The subjective quality of place--what we feel when we respond to any particular geography or geometry--resides in the heady tension between stimulus and response, between the tangible textures of surrounding space and an evocation that is at once aesthetic and deeply nostalgic. Take, for example, the profound mix of awe and familiarity one feels upon reentering a childhood home: The tangle of emotions experienced are so intensely personal as to be almost beyond communication, and yet there it is, an enduring entity whose emotional significance is no less universal for being unspeakably unique from one person to the next. And if it's true, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, that we can't go home again, it's certainly not for lack of trying: What we seek when we look for places worth returning to is a sense of comfort and possibility and beauty undiminished by time and use, a kind of perpetual déjà vu. That's why they call them "haunts."

The first time I walked into the cocktail lounge of the Admiral Benbow Inn, I felt I'd crossed through some kind of magic portal. Suddenly, I wasn't in West Seattle anymore--rather, I'd come to rest in this fantastically unreconstructed Valhalla of booze and smoke, a place both instantly familiar and exotic. Decorated to resemble the dim, rolling interior of a Spanish galleon--complete with an imitation sunrise (or is it a fire?) shimmering in the windows of the bow--the lounge's nautical charm, as well as its convivial invitation to debauchery, is impossible to resist. Here, at last, is an adults-only version of my favorite ride at Disneyland, the inauthentic Pirates of the Caribbean. Nostalgia and aesthetic pleasure collide, make happy, make thirsty. The Benbow's atmosphere is so perfectly half-assed and yet earnest that it completely transcends camp. What's irony to a drunken sailor, anyway? It's mostly about the hootch and the company, and the drinks at the Benbow will put hair on your chest. The waitresses are sweet. The regulars are friendly and often fascinating.

The restaurant portion of the Benbow Inn (a name taken, by the way, from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure yarn Treasure Island) is just as delightful, in its way, as the lounge. Nothing fancy or too spectacular, really--just old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes, greasy-spoon cafe fare served up quick and hot by chatty waitresses. The encyclopedic menu reads like an ode to the dying culinary art of the great American diner. You can get a basic burger for $4.50, fish and chips or a Reuben sandwich or chicken strips for $5.95, liver for $7.25, and a rib eye or fillet of salmon plate for $11.95. The dinner salad is a bowl of iceberg lettuce with goldfish crackers on top. You get the idea.

For breakfast, there is the short-stack pancake order for $2.75, the ubiquitous two eggs any style, hash browns, and toast for $3.95, or the "Captain's Mess" (potatoes, onions, ham, green peppers, topped with cheddar) for $5.95. Coffee cups are ceaselessly refilled with hot, restaurant-grade drip. To experience the full glory of the Benbow in the morning, I'd recommend bellying up to the little L-shaped counter, right amid the action. Everybody seems to know everybody else here, and the conversation ranges freely from the health of elderly patrons to what's being broadcast on the tube above the counter. Put your elbows on the Formica, unfold the newspaper, and light a cigarette. Mention the Mariners. You'll stay all day.

There aren't many places like the Benbow left in Seattle. They've dropped like flies, replaced by schmaltzy monuments to excess and greed. Whereas most restaurants in this city of nouveau-chic parvenus and dot-com carpetbaggers attempt and fail to capture some sliver of fetishized time, the Benbow luxuriates in its own aching and unconscious sense of timelessness. Having opened 72 years ago, it's got nothing at all to prove, thank you. So please don't go there to slum and gawk; I'll kick you out myself. Go there instead to eat, drink, and be merry in an environment of true community enjoying a bit of hard-won respite.

Admiral Benbow Inn

4212 SW Admiral Way, 937-8348. Call for hours. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up

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