It is ironic how we spend our days surrounded by a buzzing sea of humanity but live in relative isolation. Even when forced out among fellow humans, we commute with headphones on and eyes fixed to a handheld stream of text message conversations and social media interactions. We forge new friendships 140 characters at a time; we live vicariously through someone else’s vacation photos on Facebook.
But for the past two years, and especially in recent months, a growing number of Seattle restaurants and bars have opened with the apparent goal of encouraging us to break out of our digital shells and enjoy the real world. These places offer a playful environment to help us unwind and open up, using more than libations to create a sense of release. Some get us interacting with one another through games and activities (think: King’s Hardware in Ballard), others create a sense of transportation to distant lands (remember trend pioneer Buca di Beppo?). The most successful of these establishments, though, pair the experience with great food and drink.
The popular Capitol Hill bar and all-ages eatery Poquitos (pictured left, 1000 E Pike St.; 206.453.4216; vivapoquitos.com) is convincingly designed in the spirit of Spanish colonial Mexico. Snapping some Instagram shots while you’re here might make your friends think you’ve slipped away on vacation. The décor is so authentic that it actually makes the margaritas taste better. The owners of Poquitos, James Weimann and Deming Maclise, are obnoxiously well traveled and revel in bringing their experiences back to the Jet City, returning from their adventures with more than the flavors of distant lands, but also with shipping containers full of carefully scavenged design elements, such as the antique light fixtures and authentic Mexican tile.
In addition to Poquitos, Weimann and Maclise operate four other travel-inspired restaurants in Seattle—Bastille Café & Bar, Macleod’s Scottish Pub and Stoneburner in Ballard, as well as Von Trapp’s on Capitol Hill (more on that, in a second). A key to their success: These trendsetting entrepreneurs think of themselves as designers and not just restaurateurs.
“One of the things we try to do is give people an escape during their dining experience,” Maclise says. “When I go out, I want to feel like I’m transported to another place, and we try to bring back the essence and soul of each country and/or type of cuisine we are trying to share with our customers.”
Like the décor, the food and drink at Poquitos are faithful representations of Mexico. The wildly popular Purist margarita ($7.50) is deliciously simple, mixing tequila and agave with freshly squeezed limes, but the specialties here are cocktails created using infused tequilas. The Jala-Pina margarita ($8.50) uses jalapeño-infused tequila and fresh pineapple juice to balance the heat with the sweet. Cerveza? Call for the Hombre lager ($5), a Mexican-style beer produced by Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company exclusively for Poquitos.
For happy hour, throngs of thirsty hillsters crowd the large, heated, seasonally enclosed patio; the ceviche tostada ($5) and the mini sopes ($5) are favorites. Go big and order the mole fries ($5), Poquitos’ version of poutine, with house-cut fries smothered in mole, crema and Cotija, then topped with toasted sesame seeds and cilantro.
Across town in Ballard, the plan was to open an all-ages Southern-style restaurant and whiskey bar, but something about the 1920s building inspired Nathan Opper and Zak Melang (of Matador restaurant fame) to pursue a pre-Prohibition theme, one that transports you in both time and place. The food at Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen (5309 22nd Ave. NW; 206.783.2668; kickinboot.com) is unapologetically Southern, and more than the cocktails here are old fashioned.
The seafood gumbo ($11) and the spicy shrimp and grits ($16) are among the kitchen’s Southern classics, but if you covet smoked meats, you’ll delight in knowing that Kickin’ Boot imported a pair of J&R smokers from Texas. If you can’t decide which meat to order, grab the Smokestack sandwich ($13), which features pulled pork, beef brisket, jalapeño and cheddar sausage, horseradish slaw and two types of house-made sauce. You’ll find a complete selection of five house-made sauces in apothecary bottles on each table.
