While the fireplace at Martin's Off Madison is a place of fire, it has no hearth, no screen, no crackling wood, no coals nor cinders. The stockings at Martin's Off Madison—one for every bartender, one for every cook and waiter and person on the cleanup crew, one for every pianist who plays here, and one for a pianist who doesn't play here anymore—are hung with care, but not by the chimney. The stockings are hung pinned up on the walls in the bar, which is separated by a wall of tinted glass from the fireplace lounge and a different experience entirely: a television blares, and the barkeep says, "Welcome to the other side." It's dim and sort of seedy-feeling, reminiscent of the time of the Sea Wolf, a dim and definitively seedy-feeling gay bar that used to occupy the Martin's Off Madison premises. Asked what goes on here on the other side, a regular gestures toward his drink and says, "A lot of this," and laughs. His stocking, he says, is made of black leather; he laughs some more.
In a feat of decor-induced schizophrenia, the lounge side of Martin's Off Madison is the bar's polar opposite, all comfort and joy—upholstered banquettes, candlelight, a Christmas tree with twinkling pink bulbs, the aforementioned fireplace feature. The fireplace feature is freestanding, affording additional comfort and joy to those lucky enough to be sitting near it. It's a swirling, nearly white-hot continuous flame, contained in a tube of some crystal-clear substance that's impervious to extremely high temperatures. Unless you want to do away with your fingerprints, do not touch the tube.
On Sunday night, everyone in the lounge is a regular; the waiter knows everyone's order, everyone's name. Visitors, though, are welcome, taken into the fold, joked with by the waiter, befriended by neighbors. On Sunday night, Tim Kennedy plays jazz and standards on the baby grand with a style that must be beheld to be understood, as if he's under a strange, jaunty spell. With his newsboy cap and his narrow, handsome face, he looks to be from another, obviously better era. On Sunday night, it's open mic, but everyone's desultory about it in the best possible way. Showboating is absent; a regular named Ruby wearing a beautiful fur coat doesn't even leave her seat to sing "Over the Rainbow," a heart-wrenching rendition that makes you glad to be alive, glad to be here, now.
The stocking for the pianist who doesn't play here anymore says "Howard" in cursive script across its white fur cuff. It's for Howard Bulson, Seattle's most beloved piano man, who departed this mortal coil last spring. His sister, the barkeep on the other side says, is here, sitting near Ruby, enjoying the fire.
Martin's Off Madison, 1413 14th Ave, 325-7000