Before I took this assignment, the closest I'd ever come to a cabaret show was the wrist-slittingly good 1972 Bob Fosse film Cabaret—it never occurred to me that cabaret actually still exists. This kind of showbiz in an I-pop-my-pimples-on-YouTube world seems antiquated, but there are at least three places in Seattle where it goes on almost every night, with varying degrees of success.
The slogan at Can Can (94 Pike St, 652-0832) is "Party like it's 1899," and the décor is clearly supposed to bring the Moulin Rouge to mind, but it's only a half-formed impersonation, like someplace that once aspired to become the Moulin Rouge then realized it's easier to put quotation marks around those aspirations instead. Can Can's walls and tables are papered with old fliers for real cabaret clubs, a precious touch that almost kills the actual subterranean ambiance—the exposed beams and gaslit basement should be decoration enough for any faux Kit Kat Club.
The less money you spend at Can Can, the more you'll enjoy yourself. The appetizer—flatbread with sausage, potatoes, leeks, and truffle oil ($8)—was much better than the main course, a wild-mushroom pappardelle ($16) that featured overcooked pasta in a sauce that was twice as buttery as it should've been. The baked penne ($14) came with three ginormous meatballs and a red sauce soaked with what seemed like a cask of wine.
As for the theatrics: I attended "Indie in the Underground" night, a more straight-up rock show than is usual for Can Can. Country singer Lonesome Rhodes sang the wrist-slittingly good "Always on My Mind." Space-rock band the Coral Sea was accompanied by two dancing girls who almost immediately had big money shoved into their garters. The dancers weren't choreographed—not that there's much sexy-girl dancing to be done to a cross between Radiohead and David Bowie—but they were hot and dressed in bright-pink wigs and frilly panties, and that was enough. Other Can Can nights feature the crime-fighting burlesque act the Heavenly Spies and Bing Wheeler's postmodern game show Big Wheel Bingo. There's a cute "let's put on a show" play-act to Can Can that's inescapably fun, if slightly amateurish.
A few blocks away, the Pink Door (1919 Post Alley, 443-3241) is the grown-up, full-blown idea that Can Can only hints at. The whole restaurant is awash in classic gaudery—if you were to ask an interior decorator to spruce up a vagina, The Pink Door would be the result. On the night I attended, singer Julie Cascioppo performed standards—"Makin' Whoopee," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"—and delivered classic stage-show banter between songs. "I love to love love," she said at one point, before adding that she was about to head out on a USO tour to "entertain our boys over there." It was all so classy and spangly I nearly forgot what decade I was in.
The Pink Door's wine list is extensive, although a carafe of house red ($23) turned out to be an excellent companion to a fine meal. The roasted-garlic-spread appetizer ($10) is simple and effective—the kind of Italian dining that's nearly extinct in Seattle. The lasagna ($16) was as close to the imaginary limit of "too much cheese" as is humanly possible, and the special, salmon with fingerling potatoes and a crisp, sautéed black kale ($22.95), took full advantage of the Pike Place Market locale—everything was fresh and delicious and fine, especially the chocolate and pumpkin tart ($8).
The Pink Door's wait staff looks like porcelain dolls, and on Sundays a trapeze artist swings above the dining room. It's the kind of place that makes you forget the world outside, casting a spell that lasts as far as the unfortunate bathrooms, located outside in the grubby concrete Market space. I wasn't brave enough to attend the Thursday-night show, whose performers, Tony Yazzolino and Steve Kamke, are described on the website as "Sting on accordion," although I'm sure they are, at the very least, memorable.
If The Pink Door is the modern face of cabaret, Crepe de Paris (1333 Fifth Ave, 623-4111) is cabaret circa 1982 Cleveland. Located in the upscale little mall at Rainier Square, Crepe de Paris looks eerily like an airport lounge. Mark Cotter, who the audience was continually reminded is from New York City, sang show tunes with the biggest, fakest smile you've ever seen. His patter was embarrassing—"I don't like the new music. I don't know who let the dogs out and I just don't care, am I right?"—but nothing was more embarrassing than the food. The filet mignon ($25.95) was soaked in a disappointing brown gravy. The rack of lamb ($24.95) tasted like it had been previously frozen, and both meats were served with unbilled sides—some sort of potato au gratin and some sort of vegetable. The whole thing may as well have been served in a segmented tray. The desserts were no better—the raspberry flambé ($12.85) was served with strawberries, and was noticeably not on fire, and the Nutella and banana crepe ($7.25) wasn't a crepe at all, but rather a crispy pastry. One of my fellow diners compared the experience to a Tom Waits song—sad, but weirdly so.
Nevertheless, the experience of cabaret, a performer so close that you can see his sweat as he aches to receive more than a polite round of applause, remains fascinating. Combining a real performer with a decent meal feels like such a strange extravagance that even the saddest performance can arouse a tingle: It's showbiz, practically on your plate, arms outstretched, begging, "Let me entertain you." How can you say no?