A man walks into a bar. He's wearing flip-flops, a red T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and droopy, shinyish white basketball shorts within which his left hand dwells deep, inside the waistband, way down in his business. It's less of a caressing than a cradling or cupping; it is clear that this is his default posture, that he walks all over town, in and out of the gym and the grocery store and up and down the street, with his hand in his pants. Only when he sits on a barstool does this hand emerge, the better to rest his elbows on the bar as his mouth falls open and remains that way. His expression is epically blank.
In the not-so-distant past, a guy like this would've stood out at the Eastlake Zoo Tavern, longtime home to massive bikers and leftover hippies and assorted misfits. Tonight the crowd's fresh-faced and collegiate, boys with baseball caps and girls in skinny-strapped tank tops playing pool, giggling and guffawing. It's indicative, probably, of a sea change in the neighborhood, the city—the freaks erode away, the students come in, then their older siblings, moneyed, homogenized, wearing khaki pants. The building across the street is gone, making way for condos with "sweeping water views" (according to a sign) and those who can afford them.
Despite the shift toward generically youthful clientele, the Zoo is still a magnificent place to misspend an evening. The place is an entirely unapologetic hodgepodge—32 years' worth of stuff. A poster of Jimi Hendrix attired as Uncle Sam tacked up on the low, vaulted ceiling of the tunnel-like entrance declares "I WANT YOU FOR MY ARMY." A strip of paper affixed with yellowing tape nearby directs "DIE YUPPIE SCUM!" Pool trophies stand idly; shredded upholstery has been repaired with packing tape. Elsewhere hangs a giant American flag, a Grateful Dead skull rendered in red and blue neon, an invitation to a long-ago wake for a Zoo patron. In the cavernous back, an enormous papier-mâché dragon, a little the worse for wear, presides over the snooker table, which is momentarily dressed in its funereal black cover. A fairly indescribable mural cohabitates with unimaginative graffiti. The balcony, still smelling like cigarettes, offers a view of Lake Union, Queen Anne's blinking television towers, the Space Needle; the last stall in the women's room has the same vista. It's a dive bar writ large; it's the great American roadhouse. The beer is cheap and cold, the schooner glasses fogging up with chill as they're handed to you from their refrigerated lair. The bartenders are of the ilk who, gratifyingly, remember you from bygone years or greet you as a friend anyway. Collectively, they own the place, co-op style, which staves off improvements and means, one hopes, that the Zoo is here to stay. How's it been going? "Oh, you know. Nothing changes around here." Which is not entirely true.
Eastlake Zoo Tavern, 2301 Eastlake Ave E, 329-3277.