Economic downturns. Smoking bans. Upscale competition. Prohibition. Several Eastside bars and taverns have endured trying times but still managed to survive and thrive. We found out how.
Some of Dan Harkey’s favorite memories of Issaquah, a city he moved to 60 years ago, can be traced back to the H&H Saloon.
“I remember the day we celebrated my 21st birthday,” Harkey, 65, recalled one late afternoon, while he sipped from a bottle of Bud Light inside the darkened downtown bar. The H&H Saloon was quiet, with a half-dozen longtime customers perched on bar stools, peeling open pull tabs, stirring the ice in their cocktails, and chatting about everything and nothing — the traffic lined up outside on Front Street, the odds of the Seahawks reaching the Super Bowl, the classic rock music that filled the room.
Opened in a storefront formerly occupied by Schomber Bakery beginning in the 1890s, the H&H Saloon is hard to miss, thanks to its antiquated façade and vintage red sign with white neon lettering.
“It’s just a fun place,” added Harkey, a former Eastside Fire & Rescue battalion chief who retired in 2002, after responding to the city’s emergencies for 35 years. “It’s low-key, with a lot of history.”
Some of Washington state’s oldest bars and taverns, such as the H&H Saloon, are on the Eastside, with a few having sold their first drops of alcohol more than 100 years ago. The oldest business on Mercer Island is the Roanoke Inn, which opened in 1914, and today proudly proclaims its history of “dancing girls, bootleg liquor, and gambling” on its menu. Like horseshoe crabs, these legacy businesses are peculiar creatures that date back many, many years and eerily exist to remind us of an earlier, weirder, and more captivating time.
These old drinking establishments don’t operate outside economic booms and busts, and many have even stared down their own industry challenges, such as Prohibition, licensing shifts, and smoking bans. Much hearsay (and even some reputable studies) shows Americans tend to spend more money on alcohol during tough economic times. And pejoratively dismissing these businesses as “dive bars” has only emboldened them. Often, the term is a mark of authenticity, durability, and even affection.
How do these old bars and taverns survive?
“The bars that stand the test of time are more than just bars; they’re community centers — third places, if you will.”
“To me, it all has to do with the steadfast support of thirsty regulars and the community at large,” said Mike Seely, author of Seattle’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking & Diving in the Emerald City. “The bars that stand the test of time are more than just bars; they’re community centers — third places, if you will. I think you’ll find more native (Pacific) Northwesterners in these bars — be they in Seattle or on the Eastside — than in trendier joints because they’re among the last places that rekindle a sense of (the area) as it was, versus what it’s become.”
Consider this: Most essential businesses (even coffee shops!) either close early or don’t open at all on the two biggest holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not so for most local bars and taverns, where comfort can be found in neon beer signs that seem to shine a little brighter, buckets of pull tabs that seem to empty a little faster, and cocktails that seem to taste a little stronger.
And there are plenty of those to see on the Eastside. Here’s a look at some of the oldest, most historic, and most storied among them.
Mt. Si Tavern looks like a frontier schoolhouse — a one-room log cabin painted crimson and situated at the foot of Mount Si’s snow-dusted, jigsaw peak. But North Bend residents have met here for more than 80 years to socialize, shoot pool, and drink alcohol.
“The local historical society told me it opened in 1923,” said owner Rob Sherard. It was a recent Friday afternoon, and he was seated at a table near a front window while a half-dozen regular customers were seated at the bar keeping friendly conversation. A truck driver and Mt. Si Tavern regular, according to Sherard, blew his horn as he barreled past the tavern. “But the federal government’s records don’t recognize it as a tavern until Day One after Prohibition.” He paused for winking, playful effect. “So, I think it depends on who you talk to.”
“The local historical society told me it opened in 1923. But the federal government’s records don’t recognize it as a tavern until Day One after Prohibition. So, I think it depends on who you talk to.”
Sherard, 46, is fond of the tavern’s history, and records show the land it sits on dates to 1898, when Frederick Barber purchased the property from the Northern Pacific Railway. An enlarged, color reproduction of the 1898 Homestead Act deed is framed and hangs near a far corner of the bar, which also includes old photos of the tavern circa the 1930s.
