Linda Derschang is sitting on a patio at the corner of First Avenue and Blanchard Street. I first see her from across the street. She is under a dark-blue awning outside her new restaurant and bar, which is the very old restaurant and bar Queen City, previously known as Queen City Grill, and before that Queen City Tavern.
She is wearing shoes that are silverish and dusty gold. She greets me warmly. As we enter the building, I notice gray, black, and white tiles below its front door. There is a Greek key pattern on the tiles that box the words "Queen City Est. 1910."
Queen City will be the 15th business Derschang has opened in her long and successful career. Carpenters are banging away. A radio is playing a rock-and-roll tune.
"This place has got good bones," Linda says.
Tall, unhung mirrors, one with a dark mahogany frame, lean on a wall. A row of short lamps, which will be placed on tables, wait with nun-like patience on a windowsill. One light fixture, which has a simple moderne elegance, is set next to the top of the wooden bar.
All of this will become Queen City within a few days. But what in the world does she mean by "good bones"?
"It's this," she explains, pointing to various features. "The structure is already here. The bar, the brick, the booths, the floors, the windows. These are good bones. You do not need to add much to the place, because it's already here. It already has the structure. So it's up to you to decide what you want to do with it."
She has a knack for bringing character into interiors. "The Queen City could be a scruffy tavern, or an elegant Italian restaurant, or a fancy cocktail bar, or a regular steak house. But I want it to be a place with the kind of feeling that makes people smile."
To produce this feeling, she plans to add a little taxidermy (gray birds, a reddish fox, a jackalope), a design element she's been known for since she opened Linda's Tavern on Pine Street in 1994. Queen City's interior will also include an old painting of a sailor, the original high-backed booths, and dim lighting.
"Queen City has been a bar or restaurant for more than 100 years, and that was a real draw for me," she says, in between discussing the future color of the ceiling with her director of operations, Jennifer Engles-Klann. (It will be painted Paris Rain or Temptation.) "The place already told my kind of story."
And what is Linda Derschang's story? Where does it begin and what does it tell us? Because the essence of Linda is, as she puts it, working with whatever the universe sends her way—meaning working with chance and accidents to achieve, by necessity, a particular kind of feeling or mood (she never runs a business with a plan)—let me share a Proustian memory that one of the pieces of furniture in Oddfellows Cafe + Bar, another of her businesses, once provoked in me.
I was sitting at a table that faced the bar. On my plate, a homemade biscuit with scrambled eggs and slices of tomato. Next to me, a magazine rack. Behind me, an open window. Outside, people enjoying the last day of summer. At the moment I began cutting my food, I noticed something that I didn't expect to notice. It was my seat. I felt it bend and strain under the weight of a person who had just taken the table next to mine. I stopped cutting and wondered why the pressure on and creaking in the wood was so familiar. I looked to my left and saw a complete stranger examining a menu. I looked down at the space between us and saw something surprising: We were sitting on an old church pew.
I looked to my right and saw the pew's raised arm. I looked ahead and saw that the position of my biscuit and eggs was where a hymnal rack would be. I then inwardly plunged into a memory of the racks that contained hymns, Bibles, and programs composed by my father (then a pastor) for his Sunday morning services at Zion United Methodist Church in Sharptown, Maryland, some 38 years ago. This was the black church that white supremacists burned to the ground in 1980. I had not been in a house of God since my father's funeral in 2010, but the Seattle church where his funeral was held had pews with thick cushions and dropped arms. The pews of my childhood were, like the one I was sharing with the stranger at Oddfellows, all wood.
"Those church pews are from St. Joseph Church," Linda says. We are now sitting in her office, which is on the southeast corner of the headquarters of the Derschang Group, her small empire of bars, cafes, and restaurants (which used to include Bait Shop and Tallulah's—both were sold, the second very recently—and still includes King's Hardware in Ballard and Smith on Capitol Hill).
A huge and surreal painting by the artist Kevin Willis is behind her. An open window with a view of one of the 60 or so cranes in the still-booming city is behind me. We are on the third floor a Capitol Hill building that was once a part of "Auto Row." The construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s initiated the decline of Auto Row. Dealers left the city for the suburbs. And during the 1970s, the abandoned neighborhood was gradually colonized by gays, lesbians, trans people, punks, goths, rockers, socialists, and artists.
