You Can Keep Your Pretension
The Pleasures of Staying a Spell at the Innkeeper
A horror movie called The Innkeepers is coming out on February 3. It's about a haunted inn (whooooOOOOO-OOooooo!). Stranger photographer Kelly O says she fell asleep three times trying to watch the DVD screener. Don't close your eyes for even a second, or you'll miss THE SHEER TERROR! And by that I mean The Innkeepers' run in local theaters.
Kelly and I were talking about what she should take photos of at the new bar and restaurant in Belltown called the Innkeeper. "It's just kind of a place..." I said unhelpfully, "a good place!" When I said the name, she started laughing and told me about the movie. The thing about The Innkeepers versus the Innkeeper is that while the former, clearly, is a colossal failure—so frightening, you will lose consciousness!—the latter does exactly what it should do, in a basic and satisfying way, with some particularly delicious cheese and also some bears.
The Innkeeper stands one block down First Avenue and across an aesthetic divide from the owners' first bar and restaurant, Black Bottle. (The Innkeeper is where Marco's Supperclub used to be.) Black Bottle, even at seven years old, still looks very fashionable—it was on the forefront of the Clean Lines/Exposed Brick/Handsome Lightbulbs School of Interior Design in Seattle. The people inside, especially those wearing glasses, look like architects just by virtue of being there. (If you've never had Black Bottle's blasted broccoli—a heaping platter of florets roasted at high heat until singed crisp around the edges, salted and peppered fearlessly—you have not fully lived. They have the blasted broccoli at the newer Black Bottle Postern in Bellevue, too.)
The Innkeeper, on the other hand, has only two lightbulbs with good-looking filaments, supplemented by plain-looking pendant fixtures along the bar and track lighting. Someone online described it as looking like a chain restaurant with only the emergency evacuation lights on, which is both unkind and inaccurate. (This person should go wallow in their natural element at Wasabi Bistro, with its original flashy, circa 2000 upscale decor recently updated to fresh, even flashier circa 2008 upscale decor.)
The Innkeeper isn't all fancied up, it's true. There are windows across the front, and wooden tables with wooden cigar boxes on them holding utensils and paper napkins. The well-stocked bar shelves have only one unobtrusive piece of taxidermy (it's a quail). There are a few funny, random pieces of art, including a marvelous, dark-hearted print of many, many bears having a party out in the woods that looks like it's just about to get out of control. There are two flat-screen TVs, but they don't force their attentions on you overmuch, being well placed in two back corners. An undisguised Reznor unit in another corner blasts welcome heat. The Innkeeper is warm and friendly and low-key, which feels just about right in an economically depressed January, if you ask me and the other people who have not evacuated.
Also, there's the cheese. The cheese is described as "Grilled Mexican Cheese: queso fresco golden brown with vegetarian green chili" ($6), which might make you expect a grilled-cheese sandwich and a bowl of chili. What you get is a row of slices of the salty cheese that have themselves been grilled to golden brown—the cheese has enough backbone that it holds firm—resting in a pool of tart, spicy, smoky, tomatillo salsa. The spice of the salsa is magic—complex instead of hot-hot-HOT, limey-bright, just great. You also need to order a side of tortilla chips—not the Innkeeper's chips, which are potato and probably also great, but the tortilla chips, which are made to order from flour tortillas cut into strips, delivered greaseless, well-salted, and still hot, and only $1. Load a bit of the cheese and some of the green chili salsa onto one, and you've got an arguably perfect bite of snack.
The chef at the Innkeeper, Brian Durbin, used to run an eco-lodge in the Caribbean, and the menu is based on the kinds of simple Latin American dishes you might find on an especially good day of travel there. A plate of white anchovies ($11) with a rough-cut avocado and tomato salsa, plus some crunchy fennel-bulb salad, also demands an order of chips and tastes like a vacation. You'll want to share this; too much, with the vinegar and onion, gets a bit acidic. You might not want to share the Penn Cove Manila clams and chorizo ($13); when I had it, the clams were miniature, tender baby ones, and the broth had the slight sharpness of still-pale shards of garlic and a warming, creep-up-on-you heat. Ask for more grill-marked Macrina bread right away, as it will disappear rapidly in soaking up the broth.
The Innkeeper's Brazilian slow-roasted chicken thigh bowl ($11) had a drumstick, too, with the meat just right and a whole head of roasted garlic, fried plantains, and rice with pigeon peas. The rice tasted bland one night, but another time, with a Caribbean goat curry ($13), it was just right. The goat was not-quite-falling-apart, with an authentic amount of fat and bone involved, imbued with cumin and cardamom and other bracing but not-too-hot spices from a nice long braise. Both the chicken and the goat are homey, un-upscaled, tasty, and filling—just about right on a cold night. They'd be great in summer, too, on the Innkeeper's oasis of a back deck with an ice-cold beer.
The empanadas ($7 for three) were what empanadas should be, stuffed with spiced ground beef and raisins for sweetness, the pastry buttery and a little dense. (The chimichurri, an Argentine herb sauce, was heavy on the vinegar, making for a pickley dipping experience.) The Innkeeper's Cuban pork sandwich ($9) is not pressed-grilled; it's fat with roasted pork and ham, almost deli-style, if the deli had crusty Macrina rolls, crunchy hot peppers, and spiced-up aioli.
The only distinctly unenjoyable things I had at the Innkeeper were a Caesar salad ($9), with dressing so creamy as to verge on mayonnaise, and a shrimp cocktail ($10), with wet, flavorless shrimp and extremely ordinary red cocktail sauce unredeemed by fresh horseradish. These things seem to have crept in from some other, more ordinary bar menu; they should be banished back there.
To drink, the Innkeeper offers a half-dozen un-ordinary draft beers—like Ill-Tempered Gnome Winter Ale—plus Rainier tallboys and more, and a dozen or so well-chosen, lower-priced wines, as well as red or white from a keg for $5 per glass. And, of course, there are cocktails from a tropical-influenced short specialty list: a dark 'n' stormy, a corn 'n' oil. Along with lots of whiskey, there's rum and tequila worth sipping without straying far into the double digits.
If you require something more elaborate than the Innkeeper, walk on, good sir or madam—Belltown overflows with choices. If you'd just like hospitality, with something different and good to eat, here is your place. The name comes from Don Quixote, and an inscription on the menu explains:
"If, sir cabellero [sic], you're looking for somewhere to stay the night, you'll find plenty of everything you need here—all except a bed, that is, we haven't got any of those."
The Innkeeper's open from three-thirty in the afternoon until two in the morning every day. You don't have to go home, through the cold night, but you can't stay here. They should really get some cots.