20 Years of Linda's Tavern
The "Grunge Cheers" Looks Back at Two Decades of Being a Nice Place for Nice People
The buildings that once stood next to Linda's Tavern have been demolished, except for a single brick wall—the paint-by-numbers mural that separates the establishment from the fresh dirt lot next door. The earnest endeavor of Linda Derschang (a Colorado native who moved to Seattle in 1987 to open a clothing shop), Bruce Pavitt, and Jonathan Poneman (the founders of local record label Sub Pop), Linda's opened with four beers on tap and no food, and became an immediate institution—a place musicians worked and hung out, a place to meet your friends and talk for hours. A full liquor license, a kitchen addition, and two decades later, Linda's remains, in location and spirit, more or less the same since opening in February of 1994: a neighborhood bar, no matter how the neighborhood changes. I talked with the owners, folks who worked there back in the day, folks who are currently working there, and regulars who hung out there and/or drank there, and drank there some more, about the resilient culture of a little tavern called Linda's.
Bruce Pavitt: Jon and I had been in Chicago, and we visited a neighborhood bar where a lot of local musicians hung out and would come in and play their record collections. I remember Santiago Durango from Big Black was spinning old country tunes in this dive bar, and I thought, "This is so cool—there's no cover charge, it's an inexpensive social hangout that features good music."
Jonathan Poneman: We would frequent a place called Crash Palace on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Bruce and I were intrigued because they had a huge record collection and a turntable. It was a real neighborhood bar that was comfortable and it appealed to people like us—it wasn't a sports bar or something like that. So the idea was "Why don't we have a bar like Crash Palace up on Capitol Hill?" Bruce and I were busy with Sub Pop, and as businesspeople, we were... accidental, let's say, and so we had been talking about it and thinking of Linda. We were both very impressed by and respectful of her natural business prowess, her aesthetic, and her understanding of business.
Linda Derschang: Jonathan called me in maybe the fall of '92. We were just chatting on the phone, and he said, "Bruce and I have been thinking about opening a bar. What do you think about that?" I thought that was great, and as we were talking about it, I said, "Well, I'm going to ask some people some questions and get back to you." I had friends who worked at the Comet Tavern, so I started asking them things like "So how much do you bring in a night? and "How big is a keg?" And "How many pints are in a keg?" [Laughs] I'd already owned a clothing store, so I sort of knew—in a very homegrown, untrained way—how to analyze a business, and I realized it could potentially be reasonably profitable. So I put some numbers together and called Jonathan and said, "We should talk about this some more." The three of us met at B&O Espresso, and we were talking about what it would look like, and who would go there and why. And, of course, they were talking about the jukebox, number one.
Poneman: Bruce and I had the idea of having a vinyl jukebox, because at the time, everything had switched to CD jukeboxes, and you know, Sub Pop is putting out 7-inch 45 singles—we grew up with bars that and played great punk-rock singles, and we wanted a place that had that. So we were very insistent on having the jukebox. And the center of activity on Capitol Hill back then was much more on the other side of Broadway and on Broadway itself, but a lot of the places were derelict buildings and warehouses. There was really no place other than the Comet to get a drink. It was slim pickings for bars for people to go to and just hang out.
Jason Finn (musician): I was working at the Comet Tavern, which at the time was really the only place on the Hill that even allowed young people in—it was just packed every night. So when Linda mentioned that she was opening a place, the first thing I thought was "Geez, I just don't know if Capitol Hill can support two bars." [Laughs] I know how ridiculous that is, but that was my studied business opinion, and to be fair, there wasn't really a Pike/Pine neighborhood then in the way we think about it now. I really thought, "Oh my god, what if half as many people go to two places? Everyone is going to go out of business!" And of course that is the opposite of how businesses work.
Megan Jasper (Sub Pop vice president): There were a lot of empty storefronts on Pike and Pine at that time. It was truly vacant. The only reason why people could afford to live there was because it was so dead, so there was decent rent. I lived right down the street from Linda's—right behind the college.
Pavitt: Another thing that was inspiring me—I'd also spent some time in Idaho, and I was really fascinated by these off-the-beaten-track, basically redneck dive bars. And they all featured these wilderness paintings...
