Banya 5 and Venik
The man at the front desk at Banya 5, Seattle's neo-Russian spa, recommends a shot of health vodka prior to soaking, steaming, and being beaten with branches. Vodka before the baths (and maybe during, and definitely after) is a Russian tradition; now that Banya 5 has its own bar two doors down, you can pursue holistic well-being while still in your bathrobe and flip-flops. The bar is called Venik, named for the bundles of oak branches and leaves with which Banya 5 bathers are beaten. An impressive amount of garlic and hot peppers infuse the health vodka, served in a cold, slender shot glass with half a pickle. It's bracing, moderately spicy, making Absolut Peppar seem grossly extreme.
Suitably fortified back at the banya (Russian for "sauna"), sweating commences. (Chasing health vodka with lots of water: also recommended.) Swimsuited bathers—it's coed most days—rotate among a hot whirlpool, a hotter steam room (intermittently hissing alarmingly as it refills itself with even hotter clouds), the nearly burning-hot parilka (a traditional brick oven for the healthful baking of human beings), a screamingly freezing cold plunge, and a tepid recovery pool. Beatings are conducted inside the parilka with a venik that's been soaked in water (to release healthful tannins and create a proper slapping sound). Techniques deployed between consenting bathers or administered by an onsite expert range from fanning to light flagellation to full-on beatdown. It's all meant to "produce a vivid circulatory experience with numerous mental and physical health benefits." Upstairs, according to English and Russian signage: a tearoom (with checkers, chess, and a startling view of the Space Needle), massage, the napping area.
Where Banya 5 has a contemporary Northern European aesthetic (with a sort of gulag feel in the salt-scrub room), Venik has the dark wood and tasteful upholstery of an upscale hotel bar (though it's tiny, with just 20 seats). At Venik's opening party, two large men who own both places boomed "HOW DID YOU LIKE THE BANYA!" at their guests; one had a silver pin of a venik affixed to his chest and intermittently brandished an actual venik. The "venik plate"—open-faced sandwiches with salmon roe and sour cream on black bread—met with general approval, as did Uli's bratwurst served with cabbage marinated in health vodka. A niçoise sandwich with seared tuna and hard-boiled egg: a capital idea. (Weirdly, the menu's by Janice Vaughns, chef of Georgetown's down-home good-cooking Calamity Jane's.) Among more infused vodkas, made with Smirnoff or Skyy, a delicate, black-peppery cantaloupe flavor was favored, maybe because it's served with a little dish of prosciutto. Drink favored by the owners? Jäger shots.