This post continues the discussion of some of Seattle’s oldest bars in honor of the upcoming anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition (Sat. Dec 5).
The Oldest Bar in Seattle
Establishing the date of origin of Seattle’s oldest bars and determining which is the oldest bar in Seattle is a more complex undertaking than it may seem. Not only do a few of these dates rely on hearsay history or just dates written on old photos, but the decision is sometimes further complicated by a succession of different owners and businesses in the space, which may or may not have retained the name and may or may not have been bars at all. Of course if we require that an establishment has been continuously running as a (legal) bar, then none can date further back than the ratification of the 21st Amendment in December 1933. But I mark a contemporary bar’s start date as either 1) the earliest date a bar was established in the same physical space (regardless of any non-bar businesses intervening between then and now); or 2) the earliest date some location first used a continuously maintained business name. Let’s first discuss one of my favorite bars, and one which commonly makes the claim to Seattle’s oldest.
Jules Maes is fairly commonly reported as having been established in 1888, and ergo the oldest bar in Seattle’s current city limits. This date is displayed prominently in signs within the bar itself, and various media reports have Jules Maes himself running a saloon/speakeasy from the location since that date. However, I have found little evidence to confirm that claim, and based on the most comprehensive histories I could find, this cannot be true. The building was constructed in 1898, it was first a saloon in 1907, and it was first leased to Jules Maes in 1936 (Jules attended and/or owned other bars in the area in the early 1900s, but not earlier). Thus I see no credible way to date it back to 1888, and I count its date of origin as a bar on 1907. I do so even though it has not been a bar at all times since that date (of course no building was officially a bar through Prohibition) and even though Jules Maes himself did not lease it (and rename it) until 1936.
Even though I don’t count Jules as Seattle’s oldest, I do think that more than any other bar it does preserve that great vintage saloon feel. And I am delighted that it remains in business despite many scares, such as the time of its sale in 2000 when it was widely assumed that it would be shut down as a bar. And if any bar in Seattle would be haunted, surely it would be Jules Maes, which inspired a recent ghost story set in the joint written by Funi Daniels
The Pioneer Square Elders
If we place the start date of Jules Maes at 1907 or later, where does that leave the search for Seattle’s oldest bar? From what I can find, it leaves us smack in the middle of the tourists among the old Pioneer Square classics: Merchants Cafe (1890), the Central Saloon/Tavern (1892), Doc Maynards (1890s) and the J&M Cafe (1889-2009). Of course Merchants too claims to be the oldest bar in Seattle, and indeed the oldest restaurant on the West coast continually running in its current location. The claim looks fairly well-founded, although “continually running” should be used with caution, e.g. in 2006 the business was shut down for several months after the landlord evicted the owner and did some remodeling. Merchants arose, as we all know, out of the ashes of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. It was designed by W. E. Boone (a direct descendent of Daniel Boone) in “a very pared down version of the Victorian style with elements of Richardsonian Romanesque/ early Chicago School.” (seattle.gov) Merchants’ history and its grand 30-foot bar make it a fine choice for your Repeal Day celebration.
Doc Maynard’s was not actually owned by Doc Maynard, but it is routinely refered to as occupying the refurbished space of an 1890s public house, and this seems quite credible given that it is in the Pioneer Building, which was built in 1891. Dating “Doc Maynard’s” itself back to the date of this earlier pub may be a bit questionable, but this is how I mark it given the guidelines described above. The Central was established in 1892 as “Watson Bros. Famous Restaurant,” and claims to be the “oldest saloon in Seattle,” (perhaps because Merchants refers to itself as a “cafe”?). Watson Bros. was renamed “The Seattle Bar” in 1901, and then again to the “Central Cafe” in 1919. And while it may not be particularly relevant to Prohibition, the Central of course played a much larger role in recent Seattle music history, as throughout the 80s it was the steadiest of a very small number of clubs that would regularly host interesting music, including many fondly remembered sets by the little known local bands Nirvana, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, as well as college station favorites like Sonic Youth and Janes Addiction.
The J&M Cafe could have made its own claim to being Seattle’s oldest bar. It was clearly in the recent location by 1906, and it is said that Messrs. Jamison and McFarland opened their bar in 1889 and moved it into the “new” location in 1902. The J&M Cafe didn’t attract a sort of crowd I prefer, but it always seemed packed on weekend nights, which made it all the more shocking when it closed earlier this year. While I won’t miss the frat-like crowd and the cover bands, I will miss its grand Austrian mahogany bar and cathedral ceilings. The J&M closing reminds us how suddenly these venerable establishments can disappear forever, so go out and support your local saloon on Repeal Day!