Food & Drink

Bar Exam

Il Bistro's Greatness

You should just go to the bar at Il Bistro right now if they're open (or as soon as they're open if they're not). David Nelson, now in charge, is the kind of barkeep to whom you can describe the vaguest of longings, cocktail-wise, and then he will make you a glassful of greatness.

If it's wet and horrible out, you might (probably annoyingly) say you want, well, something warming, but not something actually served warm. "Is brown liquor all right?" David Nelson might politely inquire, to which the answer is yes (unless you want to be definitely annoying and in the wrong bar, besides). Then he mixes—he is calm and debonair in a dark-colored shirt and tie and vest—and gives you a goldenish drink, up, in a cocktail glass, with gin, Laphroaig 10 year, bitters, and a couple other things (you can't quite hear and you don't want to be annoying), garnished with two tiny cherries. It tastes unfathomable—a little chocolaty-sweet, with other flavors changing every sip, but with every sip ending with a breath of smoke. Also: gin and Scotch! It's a drink that walks right up to the edge of grotesque, then steps back and lets you try to understand its mysterious ways. It's called a Guido Contini, after the character in Fellini.

David Nelson was most recently at Tavern Law, the set-piece saloon on Capitol Hill that's dead serious about its drinks but fills up with the noisy party crowd. At Il Bistro, hidden under Pike Place Market, the old-fashionedness is not newly installed—the ceilings are low, the arches are original, the bar is marble, and the roses are red. This is a bartender's bar—witness the 30-plus kinds of Scotch lined up tantalizingly all along it, and recall that for the longest time, the bartender of bartenders, the Zig Zag's Murray Stenson, reigned here. (Look, there he is having a drink now.)

The lighting at the bar at Il Bistro is perfect—not too bright, not too dim, bathing everyone in a 62-percent-more-attractive pinky-gold. If a glass falls for no reason, tinkling but not breaking, you might hear about Il Bistro's ghosts—the one that lives in the mirror up in the dining room and apocryphally shows up in photographs, the lady who comes in through the door and glides to the lavatory (not even buying anything—how rude). Meanwhile, if a fruit fly goes lazily by, David Nelson keeps talking, low and a little hypnotic, and barely looks at it as he snaps it out of the air. He likes to think of the ghosts, he says, as people who had such a good time here they just have to keep coming back. And it makes perfect sense, because when you die, you want to go to the bar at Il Bistro. recommended

Got a hot food tip?
Send us an email!

Comments (6) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
A favorite place of mine for many years. First bar that felt like it lived up to my childhood expectations of what it would be like to have a drink in a grown-up bar. Never seen the ghosties, but I keep hoping.
Posted by alight on March 16, 2011 at 1:05 PM · Report this
iridius 2
Seriously? Ill Bistro served my friends and I the worst food last time we went there. The antipasto plate wasn't fresh, they took away a drink before it was finished, and everything was generally bland. Perhaps the bar is better, but the food is horrible.
Posted by iridius on March 23, 2011 at 2:29 AM · Report this
Ill Bistro has never been about the food, The bar is one of the true Seattle downtown watering holes.
Posted by FremontDrinker on March 23, 2011 at 10:30 AM · Report this
icouldliveinhope 4
So good! Best Spanish Coffee in Seattle! And that bartender, in particular, is way nice.
Posted by icouldliveinhope on March 23, 2011 at 12:26 PM · Report this
iridius 5
@3 - AH Thank you! Just to clarify - FOOD BAD - Bar Good. Got it.
Posted by iridius on March 23, 2011 at 2:38 PM · Report this
Thanks for the shout out! Really appreciate it. Glad to hear you had a great time! By the way just printed a new cocktail menu and the Guido Contini is on it. Come back for more anytime!

Posted by dabarman on March 28, 2011 at 1:34 AM · Report this

Add a comment