Sherard first visited in 1992, when he was 21 years old and favored the tavern’s cheap, frosty pints of light beer. He spent the next two decades as a mortgage broker, promotional advertiser, and bookkeeper before he decided, in 2012, to take out a 10-year loan and buy the business, which newcomers know as Mt. Si Pub, but old-timers still call Mt. Si Tavern.
His first move, he said, was to clean up the place — both literally and figuratively. Little touches — straightening pictures on the walls, keeping the bathrooms clean — went a long way. And he restored order to a place that, he said, once had a notorious reputation as a paradise for brawlers and trouble-makers.
“There’s a difference between good money and bad money,” he explained. “(A difference between) a guy spending $40 a day, but running $41 out.”
Sherard said it was a blessing in disguise when the insurance company demanded he remove the deep fryer because it was a fire hazard in the tavern’s cramped confines — where customer-signed dollar bills are stapled to the walls and ceiling like frail tiles (every so often, Sherard removes the bills and donates them to a nearby camp that serves burn victims). The equipment stank, and cleaning it was back-breaking work. The smoking ban was enacted long before Sherard bought the business, but he’s pleased it’s in place because it got rid of a choking haze that filled this cozy tavern.
Mt. Si Tavern is dog-friendly; offers free Wi-Fi; and stays comfortably warm thanks to a stone-built, wood-burning fireplace that is well-stoked when the temperature drops. Customers visit for the free pool on Sunday and Monday, $2.50 pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Rainier on Tuesday, $1.50 tacos on Thursday, live music on Friday, karaoke on Saturday, and a weekly pool tournament. A fenced backyard serves as a beer garden during the summer, where horseshoes clang and a cook grills hamburgers and hot dogs on a barbecue.
Sherard employs four bartenders, one cook, and one janitor. He earns a salary that lands somewhere between the janitor’s and the cook’s, he said. Owning the business is a labor of love.
Five years ago, the independent movie Lucky Them (starring Toni Colette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt, and Johnny Depp) was filmed here. Sherard wasn’t really star-struck, but he did hope Lucky Them might turn Mt. Si Tavern into a tourist hub for film-lovers, kind of like what Twin Peaks did for nearby Twede’s Café. But the movie disappeared quickly from theaters, and a boost to business never materialized.
So, what’s the secret to Mt. Si Tavern’s longevity?
“Slow change has kept this place alive,” he explained. Even introducing something as common as pull tabs last summer generated concerned chatter among regular customers, but that eventually passed. “It has not changed much in all these years. You can’t change too much, too fast. If I change this from Mt. Si Tavern and into a fancy restaurant or something, I would have nobody here. They come here for the experience, to sit and talk to their friends, to meet new people.”
Diane Krushelnisky was 25 years old in 1980 when she sold everything she owned, bought an old van, and spent several months traveling the United States with a friend. Eventually, the pair arrived in Washington, and Krushelnisky found her way to the Central Tavern, a downtown Kirkland bar that had opened in 1934. She chatted with the new owner, Marilyn Bolles, who was looking to hire a bartender.
“Diane wanted a job, but she told Marilyn, ‘I’ve never tended bar before,’” Krushelnisky’s sister, Sandi Parcells, recalled. “Marilyn said, ‘It’s easy. It’s just beer and wine. Come back Friday night, and you’re hired.’ Diane walked in Friday night, and Marilyn said, ‘Here’s the register. Here are the keys. Good luck,’ and walked out the door. That’s how Diane started working here.”
For the next 20 years, Krushelnisky tended bar at Central Tavern five nights a week. In 2000, Bolles sold the business to Krushelnisky, who likely would have continued to own and operate the place today if not for her unexpected death last February at age 62. Scores of regulars crowded into the darkened, windowless bar last March for a public memorial. Last November, Parcells, who worked alongside her sister for 20 years, sold the Central Tavern and settled her late sister’s estate.
