The historic dives that made Seattle

The facade of Seattle's historic bar and restaurant Merchants Cafe

Merchants Cafe’s roots go back to the Great Fire of 1889. | Photo via Merchants Cafe

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Pull up a stool + a sudsy pint — we’re gonna reminisce about some of Seattle’s most storied bars. As befitting a former lumber town, the drinks scene was built not from fancy cocktails, but out of rustic dives, backrooms, low-lit dens, lively speakeasies, and even a major karaoke destination. These old-time watering holes have left a legacy from the 19th century onward. Bottom’s up. 🍻

The really old timers 🕰️

Several iconic Seattle Pioneer Square drinking dens were built within three years of the Great Fire of 1889: J&M Cafe & Cardroom, Central Saloon + Merchants Cafe. J&M is now closed, but the latter two are still kicking around with many of their old furnishings + dusky vibes that drew rowdy revelers back in the day.

There’s a bit of a dispute over what holds the title as Seattle’s “oldest bar,” but Seattle author + historian Brad Holden says Merchants has ‘em all beat.

“They’ve been operating under the same name for the longest, and they’ve been serving drinks for the longest — including during Prohibition,” Brad said.

Merchants does have a particularly colorful history. It was built by W.E. Boone, who was said to be a direct descendant of Daniel Boone. The upstairs also used to house a brothel, which employed prostitutes under the codename “seamstresses.” And like many old buildings in Seattle, there are legends of ghosts haunting the halls, naturally.

Blood lines 🍷

Speak(easin’) of Prohibition, another type of nightlife scene emerged not too far away from those old school Pioneer Square saloons in the early 20th century. The Club Royale in the Luisa Hotel was a place where patrons of all different backgrounds mingled, listened to jazz, and drank booze out of large tin cups. The oversized dishware eventually earned Club Royale the nickname, “The Bucket of Blood.”

Striking murals from that era were discovered in the building eight years ago, and now you can go on a tour of the neighborhood to scope out the original site. And here’s another nugget for ya — Jimi Hendrix’s mom Lucille Jeter once waitressed and sang in this speakeasy.

A view of a sign saying Bush Garden in Seattle circa 1977

Here’s a view of Bush Garden’s iconic sign circa 1977. | Photo via Seattle Municipal Archives, #195774

Garden party 🎤

The next time you’re belting out “Purple Haze” on the open mic, just remember where amateur bar singing all began. Around 50 years ago, legendary Chinatown-International District hot spot Bush Garden became the first US restaurant to open a karaoke bar. This was back in the days of eight-track when every song was handwritten in Japanese.

The old school spirit eventually added some technology — giving it some staying power — and was a welcoming hub for Seattle’s tight-knit AAPI community. Bush Garden is currently in limbo, though, after it closed its original location in 2020 when the building was sold to developers. However, owners hope to reopen next year in a new building called “Bob’s Place” — named after the Filipino activist, Bush Garden regular + karaoke legend Bob Santos.

Places full of Pride 🏳️‍🌈

Another divey Seattle icon that faded away in recent years was located just blocks from all of these other haunts. The Double Header in Pioneer Square was said to be the oldest gay + trans bar on the West Coast — and considered one of the oldest continuously running gay bars in the country until it closed in 2016.

Owned by an Italian immigrant named Joe Belloti Sr., the unassuming spot dated back to the 1930s and became a place where same-sex couples could dance + have a good time without the fear of being harassed by the cops (thanks to Belloti’s payoffs). It was located at the heart of the original Seattle gayborhood, back before Capitol Hill took that mantle.

There was a short effort to revive the Double Header under a new name back in 2017, but that effort seems to have stalled since the address is now listed as a hooka lounge. Those looking for a similar down-to-earth energy to the Double Header can seek out popular LGBTQ-friendly dives like the Crescent Lounge, Madison Pub, Wildrose, and White Center’s soon-to-reopen Lumber Yard Bar.

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Pro tip: You can learn more about other historic local bars at Dim Lights & Stiff Drinks: The Dive Bars of Seattle podcast. Co-host Brad Holden also has a related book making its debut on Mon., Aug. 15 called “Lost Roadhouses of Seattle.”

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