People in the United States have been knocking back drinks on top of buildings since at least the 1880s, when Rudolph Aronson, inspired by Parisian gardens but lacking space in New York City, built a rooftop garden bar on top of the Casino Theater on Broadway. Plants, booze, a summer breeze, performances—it was a hit.
"Manhattan was land-poor but roof-rich, and rooftop complexes, many modeled after German beer gardens, bloomed from the Battery to the Bronx," according to Imbibe magazine. "Society columnists began referring to a 'roof garden season.' The new Madison Square Garden, then under construction, added its own elaborate rooftop garden, and when it opened, it was the grandest ever seen."
A similar thing is happening on the tops of many of the new buildings in Seattle—although I've yet to see a proper rooftop bar garden. I'm probably going to need to make friends with new-apartment rooftop access for that. Mostly what's available to the general public in Seattle is found in the form of the premium hotel bar.
I surprised myself when I selected one of these as the destination for my 23rd birthday celebration in March. Mountaineering Club is a new bar smack-dab in the middle of the University District, on the 16th floor of the swanky Graduate Hotel. It offers sweeping views of Lake Washington and Lake Union and everything beyond them, and a bird's-eye view of the U-District. You can spy on the cars crawling across the I-5 bridge like some kind of omnipotent deity.
But I didn't love the drinks. They were fine. Kind of weird. There was one with nettles (literally called We Put Nettles in This) that sort of tasted like soap. It cost $13. As for it being my birthday hangout, though, I liked the Mountaineering Club for how jarring it felt to be there, all fancy and decadent, one block from the squalor and grit of the Ave.
When an editor at The Stranger found out that's how I spent my birthday, he gave me an expense limit of $125 and told me to hit as many other rooftop bars in one night as I could for this story. I went with my boyfriend, Harry, on a Wednesday night after work. We met in front of his tech company's office. He was annoyed with me because I was two hours late. That seemed valid. We walked over to our first destination in stony silence.
Frolik sits on the Motif Hotel's fifth floor. It's not quite the rooftop I was hoping for—it's not very high and it's surrounded by other buildings. I'd heard about it from my friend whose company has made it their go-to happy hour spot.
Harry and I sat down on the broad patio. It was a perfect day. The sun refracted off the panes on an all-glass building under construction that towered over us. Top 40 hits hummed under the din of conversation. I searched the patio, looking for something to talk about to melt the tension. Nothing came to mind. Harry sipped his Motif Mule ($12), and I sucked down my Mercer Island Iced Tea ($16).
"How's your drink?" I asked.
He shrugged. "It's a $12 Moscow Mule."
We sat in silence some more.
Then we noticed an all-white ping-pong table and decided to play. There was a gumball dispenser full of white ping-pong balls that cost 25 cents apiece. The glare of the white ball on the white table made the game that much harder. I also hit the ball off the roof once. We rushed to the edge to watch it float down to the sidewalk below. That must happen all the time.
Harry won. We took tequila shots. We played again. It was harder this time. Harry won again. We'd had our fill. On to the next spot. We traipsed through downtown, a little more relaxed in our buzz, in the golden light bathing Third Avenue.
The Nest is one of those bars I'd seen only on social media. On the 13th floor of the Thompson Hotel overlooking Pike Place Market and Elliott Bay, the Nest is pure Instagram fodder. A burly security guard checked our IDs on the ground level and joked with us as he led us to the elevator.
He told us about how the Nest is still open during the winter. Its outdoor portion is covered 28 days, but it has to remain uncovered for at least three days, because of permitting laws. I now have a goal to go to the Nest in the pouring rain.
The Nest's view is dazzling. There were tons of people. Two bartenders in light pink polos and sunglasses were shaking drinks like they were tending bar poolside at a Hawaiian resort. I got the Pea Diddy ($16), a sickly sweet purple drink. Harry got a Good Fellas ($16), a brown liquor drink for the manliest of men.
We found a section of balcony that we could lean on and sipped our drinks. There were crowded tables to our backs. One man squeezed past us carrying a large gold flamingo filled with alcohol. Another man was telling his date all about his BMW Series 7.
We passed the time watching a party on another rooftop below us. Two people, a younger man with red hair like Harry's and an older woman, were grooving and grinding to music we couldn't hear. Gulls flew overhead and, before we knew it, our drinks were empty. Harry rushed to the bar for more tequila shots.
"The bartender said he didn't have well tequila," Harry said, laughing, when he returned, cradling two tumblers of top shelf tequila. Bottoms up.
We guzzled some water and hurried to our next spot, MBar in South Lake Union. The sun was setting quickly, and we'd heard MBar is a fantastic place to experience a sunset. However, we were also hungry, and as we walked, McDonald's golden arches called to us—a safe haven from $16 specialty cocktails. Harry got a McChicken ($1.29). I got a cheeseburger ($1) and a Sausage McMuffin ($1.19). He chastised me for not picking off the Extra Value Menu.
Mbar was an experience. It was the only rooftop bar we visited that night that wasn't sardined in by other buildings. It's on the 14th floor of a building on Fairview Avenue North, and it has a nearly unimpeded, 360-degree view of Seattle, including Lake Union, Queen Anne, the Space Needle, the skyline, and Capitol Hill. To top it off, we had made it right as the sun was dipping below the mountains, and the sky was the same color as the drink I ordered, a rosy thing called a Porch Swing ($15). Harry ordered whiskey on the rocks.
By now, we were drunk and giddy. Harry and I were the grubbiest people there in our jeans and T-shirts. But MBar is fancy without being pretentious. The food at the next table looked delicious, but not as cost-effective as our McDonald's binge. We toasted ourselves for that economic loophole. The temperature dropped with the sun, and once we were only sipping melted ice, we decided to call it a night.
"You know, that was pretty fun," I slurred, more alcohol coursing through my bloodstream than was responsible for a Wednesday night.
"Yeah," Harry said. "Especially when I kicked your ass in ping-pong."
Though I obviously require a rematch, I'll be doing so at Teddy's Tavern in Roosevelt.