Look, I may write a column about cocktails, but I’m a total fraud who has never worked at a bar a day in my life. Until last week, I wasn’t even totally confident about how to use one of those curly springy strainers. And I sure as shit didn’t know that they’re correctly called Hawthorne strainers.
That’s why, when I saw that the historic Smith Tower offers a monthly cocktail class, I snapped it right up.
After a revamping in 2021 and some initially spotty opening hours, Pioneer Square’s iconic Smith Tower now has all kinds of cool shit going on, including its actually very good lounge, the Smith Tower Observatory Bar. (I only say “actually very good” because this isn’t a SkyCity-at-the-Space-Needle tourist trap situation, despite it being easy to imagine.) Up on the 35th floor, at the base of the penthouse pyramid, this opulent space was once, for decades, known as the Chinese Room. It’s original to the building’s completion in 1914 and was supposedly funded by the last empress of China—that would have been Dowager Empress Cixi, who died six years earlier in 1908, but okay??—and it was a rentable events space until 2016 when it was transformed into a luxe bar-resto.
I’m also a fraud as a Seattleite because I had never been inside the fucking Smith Tower until last week! PARTIALLY not my fault because it was closed to the public for ages and then only the restaurant and observatory were open for a while, but no one really knew when? Still not cool. What I also didn’t realize, along with not realizing that they teach classes in there, is that there are all kinds of other goings-on going on! The Smith Tower has a whole museum in it! They do movie nights in the Orcas Room, free to Washington state residents! There’s a night market every other first Monday of the month, with cocktails and live bands! There’s a swanky bar and restaurant, as I have mentioned! They do happy hours and brunch! The Smith Tower offers historic talking tours, separately from the cute, kitschy museum on the ground floor! They have DJ nights in the summer on the 22nd-floor lookout and a 1920s festival and a Fourth of July party! There’s a scary sky cage ringing around the entirety of the 35th floor and you can get drunk and walk around in it! It’s a whole city’s worth of fun events packed into a single Neoclassical skyscraper.
So, my dude and I recently took the cocktail class and loved it. It’s two hours long, held on the 21st floor, and at $125, it’s admittedly not cheap—but you each get three cocktails and a complimentary glass of bubbly. AND you get to stuff your face interminably on a fancy charcuterie station with kiwi and capicola and about nine kinds of cheese and those little toasts with the dried apricot and pistachio, which we were calling fruity crackers and then dying. I loaded up twice.
The class itself was a fine balance of lighthearted and fascinating, and it went super quickly! Possibly because we were nice and lit up from the drinks. It was a liiiiittle hard to pay attention because we could not pry our eyes off the view of Elliott Bay behind the instructor, but hey, still a pretty low-risk endeavor. All the barware and equipment and bottles are provided, and students are instructed step by step on how to measure, how to shake, how to garnish, and how to not fuck up your cocktail in ways that you might be tempted to fuck it up if you didn’t know better. I now know how to build a cocktail inside a two-piece cocktail shaker AND how to seal it correctly. As well as the correct way to twist a citrus peel so the oils are expressed into the drink and not my hand.
We also learned a lot about ice. Big ice, small ice, how much ice to use, how to scoop the ice, when the right time is to put the ice in so you don’t end up with an inch of floating water on top of your drink. There’s a whole world of ice out there. Take this class if you want a glimpse.
Before the show started, we students were invited to wander the ground-floor museum, which leans heavily upon the lore around the Smith Tower being home to the largest bootlegging system in the nation during Prohibition, told with a nudge and a wink. During this, we were treated to a mini-talking tour of the iconic building and had all the golden hand-operated elevators and imported Italian marble slabs explained to us. After the class, we were also granted access to the 35th-floor observatory, which normally costs extra and which is also the bar/restaurant, and is also called the Observatory. The Observatory has an observatory in it.
The whole floor is mesmerizing, with its fall-floor-to-ceiling views, ornately carved teak ceiling, an elaborate blackwood chair that will make you get married if you sit in it, and zillions of openable drawers packed with vintage knickknacks for guests to explore.
Importantly!! Outside the restaurant and observatory, a metal cage wraps around the 35th floor, providing an outdoor 360-degree view for guests to soak up. As every Seattleite child learns by rote, the 42-floor Smith Tower was for decades the tallest American building west of Mississippi, and it was actually the tallest building outside of NYC when it was completed in 1914. (This includes the penthouse, which is someone’s private residence, so you can’t go up there.) After Kansas City’s new Power & Light Building beat it in 1931, the Smith Tower was still the tallest in Seattle until it was surpassed by its sworn and natural rival, the Space Needle, in 1962. Anyway, since the Smith Tower’s on the waterfront, you’re right in the downtown mix, so the view here is a way different situation than being on top of the Space Needle about a mile north of the skyscraper forest. It’s sort of shocking to behold.
Back inside the bar, the cocktail list was irresistible, and we shelled out for yet around round. (We went for a pair of old fashioneds—I had the Yesler Old-Fashioned with Woodinville Rye, vanilla simple, and black walnut bitters, which tasted like pancakes, and my partner had the tequila/mezcal-based one with honey, grapefruit, and chocolate bitters.) Interesting list of non-alcoholic drinks too. I want to try the Espresso Fauxtini next time. Also, they have a cocktail called the Seattle Freeze, which, uh, genius—why haven’t I seen that one yet?
Later, we noshed on some roasted squash ‘n’ burrata along with sauteed Brussels sprouts smothered in fish sauce and bonito flakes and cackled every time the bonito flakes wiggled. Thanks, five drinks. You can, of course, skip the dinner and drinks and just pay $19 (or $16 with a Washington State ID) just to go up to the Observatory and check out the sweeping view, Rockefeller Center-style. It’s tres romance up there, no matter what ya do.
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Anyway, this was the funnest Thursday we’ve had in a whole while, and I personally suggest it. The Smith Tower building is just 100% Seattle—did you know Ivar Haglund used to own it in the ’70s?—and I really love what management has done here, transforming an out-of-date office building into a cultural tourist attraction, with a tongue-in-cheek story built around bootlegging and local legends. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s a good one. I also appreciate that there are different price levels, so you can still experience the building in some kind of way depending on how much cash you feel like dropping. I’m in for the movie night and the night market for sure, probably a happy hour too.
You guys should be super stoked, as I am, to hear the Smith Tower’s finally open to the public all week long, so that we may explore its drawers, literally and figuratively. Take the cocktail class with a date, and maybe you’ll do the same to them later, after all those drinks.