Nightjar brings the weird back to Pioneer Square.
More than any other neighborhood in Seattle, Pioneer Square is a living reflection of the state of the city. Regardless of era, its tilted facades and uneven alleyways readily absorb whatever civic image we project.
Way back when it was all there was to the city—a wood-hewn warren of hotels, storefronts and saloons home to more prostitutes (euphemized as “seamstresses” for union purposes) per capita than any other American city. The Great Fire of 1889 swept out the unsavories and replaced them with the sturdy bastion of the Northwest’s banking and outfitting industries, their brick exoskeletons still holding up the neighborhood today. After the fire, as the downtown core moved north, the area’s nickname “Skid Road” took on new meaning as social castaways and outsiders—the beginning of Seattle’s leftist, queer and countercultural scenes—flocked to a slew of bars and nightclubs that paid police to ignore then-illegal same-sex dancing and generally louche carousing.
In the ’70s Seattle’s first out-and-proud gay bar, Shelly’s Leg, opened at South Main and Alaskan Way, quickly becoming a national model of West
Coast hedonism. In the ’80s and ’90s Pioneer Square was the epicenter of grunge, its ancient bars and taverns adding sound systems to rickety stages, like the one at the OK Hotel where Nirvana played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time ever.
Then, save a motley collection of art galleries and bottle-service dance clubs, everyone left for Capitol Hill. These days the OK Hotel is a condo building with a gallery in the lobby.
The current incarnation of Pioneer Square started with Seattle’s booming restaurant industry and, not surprisingly, coincided with Seattle’s booming tech industry. Beginning around 2012, artisanal, high-end spots like Damn the Weather, Altstadt, London Plane, Taylor Shellfish and the now-defunct Bar Sajor brought the city’s late-capitalist food fetishism into a neighborhood better known for Seattle dogs and sports bars. Alongside these rustic-but-refined spaces, refurbished apartment buildings welcomed moneyed tech workers, and the neighborhood buzzed with talk of a renaissance. But $15 appetizers do not a renaissance make. Except during First Thursday Art Walks, the place mostly empties out after 10 p.m.
Now, finally, viable nightlife is returning to Pioneer Square, pushing that curfew to a more enchanting hour. The real rebirth of the neighborhood is a return to its loud-and-proud heyday.
Credit starts with Michael Gill, the Montana-to-Seattle transplant who took over booking the Central Saloon a couple years ago and more recently the J&M Café. Gill replaced tired blues-rock and cover bands with local indie rock, experimental music and hip-hop, jolting two of the city’s most charming and venerable venues with of-the-moment energy.
Another exciting addition to neighborhood nightlife arrives this month. Nightjar, a bar, performance venue and dance club, has taken over the old Double Header at 2nd Avenue and S Washington Street. Named for its separate male and female bathrooms—a Seattle novelty when it opened in the early ’30s—the Double Header was widely considered the oldest gay bar in America until it closed at the end of 2015. It was owned by one family, father and son, for that entire run. Ready to retire, Joe Belotti Jr. sought tenants who’d carry on the bar’s alternative inclinations; he found them in Michael Manahan and Dane Garfield Wilson, the ownership team behind Re-bar in the Denny Triangle.
“There’s history here of early drag theatre, mixed burlesque—kind of a gay/queer establishment,” Manahan tells me on a Tuesday afternoon in early May. We’re talking inside Nightjar, which is drastically unfinished, its primary feature a monumental cherry wood back bar that Wilson says was built in Ireland, shipped to Portland and then allegedly ended up in Seattle as the result of a poker bet. Throughout the rest of the space, high brick walls alternate with elegant damask-print wallpaper. At the far end is a prominent stage. An adjacent room with its own entry and bar will eventually become a separate space known as the Double Header Room.
“Being the owners of Re-bar, we’re really into preserving aspects of Seattle’s heritage that are being mowed over by development,” Manahan continues. “We see it as an opportunity to encapsulate some of the vibes and continue the cultural heritage of the place.”
The history Manahan mentions was captured long ago in dozens of large, ornately framed black-and-white photos that he and Wilson salvaged from the old Double Header. It’s an astonishing collection, depicting scenes of ’50s, ’60s and ’70s cross-dressed bon vivants and queer revelry. Manahan is having them professionally restored, after which they’ll hang inside the bar, serving as both memory and suggestion.
Manahan says they plan to “copy and paste” Re-bar’s programming into Nightjar. That means burlesque, cabaret and avant-garde theatre early in the evenings (with the addition of craft cocktails) and underground DJs and dancing later at night (and potentially after-hours). That approach remains true to the all-night gay dances and brass-band bacchanals that took place in the basement of the Double Header, in a performance den called The Casino that was the location’s original attraction. Eventually the queers left the basement—which has since operated as Heaven and the Catwalk and is currently a hip-hop club called Stage Seattle—and took over the upstairs, setting the Double Header’s place in history.
407 2nd Ave., Seattle