“Diane just liked it here,” Parcells recalled one Monday afternoon, just two weeks before the sale was finalized, and new owners took over. She was seated at the far end of the darkened bar, glassy-eyed and lump-throated as she recalled memories of her sister. “She lived right down the street, so she could walk to work. She liked the people who came in here, and everyone was down to earth. When you sat down at the bar, you never knew if you were sitting next to a millionaire or a regular joe. Everybody acted the same; nobody put on airs. It was just a comfortable place.”
“When you sat down at the bar, you never knew if you were sitting next to a millionaire or a regular joe. Everybody acted the same; nobody put on airs. It was just a comfortable place.”
The tavern had six owners over the course of 80 years, and moved from First Street and Central Way to its current location, 124 Kirkland Ave., in 1936. The sturdy, wooden-back bar was wheeled through downtown streets and installed where it still rests today. The original neon sign still is illuminated every evening, but has been placed behind the bar instead of hanging outside over the business’ front door. A row of stools would be unremarkable otherwise if they weren’t the same stools that supported the tavern’s first drinkers. And artifacts line the walls, such as old Kirkland Journal newspaper clippings announcing the tavern’s opening, and a framed photo collage of customers drinking and playing shuffleboard circa 1940.
Central Tavern is where grandparents, parents, and grandchildren gather to celebrate the next generation’s 21st birthdays, according to Parcells. The busiest night of the year is Thanksgiving eve, when families arrive in town and meet there to play pool and share a pitcher of beer. And it’s difficult not to sit at the bar and admire a museum of kitsch: the “redneck wind chime” (four crushed Coors Light cans strung from a piece of wood), a stuffed armadillo, interchangeable wooden signs announcing which bartender is on duty, and an old football tattooed with autographs.
“This was the Seattle Seahawks hangout 20 years ago,” explained Parcells, referring to a period when the NFL team was headquartered in Kirkland. “When Diane was working nights, she had the team trainer’s phone number. If any Seahawks got out of control, she would call him, and he would come down to rescue them and take them away before it ever made the news.”
Until 2000, Central Tavern served beer and wine, but not hard liquor. No matter, as the tavern’s regulars were resourceful. “They would run out the back door and across the alley to the Moss Bay Inn, get a couple shots, then come back here for beer. There was a laundromat over on Park Lane, and people would go put in their laundry, come over here for a beer, go change the laundry — this was a back-and-forth kind of place.”
When the tavern began to serve hard liquor, its name was formally changed to the Central Club as a signal to customers. But like almost all the old Eastside bars, longtimers still thought of it as a tavern, and the owners embraced the old title.
For Parcells, selling her late sister’s business was bittersweet. She said the new owners plan to make very few changes, and even want to formally change the name back to Central Tavern. But Parcells won’t be working there anymore. “It’s just too difficult,” she said, as she sat in the bar where her sister spent nearly 40 years.
Issaquah’s connection to taverns and bars spans much of the city’s 125-year history. At one point, the city counted three churches and 13 saloons, including Cooper’s Roost, Union Tavern, H&H Saloon, and the Rollin’ Log Tavern.
Opened in the 1930s and still operating today, the Rollin’ Log Tavern was once a place where loggers clutched pints with whatever fingers they had left.
The tavern’s wood-shingled façade is interrupted by a fort-like room perched near the roof and hanging over the sidewalk, two windows blocked by neon beer signs, and an overhead lamp that shines on a wooden door painted red and crowned by a hand-lettered sign: Rollin’ Log Tavern. Inside, wooden benches, bars, tables, and chairs are arranged around two pool tables; an illuminated shuffleboard table; and log-and-shingle walls covered in beer placards, a vintage two-man saw, and taxidermied wildlife. At the center of this scene is a U-shaped bar jammed with liquor bottles, a wall of tap handles, a cooler, and a tiny kitchen.
“It was a pretty rough-and-tumble place back in the day, as you can imagine,” said Rob Schnittker, a volunteer at the Issaquah History Museums who leads a historic pub crawl through downtown that’s co-hosted by the Downtown Issaquah Association.
