We in the food and beverage industry call it going over to the Dark Side. Every so often, a talented server or bartender moves to a restaurant in Bellevue or Kirkland, and those of us in Seattle sadly shake our heads. We understand and we don’t at the same time. The conventional wisdom is that you can make a lot of money as a front-of-house employee on the Eastside, even if the clientele isn’t supposedly as sophisticated as it is in Seattle. Yet visiting a couple of new bars has opened my eyes toward an opportunity I hadn’t considered.
It’s an open secret in the local restaurant community that there are too many cocktail bars and not enough bartenders in Seattle these days. Sure, plenty of folks can stand behind a bar top, throw together a halfway decent Manhattan, and give off the air of aloofness that seems to increasingly pass for expertise. Yet the idea of going to a cocktail bar to learn and explore has given way to a desire to show off, both by customers and bartenders. Five years ago an interested neophyte might be able to walk into a dozen or so local bars and learn about amaros or rye whiskeys or any other obscure bottles on the shelf. While that environment certainly still exists, it’s harder to find, even at certain bars where you might expect it.
Yet the Eastside is still largely uncharted territory for high-concept cocktail bars, as I discovered. At Kirkland’s Bottle & Bull, bar manager Silas Manlove explained it to me: “We have lots of people who come in and thank us, because now they don’t have to cross the bridges. We’re not quite a Seattle cocktail bar, we’re just trying to do what feels right.”
In this case, that’s devising a cocktail program that walks the line between innovative and approachable. Bottle & Bull is an homage to the travels of Ernest Hemingway, and while it might be a bit odd to not see any absinthe on the drink list (though it does sit behind the bar), current trends like draft cocktails and lower-alcohol drinks are there. Bellevue’s smartly named Bar Code (get it, Bar Code, my column . . . ) is much the same, deftly toying with ingredients like mezcal and cachaca that until recently were only used regularly in the 206 area code. More important, the conviviality and conversation sadly rare in many Seattle bars is strongly represented.
“This bar gives me plenty of chances to ‘take the reins’ and help guide someone’s experience,” Manlove explained. “Usually they’re on to something customized by the third drink, at the latest.” While any bar should cater to a wide range of drinkers (Bottle & Bull has Bud Light on draft, and a few bottles of Red Bull stashed away), it’s clear that both bars are hoping to keep the Eastside’s “cocktail chasers” on that side of the lake as much as possible.
While the challenges of commuting to and from might dissuade some Seattle industry pros (and drink enthusiasts) from exploring the Dark Side, I suspect that we’ve been underestimating its true power.