The real deal

Institutions are institutions for a reason, dammit.

"IF ASSHOLES HAD Wings, This Place Would Be an Airport." That's what a sign behind the bar at Belltown's Rendezvous (2320 Second, 441-5823) reads. As anyone who has spent any length of time in the Rendezvous can attest, this sign has ample basis in reality. I suspect, however, that a drinking establishment cannot become a fixture simply by catering to the asshole population. Charged with crawling through a few of Seattle's old-school haunts, I hoped I'd reach some deeper understanding of what makes a bar last in this or any town. Mostly, though, I was in search of a good time.

Even though I am getting paid to do so, leaving the office at lunch to go get drunk seems a bit seedy. The guilt is assuaged almost entirely, though, after taking my seat at Pike Place Market's Athenian Inn (1517 Pike Place, 624-7166). The Athenian has an air of rugged nobility. A welcome harbor for both local fishermen and tourists fresh off the plane from Omaha, it perfectly embodies the Pike Place Market's split personality. I luxuriate in the view of Elliot Bay, chat away with my friend, and suck down a succession of drinks in total comfort. My lunch isn't especially good (I'm not entirely convinced my crab cakes contain actual crab), but deep-frosted mugs make for one of the best beer drinking experiences you'll find anywhere.

I don't recommend driving over the West Seattle Bridge just to drink, but if you were to, you'd do no better than the Admiral Benbow Inn (4212 S.W. Admiral Way, 937-8348). The Benbow is best known for its pirate theme and its hull interior—which is indeed spectacular— but it manages to remain modest and unassuming (just like West Seattle) despite the grand flourishes. The late-afternoon clientele today consists of a few old-timers sipping away alone, some after-work crews of both white- and blue-collar folk, and a mulleted man wearing sunglasses, a sleeveless shirt, and mesh gloves with the fingers cut out; appropriately, "Cat Scratch Fever" booms from the jukebox shortly after his entrance. I start myself with a gin and tonic, but make a prompt return to beer after it blurs my vision. The Benbow's reputation is easily understandable—potent cocktails, fabulous atmosphere, and great service will always be met with approval.

NORMALLY A CROWD of more than 15 is required for a bar to be truly raucous. The rules don't necessarily apply, though, when it comes to the Family Affair (234 Fairview N., 624-3382). Co- owner/bartender Angie is a whirlwind. She'll run the bar, deliver drinks to your table, put together a mean turkey sandwich, and leave plenty of time in between for jokes, insults, and conversation. When we arrive, a playoff game is in the eighth inning, and only one run separates the teams; we settle in for the finale, but right at the top of the hour, Angie turns the channel—it's time for WWF SmackDown! "Fuck him and the horse he rode in on," she yells at the screen, for it seems that Stone Cold Steve Austin has taken a shocking and wholehearted leap into the realm of evil. I haven't watched wrestling in ages, but it's impossible not to get into the spirit of things—that Stone Cold really does suck! The karaoke machine is getting warmed up, but we have to move on, thankful that Angie had left us with newfound phrases like "big-legged bitch" and "testicular fortitude" that will surely linger after the glow of our evening had faded.

The Rendezvous is strangely quiet—if there are assholes present, they're keeping it to themselves. As always, a few patrons are fixed on their drinks with morbid attention—the dim lighting and dingy wood paneling provide a perfect backdrop for the hardcore. The Rendezvous is not solely a haven for alcoholics, though; it's a fine place to socialize, and we enjoy both the bar and the side "TV Room" (which doesn't contain a TV), happily sipping from our cans. The usual mix of races and the cast of hipsters, working class, and degenerates is present, a rarity hereabouts that will be missed when the bar closes its doors forever at the end of October.

I follow a friend to one last unscheduled stop at one of the many faux Irish joints in town. A guy is performing a hackneyed set of rock standards, being pestered by a Real World reject intent on sharing the mike with him. Her appalling cast of friends descends on the dance floor. I throw my coaster at them but miss. I ponder a return to one of my old-school spots, but think better of it. Clearly, it's time to go home.

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