Derschang: I grew up in Colorado, so I certainly spent time in the little mountain towns going into bars. And so as we were talking about what we wanted Linda's to feel like, we were totally on the same page about what it would look like. So Bruce said, "What do we call it?" I said, "Well, I don't know." And he said, "Well, let's call it Linda's!"
Poneman: Linda was amused by it, she was like, "Oh please, you guys, please, come on." But Bruce and I liked the name Linda's—we wanted it to have the feel of a place that had always been there. And plus Linda herself was already a personality on Capitol Hill—she was, as she is still, a fun, charming, and charismatic person.
Megan Jasper: And also it was less Sub Pop-y if it was named Linda's. I remember you guys talking about that.
Poneman: Yeah, we almost named it Kurt's, but we decided to call it Linda's...
Derschang: So I had been looking around for spaces for a while, and we got turned down quite a bit. We looked at the Bauhaus space, and they wouldn't rent to us. It was a really different mentality back then. Alex Calderwood was the one who suggested, "Why don't you try to buy a business?" after we had looked at another space that fell through.
Pavitt: And so we did something that was kind of an interesting strategy. We approached a restaurant that was already in business—the Ali Baba Middle Eastern restaurant. Whenever I poked my head in there, there were not a lot of customers. So we just went in there and made them an offer. We came close to getting a space over on First Hill, which would have been a disaster.
Poneman: The Terry Tavern, off Madison and Terry, was almost the location of Linda's.
Pavitt: We wanted people to walk in during the first week and go, "Oh my god, how long have you guys been here?" And the ironic juxtaposition of having this super-old-school pioneer bar in the core of Seattle's most progressive bohemian neighborhood—it was kind of seen as a neighborhood bar, but it was also a hipster music bar.
Derschang: But we also wanted to make sure that if you were, I don't know, a guy doing construction and stumbled in there, you would think of it as just this awesome place to drink a Budweiser and hang out.
Pavitt: And the records on the jukebox kind of intimated to anyone flipping through—it's like, okay, it's Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons," and there's also, you know, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. There are a few clues there
Finn: The jukebox was fucking awesome, and I'm not just saying that because Bruce filled it completely full of Sub Pop records. Tons of other music, too, but you know, to be able to walk over to a jukebox and see your own 7-inch there was, uh, that was pretty heady stuff. [Laughs]
Derschang: As we were getting ready to open, people were asking us, "Is this going to be a gay bar or a straight bar?" Because 20 years ago, you were sort of one or the other. And so we told everybody we hired to say yes to that question. Is it a gay bar or a straight bar? "Yes, it is." And that was really confusing, but it was gay and straight, right from the beginning. It was this really amazing mixture of all sorts of people.
Pavitt: I don't think anybody that we hired was a professional bartender. It was just, "Hey. Can you pour a beer? Great, you're hired."
Derschang: When we first opened, it was beer and wine only and no table service. To get liquor, you had to have a certain percentage of your sales from food, and it just seemed overly complicated.
Pavitt: That was a key concept—this is the simplest business you can imagine. It was essentially a Kool-Aid stand for adults. There were four beers on tap, and then generic beers in cans.
Derschang: But we realized the first week that maybe it was a little more complicated than we thought, because none of us knew how to change the kegs. Even though the beer reps showed us, it's harder to do than you might think. And it's really easy for them to explode all over you, and for you to get drenched in beer. So we had Grady West [aka Dina Martina]—he was managing Re-bar at the time—and he was coming by almost every night on his way to work to help us change the kegs.
Jason Reavis (former Linda's doorman): I left my apartment down the street, I walked up to the Kentucky Fried Chicken, I walked down to Linda's, and I walked to that door [points to Linda's entrance], and I was here for 13 years [laughs]. In the time that somebody starts the first grade and graduates high school, I sat at that door.
Derschang: People used to call Jason the Pope of Pine Street because so many people knew him. Pat Riley worked there for a while, and Carla Schricker, who ended up being MC Queen Lucky at Re-bar for many years and is now the owner. Jason Finn almost worked here [laughs]. We were about to open, and I said, "What do you mean you've gotta record?" And he said, "Do you expect people to give up their lives for this job?" And I said, "Yeah, for the next couple weeks I do!"