By the 1980s, when Derschang moved from Denver to Seattle to open her first business here (but the third business in her career), a clothing store called Basic on Broadway, the transformation of the neighborhood was well under way. Capitol Hill was definitely "bohemian." Only a few people came here to buy cars (and usually very expensive ones: BMWs, Ferraris). Most people came to drink, dance, watch bands, attend drag shows, look at art, do drugs, fuck, discuss Das Kapital, and buy the kind of clothes sold at Basic: tight black jeans, fishnets, baby-doll dresses (very popular at the time), and, of course, Dr. Martens (extremely popular at the time).
"One of my employees' grandmother goes to St. Joseph," explains Linda, "and she told her that they were remodeling the church and selling the pews. It was just one of those lucky things. They were exactly what I was looking for, but also I was drawn to the history."
Chance and necessity. That's the supreme dialectic of all aesthetic life in this universe. There was, in Derschang's case, the chance of opening the Oddfellows Cafe + Bar in 2008 in the Odd Fellows Building, which was built in 1908 and designed by Carl Breitung, a German American architect. There was the total chance that the members of St. Joseph Church, an art deco building completed in 1932, happened to be selling their pews. But there was also the necessity that these pews look right. For example, the wood of the pews had to have what Linda defines as history. Not all objects, even old ones, have this. History is not, for her, the facts of who made something or who used it or the exact day the thing was bought or sold. It is an appearance. You must be able to see the history. And these pews certainly had that unmistakable look. They also didn't have cushions, such as the ones I sat on at my father's funeral. Cushions on pews are as ugly as a "cozy" on a toilet seat.
"I care about the feeling a thing evokes," says Linda, who is leaning back on a black couch. "The lighting. The furniture. The fixtures. All of it has to come together in a room. Of course, there is the food and drinks. They have to be good also. But there are some places that worry only about the food and ignore the place, the environment. I don't. The mood is very important to me."
She pauses, thinks for a moment, leans forward, and then says (as the red-faced, soon-to-burst, middle-aged Moroccan man stares at me from the chaotic corner of the Willis painting behind her): "I remember someone once wrote that I create stage sets. And I hadn't thought of it like that before. And at first, I was a little insulted by the idea. I thought the writer meant that my interiors are themey, which is cheesy. But after a bit of thought, I realized that the writer was on to something. My designs are like a stage set, in the sense that they are trying to create an emotion. The only thing is my idea of this emotion often involves a lot of old paintings, old taxidermy, old books, old things. Time is important to me."
Back in 1993, stiff competition from several businesses, particularly another store that was selling Dr. Martens at a reduced price, brought Derschang to the brink of disaster. There were "too many people trying to sell the same thing to the same people," she says, and Basic began bleeding money.
As Linda recalls this moment (the "Dr. Martens Wars," as she calls it), I can tell by her tone and her eyes, which are no longer looking at me or even through me but at a distant place in time that was definitely filled with danger, that her career as an entrepreneur could easily have ended very badly for her. If so, there would be no Linda's, no Oddfellows, no Smith, no King's Hardware, no Derschang Group, no nothing.
Luckily, by chance, an opportunity to run a business with some friends, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, fresh from Sub Pop's spectacular financial success with Nirvana, presented itself. Pavitt and Poneman wanted to open a bar. Linda helped look for a location. They found one on Pine Street that had previously been occupied by the Ali Baba Middle Eastern restaurant. The place needed a lot of work. All involved decided to name it after Linda, and she worked behind the bar in the early years. She'd closed Basic and its mounting problems and entered the food and drink industry for the second time (the first had been a cafe in Denver).
The success of Linda's can be attributed to two things. One, it was not a gay bar or a straight one. It was just "yes." "Before we opened," explains Linda, "people kept asking was it going to be gay or straight, because that was the neighborhood at the time. It was one or the other. I was worried about this, so I told the carpenters working there to always say 'yes.' If asked if it was gay or straight, say 'yes.' That's all. I also trained my staff to say the same thing. We would practice and say it together. Is it straight or gay? YES!"
Secondly, the bar was not an actual dive but referenced one. This is why it had a new feeling, despite being decorated with old things and images, like the head of a long-dead buffalo, a wagon wheel with lights, a black-and-white blown-out photo of ranchers and their cattle, a jukebox that played 45 records, and the sign for a mid-century high-voltage substation in Montana. (The last two were purchased at a "kitsch emporium" that was once in Pioneer Square—Ruby Montana's Pinto Pony.)
