Copper Gate may be full of naked ladies, but lascivious it is not. "You could bring your grandmother here," observes a man at the bar, and it's true: The vintage photographs of topless women papering the place are the antithesis of offensive, emblems of a cheerful, innocent era when exposure of the bosom, exuberant or coy, was titillation enough. According to Copper Gate lore, a charmingly unsophisticated bas-relief painting on one wall immortalizes the original owner as a young woman. Her eyes are blissfully closed, her hair flows stiffly; unfettered by clothing, she floats in the clouds. She is said to be now in her 90s, doubtlessly someone's grandmother herself; she is said to have had "an affinity for the natural state of being." The new owners have decorated the former Ballard dive with items found on the premises, things that may have belonged to the original owner (lending the photographs and a series of nudes on black velvet a Sapphic frisson). A collection of antique vibrators is on display, as is a dispenser of bingo balls. An antique cabinet television silently shows snow.
The overall effect: Scando-hodgepodge-chic. The front of the copper-topped bar, host to a bunch of gramophone horns, models the curlicued prow of a Viking ship. In what seems like a miscalculation, barstools are anchored to the floor along one side at a distance maybe comfortable for Norse giants, but awkward for even on-the-tall-side regular people. A second row of stools is planted, too, weirdly radiating out. Also strange: a curved, dark metal half-wall. Yet Copper Gate's clutter and oddity feels tidy; there's hexagonal white tile on the floor, big wooden chairs painted white, candlelight, a view of the spotless kitchen.
Swedish meatballs ($8) are exactly as tasty in their brown gravy as they should be, sided with a celeriac-potato purée that's like a super-good version of Potato Buds. Lingcod fish cakes ($7) have the firm, spongy texture of an Asian version, tarragon aioli for dipping, and a simple, fabulous lemony-dressed salad of just parsley. Mussels ($9), cooked with bacon in an aquavit-tomato broth, come with beautiful big slices of grilled bread. The chef sneakily snacks on pickled herring as he works; his accent is both entirely fitting and absolutely adorable.
Specialty cocktails ($7) involve aquavit, rhubarb bitters, house-made Finnish-licorice-candy-infused vodka, and other fine obscurities, attaining both originality and an often herbal-oriented deliciousness. No, tyttebar is not pronounced "tittybar"; it's tee-ET-ah-bar, and it's (incredibly) Norway's name for the lingonberry, as well as the name of a drink at Copper Gate made with Swedish lingonberry soda and Marquis de Perlade sparkling wine. The lingonberry tastes like its relative the cranberry; the drink's tart, dry, served in a stemless champagne flute, simultaneously slaking thirst and making you want more, a lot more.
A group of healthy-looking individuals, evidently sent from Ballard central casting along with the chef, happily occupy a corner as well as a stereotype, emitting intermittent shouts of "Skol!"
Copper Gate, 6301 24th Ave NW, 706-3292