Finn: Her idea at the time was that she wanted to hire mostly people from the scene, like Nils Bernstein and Bob Whittaker, and I was sort of in the scene, but I had experience. So we sat down and had an early meeting, and she was like, "Look, I really need you to work on the first night I'm open," and I said, "Great, so when is that?" And she said it would be as soon as they got their liquor license and, you know, "We'll call ya." So I was the drummer of Love Battery at the time, and we ended up in the studio for three or four days. The call came, and it was like, "I'm sorry, I can't leave." Days later, I went to the official Linda's opening party, and I think Jon Poneman was the first guy I walked in and saw, and I was like, "Hey, this is great, man, when do I start? This is awesome!" And he gave me a look and said, "You better go back and talk to Linda." It was all very nice and everything, she just said, "You know, we can't really use ya." So unless she fired someone on the first night they were open, I'm pretty sure I was the first one out the door. [Laughs]
John Roderick (musician): I was six nights a week at the Comet, and I remember Linda was building this place out. And I adopted the expected Seattle attitude, which was just like, "What? Another bar?" But Linda's happy hour changed the routine. Start at the Comet, drink pitchers for two hours—Linda's started an hour later, and then you'd come here, and by then, you're not going anywhere.
Derschang: The Comet had their happy hour, I think, from four to six, so we decided to have our happy hour from seven to nine. Moe had just opened, so we thought people would come over here and have happy hour before they went to a show at Moe. Everything was sort of geared around our friends that were going out to see bands. I remember, early on, Jason telling me, "People come here, like, five nights a week." And I said, "Well, what do you think they should be doing?" And he said, "Staying home or something?"
Reavis: Up until that point in my life, the only reason I would go out was to see a band. I had never hung out at a tavern. But the same people would just come every night and talk and drink. I had a very naive idea of what regulars were because I don't drink, so I didn't even put together the social aspect of it at first.
Derschang: Our mantra since day one, in all of our Stranger ads—this was before Facebook and social media and everything [laughs]—was "A Nice Place for Nice People." And certainly, some people were overdoing it, but it was mostly just a sense of community.
Finn: Without wanting to sound too [old fogey voice] "back in the day," there were 400 people who went to rock shows in Seattle then. Or it seemed that way—it would always be the same bunch of people, the same faces.
Pavitt: There were a lot of people at the time really excited about what was going on with music in Seattle. And I think partly due to the work Jon and I were doing at Sub Pop, there was kind of a scene that wanted to come down to Linda's and hang out there.
Derschang: I'd moved here in spring of 1987, and it was really such an interesting time to move to Seattle. I had the clothing store, so I would go to New York on buying trips, and after I moved to Seattle, the people in New York would say, "So you moved from Denver to Seattle. Why not San Francisco, New Orleans, something more interesting than Seattle?" And I said, "No, Seattle is awesome!" They'd say "Really? Doesn't it just rain there all the time? Where is it?" [Laughs] So then in 1989, word was getting around, I would go back on the same trips, and people were like, "So it's really cool in Seattle, huh?" And by '91, "How did you know to move to Seattle?"
Pavitt: Moving to Seattle was like moving to Portland, Maine. Why would you do that? [Laughs]
Jasper: I remember Linda's being pretty busy immediately. I remember people loosely calling it the Sub Pop bar for a little bit. But my friends, we all called it the Grunge Cheers, because you could go in at any time and you knew everyone there. Like, if you didn't know them, you were psyched because maybe you could hit on 'em. There was the filter that existed, you know? Like, if they were at Linda's, they were probably a decent person. [Laughs] And it was always a place with a culture that was accepting of a musician's schedule. I think it's just so cool that Linda's can offer that. And that brings those types of people into those places, so it seems beneficial to everybody.
Bree McKenna (employee): I started working there because I wanted to be in a band, and they let you take time off and they're nice about it. My friend Emily McKinnon worked there, and before I met her, I actually got in a grape fight there. [Laughs] I was just drunk and at QFC and bought a giant bag of grapes. I walked over to Linda's—my friend was having her birthday party there—and I was like, "Here, I bought you these grapes." She said, "I don't want these!" and started throwing them at me and we got in a grape fight. And the waitress was like, "You guys are going to clean up all of those grapes." We thought, "She's so uptight." Later it turned out she was my friend's girlfriend, and I was worried she was going to remember, but she never did. Emily got me a job there, and we became really good friends.
