Row House Cafe has the kind of interior that allows you to imagine shouldering up next to Tom Waits at the bar and tilting back a glass of bathtub gin.
Part of that is due to the design work of owner Erin Maher, who’s imbued the space with a speakeasy/nautical motif. But another part grows from the old cottage’s origins as workforce housing for shipbuilders in the early 20th century.
“It’s such a charming building,” says frequent customer Andrea Florissi. “Actually, I’m surprised it hasn’t been leveled yet.”
Indeed, sitting in the heart of South Lake Union at 1170 Republican St., the scruffy restaurant sits in deep contrast to the glittering newness around it, its oldness a form of defiance. And therein lies its beauty, say its fans.
“In the midst of all the new, shiny hard surfaces SLU now contains, Row House is the only place left where your shoes make a soft sound on the creaking boards of old wooden floors,” says Sandy Lorentzen, a former property owner in SLU and Row House patron.
Maher is well aware of what draws people to her bar, and herself embodies its down-home sensibilities. As she and I chat on the front porch, she greets people entering the restaurant with the same friendliness that one would greet a neighbor while getting the mail. “This is a throwback,” she says. “You work all day in a bullpen with your co-workers and it’s nice to get outside of those walls and step into a different place. I think Row House offers that.”
Yet Row House’s relationship with South Lake Union is more complicated than the common Seattle refrain of old vs. new. In may ways, the bar is symbiotic with the new SLU, despite its stark juxtaposition to the surrounding corporate bustle.
In 2010 Maher began renting the three cottages that would become Row House, giving her a front-row seat to the massive overhaul the neighborhood was to get over the next six years. With her previous real-estate experience, Maher knew that big things were in store for the area, and she wanted to be there for it.
On September 20, 2010, Row House opened its doors. As Maher has hoped, the area was starving for a restaurant and bar to serve the steadily increasing droves of tech workers. “People started flooding in. All I did for the first couple of weeks was run for food all day long. It was mayhem and it was great,” she says.
For two years, Row House continued to serve the flocking customers, outperforming yearly projections. Then 2013 hit. That’s when, according to Maher, “all hell broke loose. It just cut us off at the knees, that’s when the construction started.”
Three years after the opening, with construction in SLU at full tilt, the hardhats and hammers finally surrounded the restaurant, causing serious pain. “It was three years of absolute misery,” says Maher. Demolition dust caused the HVAC unit to shut down, and exhaust systems were damaged, requiring costly repairs. The vibration from the nearly constant jackhammering even caused Row House to shift on its post and pier foundation, she says, which in turn caused considerable plumbing damage and exorbitant water bills.
It wasn’t until around this February that Maher was able to breathe easy: The encroaching construction finished, and tenants began moving into the new buildings. As a result, Row House began to see growth again.
On a recent Monday, Brooke Tiernan and Colby Nicholson sip on early-evening drinks. Nicholson works from home and meets Tiernan at Row House every day after she finishes work at the Tommy Bahama corporate headquarters housed in a shiny new building across the street. Tom Waits nothwithstanding, Tiernan and Nicholson are, in a way, the quintessential Row House customers: drawn to South Lake Union by the corporate world, yes, but also looking for a little respite from it.
“It’s a good little neighborhood spot; every time we walk in they know what we want, they know our names, we love the staff, we love the vibe,” says Tiernan.
As Maher sees it, to pull off something like Row House, you have to work with change and roll with the punches, not fight it. “We opened because we knew this area was undergoing dynamic growth; we just had no idea that it would happen literally on every block in this neighborhood. I don’t think anyone anticipated there would be so much construction all at once.”
However, she says, “You’re not going to stop growth. Physics just won’t allow it.”