Seattle painter Charles Stokes died this past April at the age of 64. According to his obituary, he was the last of the Northwest School; his wife said, "He never ran out of ideas." Above the bar at the Virginia Inn, home to a Stokes retrospective through August, hangs a row of these ideas committed to canvas: an Escher-esque work that provokes thoughts of avian flu; a Miró-ish abstract stab; a piece resembling nine illustrated turkey heads as seen on LSD; a geometric figure with its shadow and an unfortunate bowlike flourish; a couple experiments in primitivism; a sort of Dali-in-Egypt scene; a cartoon-style male-and-female human couple, close up, very involved with each other, and possibly French. Even without the three paintings of skeletons with exploding skulls—on the wall by the kitchen door, and perhaps the inspiration for the iconography of the Grateful Dead—it is a lot to digest.
The Virginia Inn, a Seattle institution since 1903, closed at the beginning of the year to expand, reopening in April. The antique mahogany bar was dismantled and moved, and matching floor tiles were imported from China (and lost for a time on the way). More of Stokes's art hangs in the dining room, which is separated by a half wall—you can't see much of it from the bar side, which is good if you don't want too many ideas with your drink. The bartender, explaining the exhibit, says he never would've guessed that one person painted all the paintings. Their diversity of style and technique is startling. Overheard: "He did violence to the entire canon."
The style of the patrons of the Virginia Inn tends toward fleece, cargo pockets, and earnest, low-key enjoyment of each other's and their own company. The sole nouveau-Belltown couple at the bar, serially embracing and taking innumerable self-portraits with a blinding camera-phone flash, stick out like two very annoying sore thumbs. Everyone resolutely ignores them. An older gentleman in a dapper green cap comes in and has a drink standing at the end of the bar, clearly a regular habit; sartorially, he puts this world to shame.
A foray into the dinner menu is not particularly rewarding: a peculiar (and not large) vegetarian version of the traditionally meat-laden muffuletta sandwich ($10) and a stringy French dip with watery jus ($9), with defiantly ungreasy, unaddictive accompanying fries. Entrées range up to $23, at which point one could be feasting at Le Pichet a few doors down. But those dining appear content. Like Stokes's paintings, the food is a matter of taste; the V.I.'s interior, however, remains a classic.
Virginia Inn, 1937 First Ave, 728-1937.