Imagine my chagrin when Mayor Greg Nickels distributed a list of "The Five Most Violent Nightclubs in Seattle" last week. As The Stranger's Party Crasher columnist, I spend my weekends trying to find the most dangerous excitement in the city. What have I been doing partying in houses when there are supposedly fights, weapons violations, drug offenses, and gang-related dangers all along First Avenue? When did nightclubs turn into Thunderdomes of adventure and mind-altering substances? And why was I not in on any of this action?
Nickels's grand announcement was a mini-Giuliani bully move. His list was lapped up by most of the local media outlets; the Seattle Times even wrote a fuddy-duddy editorial calling for "three cheers for Nickels." But it turns out that the statistics the mayor used to compile his list are wobbly. LiquorStat—a bar-offense tracking system that Nickels admits is "still in its infancy"—compiles incidents over a period of time, but the definition of "incident" is nebulous. If a fight breaks out near a nightclub, for example, even if neither of the fighters was ever in the nightclub, that's an incident.
"The strange thing about all this is that I have positive relationships with the liquor board and the police and then the mayor just goes right over their heads with this list," says Dan Reinharz, owner of Tiki Bob's Cantina, ranked second on the mayor's list of most troubled clubs. "We've only had two actual violations in the whole time they've tracked. Why isn't he trying to find solutions with us instead of attacking us? I have seven or eight good guys on duty every night, and I don't see any need to get more security because there isn't a problem."
After talking with Reinharz, I set out to see what I can find in the way of problems, to bear witness to the charnel pit of peril myself.
Wild Palms Bar & Grill
309 First Ave S
Getting into Wild Palms is complicated, because my hoodie is contraband. There's an exhaustive anti-gang dress code that also bans hats, puffy jackets, and baggy jeans. I hand off the sweatshirt to some friends and head inside. Behind me, someone moans, "What's up with all these white people tonight?" There goes the neighborhood; I'm the seventh honky in the place, and it's packed wall-to-wall. I'm charmed by Wild Palms' no-frills juke-joint feel. J Solo starts a raucous set with a proclamation: "This shit is about fake niggas who kill other niggas," and the crowd takes his song's message, basically "don't shit where you eat," to heart. Besides a shouting fit brought on by a bouncer not letting someone in, Wild Palms is sweaty, ecstatic, and downright copacetic.
Tabella Lounge & Bar
2333 Western Ave
Nickels recently appealed to the state Liquor Control Board for an emergency suspension of Tabella's license, citing "a fight involving a mob of more than 200 people." This is what prompted that "three cheers for Nickels" Seattle Times editorial, but the LCB didn't buy it and refused the mayor's request: "An emergency suspension order represents an extraordinary exercise of the state's power. [The LCB] is mandated to ensure that an emergency suspension order is reasonable, justifiable, and legal in every way."
Tabella turns out to be the friendliest nightclub I've encountered in Seattle. I befriend a lonely Dominican man, I'm invited into a weird threesome dance, and I buy a sex on the beach for Erica, a bride-to-be from one of the two or three bachelorette parties classing up the joint. Laser beams strike me repeatedly in the eye, and huge plumes of dry-ice smoke obscure the strobe-lit dancers and make my lungs ache, but the crowd loves it. This could be the most ethnically diverse club in town, too, and the metal detectors and gang-banning dress code seem to do their job. I see no violence, nor do I see anyone who's been overserved. There are a few rowdy jackasses at the door, but security works quickly to move them down the street, leaving the dance floor to drunken women and the desperate men who love them.
J&M Cafe & Cardroom
201 First Ave S
A word for those who think they can easily buy drugs in nightclub bathrooms: All the clubs on this list either have tiny bathrooms with urinals so close that straight men want to flee them immediately, or they feature a kindly attendant. The J&M's bathroom attendant is a lovely man with a few teeth who sprays soap on your hands, tells you that you look very sexually attractive to the opposite sex, and pats you on the back when you tip him. Selling or buying drugs in front of him would feel like having sex with a Wal-Mart greeter.
