The original Toronado is an often-standing-room-only, always-cash-only beer bar with divisively surly service that's been in San Francisco's Lower Haight for 27 years. It's a cornerstone of American craft beer, deemed worthy of esteemed anniversary brews from Lost Abbey, Russian River, and Alpine Beer Company. It's a special place, one that beer-lovers rightly freak out about.
Toronado Seattle (1205 NE 65th St, 525-0654) feels like any of a number of beer-centric Seattle bars. Given that Matt Bonney, formerly of Brouwer's, Bottleworks, and the Burgundian, is in charge, this likely isn't a coincidence. There's plentiful seating, a list of what's on the 40 taps brightly displayed across 40-inch plasma screens (and online), a full menu with an emphasis on house-aged meats, friendly waitstaff, and the liquor selection that the other Toronados—there's a third in San Diego—eschew. Decor consists largely of framed alt-rock show posters and the inevitable beer-industry memorabilia. They take cards.
On Toronado Seattle's opening day, I was underwhelmed. The beer selection felt somewhat random, with just-decent kegs priced relatively high. Anything relatively rare, barrel-aged, or sour runs $8 or $9, and the tap list, unlike many, doesn't list alcohol by volume or pour size, both of which are rather nice to know in advance. The mac and cheese tasted like it came from a box. Most disappointingly, the bar had almost no bottle selection—none of those celebratory beers, like Lost Abbey's much-hyped Cable Car, that are generally available at both the San Francisco and San Diego locations, nor anything else out of the ordinary.
Later in the month, the bar officially grand-opened with rare beers from Surly, Cascade, Firestone Walker, Fremont, and Lost Abbey, among others. All the beers I had on my second visit were interesting: Cascade's Portland Punch was a surprisingly mild blend of their sour raspberry, blueberry, and apricot beers, while Surly's Cacao Bender had all the dessert-y qualities of a big beer infused with coffee, vanilla, and chocolate in a much milder brown ale, and also worked surprisingly well. My steak sandwich with grilled onions, greens, and mustard ($14) tasted mostly like the bread it was served on, tough and smothering the accompaniments. It would seem unwise to order Toronado Seattle's $75 côte de boeuf.
There's a huge market for Californian beer in California, and to expect Alpine Beer Company or Russian River to suddenly show up in (or return to) our market just because we have a Toronado now is unrealistic, though I do hope that we get in on it next time beers get made in Toronado's honor. And while one can get jealous of the incredible selections of Portland and California's great beer bars—as well as upset about stuff that's become frustratingly scarce up here in the last 15 years—if Toronado Seattle is in a lot of ways just another Seattle beer bar, we really don't have it that bad.