Derschang: A lot of our friends and the people who were in here were musicians. That's still very much the culture of Linda's.
Reavis: The dudes from Soundgarden were in here a lot—Kim [Thayil] would come in here at weird times, like a Sunday night. David Byrne came in; Elastica was in here. The last celebrities that I remember before I left were these four skinny guys with cool haircuts showed up, and it was the Kings of Leon. They were opening for Bob Dylan—that's the only reason I knew who they were. I also remember one night Jeff Ament brought in Dennis Rodman. And this regular walked up and poured half a pitcher of beer on the table and said, "I'm a Sonics fan!"
Derschang: I was so pissed when I heard about it the next day. I didn't know if anyone from Pearl Jam had ever been in here before, and this crazy regular—who eventually got 86'd because he knocked out the front window—does this.
Reavis: And Rose McGowan didn't have an ID, so I didn't let her in. She was here for a film festival thing, and one of her handlers got really shitty. But I did let Drew Barrymore in, and they found out about it in the paper, and then Linda told me not to let her in. She was like 19. She was cool—she stayed at our apartment because I lived with Eric Erlandson [guitarist in Hole]. I'd come home from work, and she'd be walking around in a T-shirt and a pair of panties or something, and I'd be like [makes an uncomfortable/disapproving face].
Pavitt: A lot of local musicians were coming in at the time. We were also visited by a lot of out-of-town bands. I remember R.E.M. guys coming in there.
Derschang: There was a slant toward music, but it was a very inclusive clubhouse. There were always all kinds of these interesting regulars who hung out. This guy who worked at the Mercedes dealership would come over in his suit and smoke cigarettes—you could smoke in there then—and drink beer and play pool after work. And his wife would call up and say, "Is he still there? Will you tell him to please come home?"
Pavitt: One of the most unusual customers we ever had, in fact I'll put him number one on the list, was very OCD, and for some reason he was really attached to D7 on the jukebox. So he would go in and play that, like, seven times in a row. And we were like, "Geez, he really likes 'Wichita Lineman.'" So we're thinking he's really into Glen Campbell, so we changed the record because it's driving everyone crazy. And then it was like, "Oh, he's really into the Butthole Surfers." That was the new D7.
Derschang: Bruce and Jonathan were in there one time when a writer from Rolling Stone was in town, and they were having an interview in Linda's, and Pete [the OCD regular] came in and started doing his little routine: move the ashtrays slightly, walk to the back door, squat down, walk back in, look up at the clock, stop, turn around, walk over to the jukebox, and push D7. He would also go to the corner store and buy a carton of milk, and we would pour it in a glass for him, and he would take a whole container of green Tic Tacs, dump it in, stir it up, and ask for a straw. He would drink that. It was bright green, and we were all horrified.
Emily McKinnon (former employee): I remember we all made comps for the jukebox, the staff did, and it was early in my mix-making days of clicking and dragging. So I had song 17 as "99 Problems"—the most popular song in the world—but I'd left it out of the playlist on accident, and so whenever someone picked that song, it actually played a Love as Laughter song instead. So Love as Laughter came on a lot. The song was "Baby Shambles." I'd get anxiety every time I heard it, like someone was going to get mad and find out.
Curtis Hall (employee): You can reject a jukebox song, but people pay for it, so we don't usually do it. Back in the old days of Linda's, when somebody would play a shitty song on the jukebox, they used to push the reject button, and it would go quiet, the song would cut, and they would yell, "Did somebody call a taxi?" And then the next song would come on.
McKenna: The thing about the jukebox is that any song in there could turn into the worst song in the world. Because people will play, like, a Pixies album, over and over and over, and you think you could never get sick of the Pixies, but you can.