Over a shot of rye whiskey one night at the Rollin’ Log Tavern, Schnittker recalled a late night and early morning in 2008 when the Washington State Ghost Society camped out in the tavern and the former Grand Central Hotel next door, equipped with recording gear, electromagnetic field monitors, and full-spectrum video cameras.
“When the Ghost Society published its report, it included unexplained shadows, flickering lights, and visualizations of ghosts,” said Schnittker. “One investigator felt the sensation of someone touching his upper arm and neck. The investigators actually found multiple spirits, and some of the mediums engaged with the spirits.”
According to Schnittker, James Croston built the hotel in 1903, and he was married to a woman named Anna. Anna, in turn, had a surrogate daughter named Penelope. Schnittker said a spirit named Penelope told the ghost hunters she had been murdered in the basement of the Grand Central Hotel. Another spirit named Anna appeared and told the ghost hunters about Penelope’s murder.
“So, the story here is about how many ghosts are allegedly associated with the Rollin’ Log Saloon,” said Schnittker.
Another feature of the Rollin’ Log Tavern is situated right beneath your feet, but you probably won’t notice it.
“Because you had a bunch of miners in town, they ended up digging tunnels between every saloon during Prohibition, and hauled booze underground,” marveled Schnittker. “There was a complete spiderweb of tunnels underground to smuggle alcohol back and forth. The tunnels were pretty much filled in because the foundations of the buildings started to sink. But the H&H Tavern still has one of the tunnels where they stored their liquor.”
“Because you had a bunch of miners in town, they ended up digging tunnels between every saloon during Prohibition, and hauled booze underground. There was a complete spiderweb of tunnels underground to smuggle alcohol back and forth.”
That was more than 80 years ago. Today, the Rollin’ Log Tavern is a go-to spot for pool or shuffleboard, cheap shots of liquor, or Monday Night Football.
“It’s definitely a classic dive bar,” said bartender Julie Warren, 47, who started tending bar at age 21 at the former Workshop Tavern in Redmond, and has worked at the Rollin’ Log Tavern for almost a decade. “I don’t know if there’s a secret (to its longevity). It just seems to be a comfortable, familiar place that doesn’t change a lot. In littler towns like this, the dive bars become something everybody knows. We get a lot of kids and grandkids who come in and say, ‘Oh, my dad used to hang out here. My grandpa always came here.’ So, when they turn 21, they start coming in. It just keeps trickling down.”
Warren said it’s common for a dive bar owner to hang onto the business for decades, noting two past owners of the Rollin’ Log Tavern owned the place for several decades apiece. “I don’t know if the owners themselves get attached to the bars, or the people in the bars, but they hold on to them for a long time,” she said.
And why not? Restaurants might suffer when the economy takes a dive and more people choose to cook at home or opt for cheap fast food. But Warren said dive bars are different.
“The beer and liquor are cheaper than at any lounge or restaurant,” said Warren. “People will come in knowing there will be other people to commiserate with: Oh, I lost my job, I’m on unemployment, I’m losing my house. Instead of having four beers, they might only have two beers, but they still come every day.”
Still, the Rollin’ Log Tavern hasn’t remained frozen in time. A new owner bought the tavern, the former Grand Central Hotel next door, and the laundromat behind the bar in 2013, and installed a new kitchen, remodeled the bathrooms, and turned an adjacent apartment into additional barroom space large enough to install a second pool table.
The investments helped to shed the tavern’s once-notorious reputation, according to Warren, who is familiar with stories of people driving their motorcycles through the tavern, booze-fueled knife fights, and drug dealing.
“People who have lived in town for 20 years, they will come in and say, ‘I’ve never been here. I’ve always been so scared. I’ve heard too many stories,’” explained Warren. “The women usually say, ‘Oh, I can actually come here by myself and feel comfortable.’”
She counts 50 to 75 regular customers who stop by during the week for cheap pours of Pabst, Rainier, or Olympia, and to try their luck at pull tabs. On weekends, the tavern hires security to monitor the 500 to 600 people who visit the tavern to listen to live music or sing karaoke.