The cocktail menu features some vintage classics. Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen is particularly proud of its old fashioned ($8), which is served with a single 2-inch ice cube. As the name implies, whiskey is in plentiful supply with well more than 100 different options (70-plus bourbons alone) and is even available in whiskey flights. Though this makes it hard to choose, the real challenge at Kickin’ Boot is placing your order without adopting a Southern drawl.
Other restaurants gin a spirit of engagement with a bit of friendly competition. In Seattle’s booming South Lake Union neighborhood, glass towers brim with techies tethered to computers. Brave Horse Tavern (pictured below, 310 Terry Ave. N; 206.971.0717; bravehorsetavern.com) encourages them to kick down the cubicle walls and shut off the smartphones. The large tables accommodate as many as 10 people and are perfect for groups, often 20- and 30-something coworkers looking for some out-of-office interaction. “Do you mind if we join you?” seating, paired with the craft beers and other libations, stimulates the formation of new friendships.
Likewise, a little friendly competition helps bring people together; the Brave Horse offers two shuffleboard tables and three dartboards to get your competitive juices flowing; however, the fun at the Brave Horse Tavern is reserved for grownups (21 and older only).
But this is more than a beer hall; Brave Horse Tavern is a part of Tom Douglas’ ever-expanding culinary universe. Along with a carefully curated, rotating selection of more than 20 local draft beers (and 48 taps), the food is an elevated expression of simple American pub grub. The basic hamburger, served à la carte on a Dahlia Workshop bun with a smoky, house-made burger sauce, will cost you less than $7. The real star of the menu is the enormous Bavarian-style pretzel, cooked to perfection in a wood-fired oven and served with your choice of housemade porter, apple or super hot mustard. A Pacemaker porter ($6.50 for a 20-ounce “pint”) from Whidbey Island’s Flyers Brewery paired magnificently with a pretzel dipped in smoked peanut butter and bacon dip ($6). Share it with one of your new friends.
Some spots fire on all cylinders with fun and games set in a world away from home. This past February, Poquitos’ Weimann and Maclise opened the immediately popular Von Trapp’s (Capitol Hill, 912 12th Ave.; 206.325.5409; vontrapps.com), a Bavarian-style beer hall with an unmistakably Austrian name, on 12th Avenue near the Seattle University campus. Inside this 11,000-square-foot German-inspired festhalle, you will find two mezzanines, three bars and five indoor bocce ball courts covering 2,500 square feet (there are plans for another two courts outside). In Bavaria, the game is known as “boules,” but Von Trapp’s decided to use the more familiar Italian term to avoid confusion.
It is loud and raucous, but there is Old World elegance and charm to Von Trapp’s. The elaborate chandeliers, rescued from a storage warehouse in Vienna, illuminate dark, ornate woodwork and glistening towers of traditional German glassware, including 1-liter dimpled beer steins and glass boots.
While it does have a full bar, Von Trapp’s creates an atmosphere that begs you to order a beer. The selection of 25 draft beers includes many local options as well as traditional beers from Europe. Instead of reaching for a locally brewed pale ale, consider a Maisel’s Weisse ($6 for a 20-ounce stein), an authentic German wheat beer.
To accompany your beer, order a house-made sausage—currywurst, Polish kielbasa or spicy smoked bratwurst, to name a few. Von Trapp’s serves its sausages several different ways: solo, on buns, in flatbread or as part of entrée plates. The cheddarwurst plate ($12) pairs nicely with the Maisel’s Weisse. The menu also offers a few salads, a burger, Leberkäse sliders and chicken schnitzel.
Call it escapism, with a side of attention to detail. “I think this trend could work in many different markets,” Maclise says. “But Seattle customers are savvy and well-traveled, so I think our approach might resonate with their high standards.”
While these escapist restaurants and bars may sound like Chuck E. Cheeses for grownups (or maybe Disneylands for adults), there’s one enormous difference—Seattleites cannot be lured by a shtick. We’re willing to have a good time, but we won’t sacrifice quality along the way.