joe’s won’t become my regular watering hole, but at this stage in my life, it really isn’t meant to be. If changes and unforeseen challenges turn me into an early-morning drinker, Joe’s will be there, without judgment, to dull any pain I might be trying to keep at bay. And that’s good to know.