Jasper: Linda's is where everybody went—it was just the place to hang out. But I feel like at some point, in the mid '90s, things did start to change. My memory is that as Capitol Hill became more densely populated, it started to become more packed with people. I remember going in there and realizing I knew a couple people in there, and not a couple of tables. And that was a different feel. I think one of the defining times at Linda's was, sadly, the day that Kurt Cobain died. Because Linda's was the place where people went to find out what was happening, to be able to grieve and connect with folks, and it was around that time where I think there was also a shift.
Derschang: When Kurt died, there were news cameras outside, and they wanted to come in and shoot, but we wouldn't let them. They had heard that this was the last place he'd been seen a few days before that. And they knew the Sub Pop connection with this bar.
Roderick: When Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was working downtown, and it came over the radio. I was working at a law office at the time with a bunch of old people. I was kind of sitting at my typewriter, and I said, "I'm done working today." And I walked out the door and didn't know where to go. So I came to Linda's. I walked in and it was absolutely silent. Everybody was here, it was packed, but the music wasn't playing. Nobody was really talking. And it was weird, at the time, nobody in Seattle knew how to process it, you couldn't really openly mourn. It just wasn't part of our culture, and yet something was really broken.
Derschang: Things were changing. More businesses were opening, and I was sort of waiting to see what happened. Our friends opened Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen down the street, and when the Cha Cha opened, they had food and cocktails, so I was like, "All right, it's time to put that kitchen in." I had been meaning to do it.
Poneman: The food started in the late 1990s, and it was a rocky go at first. I remember going up to Linda's on repeated weekends with Linda and Tallulah and having brunch, and it not being very good... they really dialed it in since then. But in the old days, it was, uh, a lot of good efforts by several people, but it took a while to get going for sure. The kitchen was put in there to drive the sale of booze, so we had no designs to turn Linda's into a, you know, high-class joint.
Jasper: What is the name of the joint now? El Corazón? Back then it was the Off Ramp, and they had "hash after the bash," which was, for real, a bowl of fuckin' slop. I just remember one time in particular, seeing the dudes from Screaming Trees in line for their fucking slop, and I was just like, seriously this needs to end. But that's what the very first couple brunches at Linda's reminded me of. [Laughs] I have to say, Linda's has come a long, long way since then...
McKenna: The brunch regulars are angels, 99 percent of them are really great. I get a lot of gossip out of it. I'm very interested in it. Got some organic farmers that come in every Sunday, got some kids who always make their OkCupid dates there. If someone's on a first OkCupid date, I try to make them look great. I'll buy them a drink, I'll be like, "Great to see you!" Make them seem very important and special.
Amy Haldane (former employee): Linda's was such a fun place to work. Once, I was opening, and I went out to the patio and I thought, "What is different?" And someone had filled in the paint-by-number mural. Somebody had jumped over the fence and filled it in, but they used frosting. [Laughs] We left it up for a few days, and then I spent an entire afternoon in my raincoat, spraying frosting off, and it's shooting me in the face, in February. And I don't condone breaking into places, but we did leave it up for a few days because it was pretty cool. I'm sure they studied it—they followed all the numbers, when I was hosing it off, I checked. Obviously it was a regular who spent a lot of time staring at it.
McKenna: Recently, some guy was graffiti-ing a table—which sucks. I hate tagging because we have to clean it up. So this table gets all tagged up, and we find a phone, and on the phone there's a bunch of photos of this kid laughing and tagging up the table! So an employee wanted to send a bunch of porno to everyone in his contact list. I think he might have. I don't know if Linda wants to hear all these, uh, trashy stories...
McKinnon: So picture this, it's kind of a slow Linda's night, 2006, and there are some guys in there—it's this guy's 21st birthday. And earlier, I guess they had eaten all this seafood linguini or something at dinner, and the guy ends up puking at their table. And it's the nastiest smelling puke ever. Ever. The bartender who was working that night and I went and threw up in the back because it was so disgusting. So it seriously just clears the place out, and we're trying to get the smell out. I went to the store to get some Lysol, and I've got chairs sort of blocking off this table, and all of a sudden the Strokes walk in—Julian Casablancas, the whole crew. And they sit down right next to the puke table [laughs]. So I had to go up to them—and I think I had this weird look on my face and they must've thought I was going to ask for concert tickets or something—and say, "So you guys should maybe move seats."