Back in the bar, I ask a few ladies if they've heard of the mayor's list. They roll their eyes. One woman explains that she frequents just about every bar on it. "Wherever there's alcohol, there are bound to be problems," she says. "If they close these clubs, the problems will just move." I approach a woman who's on leave from the navy. "I don't care where I go as long as I'm around Americans," she tells me. "Americans know how to have a good time." It's true. Everywhere, I see Americans: downing shots, sucking face, and doing that weird dance where you stand still and bounce your ass like it's made out of rubber. These are my people, and I love them all.
Tiki Bob's Cantina
166 S King St
Walking past Wild Palms, I watch an out-of-town couple get turned away. His name is Brandon and hers is Ashley, and we decide to go to Tiki Bob's. We get in no problem, and I buy a round of drinks to celebrate. Brandon and Ashley order Grey Goose and Red Bulls, and then they climb onto an elevated stage to dance. The bar's pretty dead tonight, although I recognize several Proud Americans from the J&M, blissfully dancing and shouting "No he di'nt!" when the DJ follows "Crazy in Love" with "Drop It Like It's Hot." Brandon and Ashley suck down two more drinks apiece.
We close the club down and the bouncers push the mostly white crowd out into Pioneer Square. People are very drunk and very horny, but nobody's especially aggressive. Brandon and Ashley have no idea where they're going, so I walk them to their hotel. We've almost arrived when Brandon turns to Ashley, says, "Hey lookit this," and puts his fist through the window of a random building. I think he was punching his reflection, but I'm not sure. We all stop and stare at the bloodied, stringy meat of his knuckles. "Why'd you do that?" Ashley whispers. "I'm not sure," Brandon says, "but I think that it really hurts." They go to bed, their buzz suitably harshed, and I get a cab home.
Tiki Bob's owner, Reinharz, asked later about his overserving policy, explains: "The problem with alcohol is that your blood content keeps rising over, say, an hour, and suddenly someone who wasn't visibly intoxicated now is. It's not an exact science."
2218 Western Ave
The owners of Venom must've designed it for people who think their other drinking establishment, Cowgirls Inc., is too subtle. Dozens of security people circulate, poking and prodding anyone who stands still for more than a minute; keep wandering about like cattle or they'll bodily move you. The go-go dancers need security's protection when they come off the stage. It's an aggressive atmosphere. I want to punch every bouncer who touches me, and my anger sure isn't due to hiphop: The crowd is primarily white and Asian American, and the Top 40 dance music only briefly breezes into crossover hits by Public Enemy and Jay-Z.
After closing, the most violence-prone time of the night, bouncers in front of Tabella and Venom work mightily to clear the sidewalks. I hear a few harsh words, some puffery and walking tall, but for the most part people take off, probably because of an additional creepy treat: Since this is the first weekend post-list, police cars are stationed in front of the bars.
Nobody wants club violence to escalate to a gunslinging crescendo, but as the lady at J&M pointed out, the best that Nickels's ridiculous licensing battle will do is shuffle clubs around in a NIMBY ballet. Reinharz thinks that late-night problems can be addressed by more transportation and a fuller, more vibrant nightlife: "Closing time in New York is 4:00 a.m., and that doesn't mean that people stay out getting drunk until 4:00 a.m. every night. It allows people to clear out at their own pace. When all the bars in Seattle close at 2:00 a.m., you wind up with thousands of people milling around on the sidewalk with no open businesses and not enough taxis, and that's when things start to happen."
As for me, I've learned that I'm not a club-hopper. Compared to Seattle's house-party scene—a nearly monochromatic world of Burning Man attendees and UW engineering students in crazy costumes, where there's never a last call, power-tool shenanigans are only a bad idea away, and there's no health code to stymie the hot tub—all this "violent nightclub" stuff is, frankly, pretty fucking dull.