- Kelly O
- Farewell, wooden bowls of peanuts.
Paid for by Committee to Reelect Judge North, P.O. Box 27113, Seattle, WA 98165
These are not words I ever thought I would write, but they’re true. The Redwood isn’t closing tomorrow, or even next month, but it’s closing. According to Lisa Brooke, one of the bar’s owners, the bar’s lease is up in December 2015, with a slim chance of month-to-month extension while the owner finalizes the property’s sale—more than likely to a developer with plans to build yet another retail/residential monstrosity. Realistically, says Brooke, the bar will call it quits in November of next year rather than pay scads of money to renew its liquor license for a few months.
Now, this isn’t exactly a new story on Capitol Hill. By now, those of us who have been around for a bit have become inured to the steady march of “progress”—that process that involves our favorite coffee shops, dive bars, cafes, and so on being turned into modern “flats” or “lofts” with ultra-sleek gyms and fusion restaurants staring out at us from their ground-level windows. But that certainly doesn’t make this any less of a tragedy.
And while it may not be a preventable tragedy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth rueing. Because the Redwood isn’t just another bar that couldn’t hack it on the hill. It’s a founding father of the Hill’s current bar scene. It opened nine long years ago—practically a century as far as bars on the Hill go—when the original Cha Cha, along with the Bus Stop, Pony, and Kincora were forced out by a developer’s purchase of the block between Belmont and Summit on Pine. Redwood’s owners took advantage of the void created in the bar scene, along with a good bit of notoriety stemming from the fact that their opening bar staff was composed of members of the now-insanely-famous Band of Horses, to create a thriving business. And, besides a momentary slump when Lisa and husband/co-owner Mat were stretched a little thin after opening The Oak, Redwood has always done well. And beyond doing well, it has left us a host of suspiciously similar hipster dives in its wake.
The Redwood is every other hip, lumberjack-trout-fishing-mountain-man fantasy bar’s granddad. The whole reclaimed wood thing? Mat and Lisa, along with co-owner Tim Purtill, tore down a barn and jackknifed it into a gutted Laundromat. They didn’t just reclaim that wood, they resurrected it. I first encountered sweet potato fries with aioli in a little plastic basket on the Redwood’s shotgun-shell-bedecked bar. Now you can also find them at places like Smith. Grass-fed meat in bar burgers? The Redwood has had it on its menu from the beginning, because Lisa—a longtime vegetarian—insisted that if they served meat it be humanely raised. The whole “hipsters watching sports non-ironically” thing? The Redwood was playing Seahawks games on a projection TV salvaged from Ichiro Suzuki’s house back when people still referred to them as the Seachickens and there wasn’t a 12th man. Hell, Mat Brooke said he almost got himself fired from the original Cha Cha for bringing in a TV to watch the Super Bowl because of the bar’s strict “no sports” policy. And Redwood introduced the now-beloved shell-on peanuts in cute wooden salad bowls, which, thankfully, the new Comet has, too.
So why is the Redwood closing, if it’s such a legendary trendsetter of a bar? Because being rad isn’t much of a defense against being denied a lease extension. As cool as the bar is, it isn’t exactly a cash cow for the building’s owner. Lisa revealed that the bar pays a mere $2,000 per month in rent on their current lease. I guess that’s why they can still afford to sell $4 Oly ‘n Crows at happy hour. But $2,000 per month is probably less than the rent of just one of the trendy lofts that will surely replace the bar.
If this was a heartwarming movie about a quirky, beloved neighborhood bar fighting against an evil suit to keep its lease, they could probably throw some sort of wacky fundraiser to save the bar, but it’s not and they can’t. It’s real life and the landlord is a normal dude. He lives in the building behind the bar and, judging from the many nice things Brooke had to say about him, he doesn’t sound like the type who wears Armani suits and lights cigars with hundreds. He doesn’t have a public image to save—he asked Brooke to maintain his anonymity, he likely doesn’t have much of a stake in the cultural fate of the neighborhood—he’s old enough to give a shit less about bars, and thus, he doesn’t have any motivation not to take the millions of dollars he will get from a developer and go retire comfortably. Does that make him an asshole? No. A pragmatist perhaps, but not an asshole.
As much as I wish that Capitol Hill could remain the same cheap, dirty, weird, and insanely fun neighborhood that it was when I was stumbling my way through my besotted early twenties, it can’t. Money changes everything and there’s a whole lot of money being spent on the Hill these days. It is growth and the concurrent influx of money it brings that uproots and displaces our favorite haunts, not the nonexistent evil-development-firm conspiracy that people love to casually blame. It seems that people are quick to point the finger at developers and landlords—and perhaps some of them deserve it—but slow to admit that it is more often the indifferent hand of “economic development” that sweeps culture aside in its path. If the Redwood were to remodel, go sleek, up its prices, and court the crowds, it might rise to the crest of the wave of money that’s washing over the Hill, but it wouldn’t be the same Redwood we love.
Brooke put it best: “I feel as though Capitol Hill is saturated with bars and we have decided to end with dignity. I can’t imagine The Redwood stuffed into some fancy new buildout. The Redwood is what the Redwood is and I can't imagine anywhere else.” It is tragically ironic that the Redwood, the bar that successfully fought off a very concerted effort by a few NIMBY neighbors to keep it from opening, played a key part in paving the way for all the other bars in the fancy buildouts to open up and push it out. It’s almost too cruel to imagine such a heartfelt business being eaten by its young.
In a way, though, the story behind the Redwood’s end is a very timely reminder that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You want a vaguely PNW-themed 24/7 diner staffed with tatted-up hipsters and a four-part Korean barbecue place and an upscale craft beer bar that also serves pizza? Great, but those places all depend on grabbing a share of the market. More artisanal cured meats and $11 craft cocktails mean fewer cozy, well-worn dives.
So next time you find yourself wondering how in the hell your favorite bar/coffee shop/indie bookstore/etc. in the whole world could be closing, put down your cherrywood chopsticks, lean back from your $13 bowl of pho, and take a good look around. This is what progress looks like.
In the meantime, you’ve got a year to get your fill of $4 boilermakers, super stiff bourbon sweet tea, some of Seattle’s best booths, godawfully good nachos, free peanuts, the Pacman table, and all those oh-so-clever speech bubbles on the bathroom wallpaper. Says Brooke, “We intend to go out with a yearlong celebration of our wonderful staff and the old school (and young) regulars that have kept our bar alive!” So go pay your old friend a visit, don’t be bitter—Lisa and Mat certainly aren’t—and do your damndest to add another year’s worth of weird, wonderful stories to the bar’s already rich history. And let us never forget that perfection will always have its own butt.
P.S. The Oak, the Redwood’s younger sibling on Beacon Hill, isn’t going anywhere, though Lisa and Mat are moving to Port Angeles and will be selling their stake in the bar to their other partners after the Redwood closes.