Strong drinks and yes, a little glitz

October 15, 2007 

For decades there has been a heavy concentration of taverns, nightclubs and restaurants on South Tacoma Way, between 54th and 56th streets. Not that the area was exactly a prime entertainment destination in 2000, the year Kenny Bender bought Dawson's Tavern.

"The whole area was in pretty dire straits," he recalled recently. "It was pretty drug-infested, hookers - your skid row type" of place.

But then something happened. "For some reason just gradually that element has moved out," Bender said. "And normal people come down here now where before they were pretty apprehensive about coming down."

Now there's a bit of a buzz about nightlife in that part of town, especially after a handful of new clubs set up shop in the area. Like downtown Tacoma and Sixth Avenue in recent years, people are talking about the potential for this area to grow into South Sound's version of Seattle's Pioneer Square - namely, a flourishing entertainment district with a diverse offering of nightclubs.

And why not? South Tacoma Way has already been that before. The venerable arterial once ran through a booming business district, at least until the openings of the Tacoma Mall and Interstate 5 drew commerce away in the 1960s.

And when the Northern Pacific Shops closed in 1974, it didn't help the bars that catered to travelers and the working-class crowds. Even Steve's Gay '90s - a joint remembered fondly by the local disco set - was shut down by 1977.

But now nightlife is back on the rise. And South Tacoma Business District manager, Gloria Egan points to the recent openings of J.J.'s Pub & Grub, Club Vertigo and the Factory - all on or near that bar-heavy strip of South Tacoma Way - as promising signs.

"That's part of an overall revival," Egan said. It's bad "when the neighborhood rolls up the sidewalks at night and nobody's out any more."

Egan pointed to a key advantage that South Tacoma Way's club district has over Sixth Avenue, where loud clubs and their sleepy neighbors are sometimes at odds.

"The houses (on Sixth Avenue) are right there, right in back of the clubs," Egan said. "Through ours there's a little bit more of a buffer. . . . That could be enough where they're not encroaching on each other."

That's probably a good thing since there's more nightlife on the way.

Brothers Jeff Call and Steve Baker bought the Stone Gate building at 5421 South Tacoma Way in March. And the two are turning the 8,000-square-foot space into a two-story rock club, pizza parlor and lounge which they hope to open early next year.

"I just think this is a great location," Call said, also noting several new daytime businesses drawing traffic to the area.

"The Vespa scooter dealership just went in," he said. "You have the new restaurant directly across the street. The new Vietnamese restaurant just went in. Even the biker bar across up the street (J.J's), they brightened up their facade."

But Bender thinks more has to change than the actual buildings before South Tacoma Way becomes anything like Pioneer Square.

"I think what needs to happen before that can even come close is that South Tacoma Way is going to have to lose its stigma," Bender said. "A lot of people have (the impression) that it's a rough side of town, and it's not."

So with all this talk of the potential for South Tacoma Way nightlife, we decided to check out some of the new hot spots and revisit the old-timers that have been around since before their 'hood was hip.

Here's the good, the bad and the ugly of what we observed on recent bar-hopping excursions onto South Tacoma Way:

Airport Bar & Grill (5406 South Tacoma Way, 253-475-9730): This gay-friendly tavern was pretty mellow whenever we stopped by, with only a few mostly middle-aged, male patrons sitting at the bar. It features a dark, spacious interior with a brighter, more intimate poolroom in back. It gets bonus points for an ultra-eclectic jukebox with plenty of Prince, Pearl Jam and Gorillaz.

Club Vertigo (5402 South Tacoma Way, 253-474-1189): The new kid on the block opened in August and picked up where previous owners left off with the popular hard rock club 54. That club closed abruptly last spring, and the space has since been made over with the stage moved to maximize space, better sound and a roped-off VIP area. Expect to see such local mainstays as Top Heavy Crush and the Missionary Position. Management also plans to keep the kitchen open for breakfast until 4 a.m. on weekends.

Dawson's Tavern (5443 South Tacoma Way, 253-476-1421): The drinks at Dawson's are stiffer than Dwight from "The Office." And we're not sure whether to blame those, or the groove-tastic sounds of Rock N' Roll Magic - a cover band versatile enough to bridge the gap between Rick James and Tim McGraw - for all those baby boomers shaking their moneymakers so enthusiastically on the dance floor. Eh, maybe both. Other regular performers include bluesy acts Tim Hall, Billy Shew and Dustin Lafferty.

Golden West Saloon (5228 South Tacoma Way, 253-474-8432): "Nobody's drinks beat mine," the bartender bragged when we last dropped by. And she wasn't kidding. A member of our bar-hopping party couldn't finish her greyhound for fear of getting too faded. Otherwise, this place had a mellow neighborhood pub vibe, with steaks and ribs on the menu, pool tournaments on Sundays and plenty of classic rock on the ol' jukebox.

JJ's Pub & Grub (5431 South Tacoma Way, 253-475-0116): This place looks like biker central, with several Hogs parked outside and patrons sporting leather jackets emblazoned with Bandidos logos during a recent visit. Rock bands play a small stage in one corner while go-go dancers dance on poles around the room. (It's not half as titillating as you'd think since those gals are in regular street clothes. Weird.)

And just to let you know how edgy this joint is compared to your average yuppie bar, here's an overheard conversation:

Woman A: Did I slap you last night?

Woman B: No. If you punched me, I'm liable to just laugh. But if you slapped me, I'd have attacked you. I don't like being slapped.

Word! Neither do we. And we probably can't take a punch like that lady.

Oasis Tavern (5227 South Tacoma Way, 253-475-6145): This cozy outpost is darts central with several boards and a cluster of shiny trophies against one wall. There was also an unusual plethora of nut products (cashews, M&M-like candy) available from gum machines on the counter. You know, in case you get the munchies.

Opal Tavern (5226 South Tacoma Way, 253-473-2600): Several things made an impression at this karaoke spot: enthusiastic renditions of rock, country and R&B classics, spurned on by cries of "get'r done!"; the taxidermy and American flags hanging around the room.

We'd love to share the explanation of "Bobbitt's Law" posted behind the bar, but this is a family paper and all.

But the thing that made the biggest impression was another sign that declared "English spoken here." The xenophobic rant ended with "If you live here and can't read this, maybe you don't belong here," suggesting that neither tolerance nor a keen sense of irony were in high demand.

Silver Wagon (5213 South Tacoma Way, N.A.): The bartender at this karaoke joint was visibly surprised to see someone walk in on a recent Saturday night. The only other customers were her friend and a man gleefully belting out Korean pop tunes. Bartender lady insisted the reporter of this story sing, countering the old "uh, I don't read Korean" defense by digging up a much thinner catalog of English songs. Then she and her friend shared their plate of rice cakes. Now that's hospitality!

Starlite Restaurant & Lounge (5231 South Tacoma Way, 253-472-7299): A racially diverse but sparse crowd was present on nights we visited. A DJ spun old-school funk and hip-hop, heavy on the Ice Cube, for an empty dance floor. But most noteworthy was the 27 and older admission policy, established because of recent problems with fighting, according to one employee.

Station 56 (5602 Washington St., 253-474-1189): This place was still called the Factory when we last visited. In its first year of operation, the cavernous nightclub was known for local bands, "Girls Gone Wild" events, old-school rap performances (including Digital Underground and Vanilla Ice, Ice, Baby) and hip-hop DJs. But ownership decided to change focus and the new name goes in effect this week with monthly mixed martial arts bouts, bands on Fridays and the DJs that spin rock but no rap. - - - Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389 ernest.jasmin@thenewstribune.com

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