All of this old stuff turned out to be hip, because it referred to a naive feeling of American innocence. Meaning, it was not nostalgia as nostalgia, but a nostalgia for nostalgia. We city sophisticates can't be nostalgic about Montana cowboys, who now vote for Republicans and Trump and guns, but we can be nostalgic for a feeling we could never enjoy directly or realistically: nostalgia. I call this reflexive longing. At the time Linda's opened in 1994, it was a new feeling. Now it is all over the place, coast to coast.
Derschang then opened a series of cocktail bars and nightclubs (Capitol Club, the Baltic Room, Chop Suey, Viceroy, which changed its named to Rob Roy in 2009) that were popular and sometimes even profitable, but none continued the Linda's Tavern mood or surpassed its originality. She eventually sold these businesses and truly hit her stride in 2007 when she opened the restaurant and bar Smith on 15th Avenue, in a space that many thought was jinxed.
"I bought it right after a business that had been there closed after only six months," she says. "There had been six places there in 10 years. And people said: What was I thinking? It's clearly cursed. It's haunted. But I thought it was just an ugly place that needed to be remodeled. A good look would break the curse." And it did.
Smith forms the link between Linda's and the other enterprises that define her mature aesthetic—including Oddfellows and now Queen City, a bar that has been around (opened in 1890) for almost as long as the city has been around (incorporated in 1869). Seattle was originally nicknamed Queen City by a Portland real-estate firm in 1869, and it wasn't until 1982 that the Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau renamed it the Emerald City.
The early history of Queen City as a drinking establishment is a muddle. Though certain records indicate Queen City Tavern opened in the first decade of the 1900s, there is a photo of unknown origin that has been hanging at Queen City Grill that shows a business in a slightly different building (perhaps on or right next to the current site) whose windows say Queen City Saloon, which may have been the precursor to the Queen City Tavern of 1910.
"Our motto for this place is 'The oldest bar in Seattle... maybe,'" Linda says with a laugh.
What exactly is Queen City's aesthetic? It is not the reflexive longing of Linda's—or put another way, the nostalgia for nostalgia. It is instead an evocation not of a place in time, but just of time.
Time, when it acts on the right object (a wooden pew, a family painting, the skin of a dead animal) for long enough, becomes history. From the look of this kind of history, we get the feelings that are fuzzy and even comforting. We are, after all, a temporally minded animal. Human beings invented clocks and calendars. We live in the past as much as we live in the present. We have our ghosts.
"I once saw the feet of a ghost in the Baltic Room," Linda offers at one point in our conversation. "I was sitting there at the end of the night with the manager. It was just the two of us. It was around 2:30 a.m. He had his back to the stairs. And as I was talking to him, I saw feet and legs, about to the knee, walking down the stairs."
Wait—what exactly did she see? "I saw the hem of a skirt around her calves, and some 1920s chunky heel shoes. I can still see it in my mind. And I was mesmerized. And then all of a sudden—poof!—gone. I said, 'I've finally seen the ghost!' Because many others who'd worked at the Baltic Room had seen them. It was a couple. And the way she was walking was toward the side of the stairs, it was as if someone else was walking down them with her. That place is haunted for sure. It was once a horse stable..."
Prompted to tell me about other ghosts, she says, "My employees also tell me there are ghosts in Oddfellows, or in its basement. They have seen and heard them there. I'm not kidding."
There is also a ghost in Little Oddfellows, another of Derschang's businesses, which is the cafe in the back of Elliott Bay Book Company. The story: One day, Linda decided to hang on a vertical wooden beam in the cafe a painting of a middle-aged woman wearing a white shirt and a blue jacket.
"I paid $30 for it at a thrift store," she says, "and I stored it in my house for a few years. I just liked it. But clearly it was not valuable. Whoever owned it had dumped it. Eventually, I decided to hang it in Little Oddfellows. Then one day, we got an e-mail at the office from a woman who wrote: 'My mother is hanging at Little Oddfellows.' She told us that her mother never liked the portrait, and so when she died a few years ago, no one wanted the painting. They got rid of it. It ended up at the thrift store. I found it, liked it, and hung it in Little Oddfellows. But here is the thing: Her mother did actually love Elliott Bay Books. It was her favorite place. So, by chance, the painting of her now hangs there. We put a little plaque below the painting with her name [Anne Fairfax Lyle] and her time [1922–2012]."
When the store closes, and the lights are out, ghostly Anne has the whole bookstore to herself.
"As far as I know, there are no ghosts in Queen City," Linda says. "But time will tell."