Roderick: I remember one night, I was so shitfaced that I climbed under this table [motions to the large, corner booth at Linda's] thinking, "I can't be out in all this, I need some solitude." So I went down under. Drinkin'. I think at one point, I was upside down because I felt like I needed my feet to be on the bottom of the table. And after a while, Jason came over to say, "Hey man, you can't be under the table." And I think I was smoking too, like, "No, it's cool, Jason." And the bar was packed, but he got me out of there. He had this way—kind of made me feel like it was my idea.
Reavis: There's nothing a bouncer likes more than when someone is going "No, it's cool."
Haldane: Someone once took the toilet from the men's room and moved it back into the smoking area outside. I don't know how—I mean, I know the men's room is pretty rickety anyway, but somebody lugged that toilet through there, on a Friday night! It's like, we're closing, and someone's like, "Where's the toilet?" [Laughs] And it's just sitting there under the tree out there.
Jasper: I remember there being nights when, you'd hear from folks who worked there, how many times people got caught porking in the bathrooms.
McKinnon: I think one of the Kills had sex with some girl in the bathroom. And I'm trying to remember this story about this girl who shit in her high heels...
Haldane: It was Memorial Day Weekend or something, and there was some woman that came in, left her purse on the table, right at last call, went to the bathroom—never drank anything, nothing—it was a really busy holiday weekend night, and we were cleaning up and someone was saying, "Why is this door locked?" So we're pounding on the door, and nothing happens. But we have this woman's purse. So we get a butter knife and get the door open, and there is this woman—she had on like the tightest white jeans and an American flag T-shirt or something, really high pumps, her makeup is everywhere—and she's kind of just half hugging the toilet, and she's not every responsive. So we gotta get her out of there, but we also can't just leave her on the street. She doesn't even know her name. So we look in her purse, find her phone, and call the last person she called. And it's her friends and they're like, "Yeah we don't really know her, we're not coming to get her." So we call the paramedics, and they come, but they're saying, "There's nothing we can do, you have to call the detox van." So they send the detox van, and she has to spend the night in it, but before that all happens, she has the power to stand up—in her tight white jeans—and... her pumps are filled with shit. [Laughs] She is forever known as the shit shoe woman. That is the grossest thing I think that happened while I was there. Or ever.
McKenna: It seemed like everyone was really excited about Ron Jeremy coming to Linda's. I was really surprised that our regulars were really wanting to get a Ron Jeremy pic in—just dying to. And you can google what he looks like now.
Hall: Ron Jeremy's just some random old guy. He's small, he's sweaty. The most interesting thing about that day wasn't the majority of the people who came in, the people that come into Linda's anyway, but the other people who came in. Super Bret Michaels vibe. Like maybe you've got a cowboy hat that's leopard print and it's pushed up on the sides. You've got some tight Affliction gear. That super LA-dude-in-his-40s-look, like six or seven wallet chains, cowboy-cut jeans with some ill fucking patterns on the back. Some of those dudes came in for that, and it was those dudes and their female counterparts—the giant lips, super tan, lookin' kinda like a fruit roll-up—they were the most stoked. I was just vibing off them. "Those people look awesome!"
Haldane: Besides owning my own business [bar/restaurant Cure], it might have been my best job. Even now, I have people who hang out here, and I remember their 21st birthday at Linda's, and like, they're grown-ups and having a glass of wine instead of Jäger bombs. It's a cool progression to see.
Poneman: The thing that's amazing about Linda's, and I'm sure that's why you're talking about it right now, is how resilient it is to all the changes that have taken place in that neighborhood. I think it's a very comfortable place, a very genuine place. Linda oftentimes says, and I think she says it to amuse me, she says, [singsong voice] "In my heart, it's still my favorite place." [Laughs] It has her name on it, so...
Jasper: In that 20 years, everything on Capitol Hill has almost completely changed. There are a few places that really have remained the same, and Linda's is one of those places. And so, for a lot of people, that it's so reliably itself allows for it to sort of be a home. It's so remarkable what she's been able to do—to provide so many jobs for so many people, opportunities, places to be.
Poneman: I remember Linda and I sitting and projecting into the future, and saying we hoped that Linda's would someday be an old-fogey bar. And now it finally is.