More than a century ago in downtown Tacoma, the stretch along Pacific Avenue around South Seventh and Ninth streets was known as “Whiskey Row,” a strip of businesses big on booze, gambling, women of “ill repute” and men lacking “familial ties.”
Businesses today along that corridor aren’t quite as salty, or illegal, but there’s still plenty of whiskey to be had. And video games. And craft beer. And upscale Vietnamese dishes and wood-fired pizza pies. Did I mention the tiki cocktails that Don The Beachcomber would covet? And Tacoma’s longest tequila list?
In the past five years, this area has seen tremendous turnover with four restaurants and bars opening between 2010 and 2012 and four more added in 2014.
Even if you don’t drink whiskey or beer, there’s another reason to visit this three-block stretch of downtown Tacoma: the turn-of-the-last-century-
gingerbread-Victorian-lumber baron-hodgepodge architecture. That stretch of Pacific is filled with beautifully odd buildings with strong bones and deep, narrow spaces that flavor the character of its current occupants. Take a look.
Matador’s style could be called so many things. Gothic Tex-Mex? Brooding cowboy? Ornate metal work, soaring ceilings, a fire circle, steer skulls, moody music with matching lighting and a room full of shadowy corners. Talk about mood setting.
Whatever you call it, just know it’s a place designed for adults. Literally. No kids allowed at this restaurant and bar that opened in 2006.
At lunch and dinner, find a menu that’s more Tex than Mex. At night, crowds flock to Matador for cocktails and tequila flights.
From the happy hour menu, steals and deals impressed. A taco duo ($5) with steak strips on flour tortillas, with pico, lettuce and a drizzle of habanero salsa, yielded a light meal. That same habanero flavor was a saucy mate for a half dozen prawns ($6). A trio of pork verde flautas ($5) carried a touch less spice and heat. A braised grape salad ($5) with candied hazelnuts and goat cheese wowed with its tangy vinaigrette. Even nachos ($5) went beyond the typical dump of cheese atop chips. They arrived evenly layered with melted cheese and whole black beans.
Save your money on food, but splurge on drinks. Cocktails were a strong suit. A lengthy tequila list beckoned with ancillary menus for tequila flights and a list of sotols (tequila’s cousin).
On the specialty cocktail menu, I spotted warm flavors of cinnamon, ginger, anise and allspice — an unexpected detour from the sweet-and-limey status quo of Tex-Mex.
What’s more Tex-Mex than beer and tequila? How about a cocktail with both. A Pina Express ($8) with Espolón Reposado was a sudsy take with a float of Dos Equis amber and a pineapple vinegar shrub slipping between sour and sweet. The Coctel de San Pedro ($9) was a heady blend of Avión Silver tequila with three blooms of citrus: Assertive grapefruit from Giffard Créme de Pamplemousse liqueur, a floral orange tone from Cocchi Americano Bianco (a muscat wine aperitif) and a swirl of lemon to balance each.
Ciervo Jalisco ($8) held a tart lime backbone, but was nudged deeply with allspice and nutmeg from St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, with a splash of ginger beer for flavor and sparkle. A cinnamon-rimmed tamarind margarita ($8) was heavy on the sour, light on the sweet. The best part was that it was shaken — almost beaten — to a healthy froth. Bartenders known how to shake here.
You’ve got to love a cocktail lounge where one owner is outfitted with a fez, the other with flowers in her hair. Jason Alexander and Robyn Murphy, partners in business and life, opened their downtown tiki lounge, Tacoma Cabana, in 2012 and quickly earned regional admiration for the lounge’s sun-drenched Polynesian-themed concoctions.
The rum list is dizzying. It’s 16 pages of spirits from far flung destinations: Barbados, Brazil, Cuba, Fiji, Grenada, Guayana, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Trinidad and the list goes on.
This is not the sort of place that opens a bottle and pours out a piña colada. Alexander has spent years building his tiki repertoire, learning to make tiki staples, such as the lime-ginger cordial falernum, from scratch. He blends house-made cinnamon syrup with grapefruit. He’ll never give up his recipe for grenadine syrup. Fruit juices are squeezed fresh.
His menu lists more than 40 customized cocktails.
Alexander has elevated tiki drinks not only locally, but nationwide. Last year, Alexander won the coveted Iron Tikitender championship
At Tacoma Cabana, find six — yes, six — versions of a mai tai.
The 1944 Mai Tai ($12) makes a fine first introduction to Tacoma Cabana. It combines a 12-year aged Appleton Estate rum and Créole Shrubb, the fragrant orange liqueur with a nudge of cocoa. The sweeter, pineapple-heavy Island mai tai ($10) was made with Plantation 3-star rum, almond-flavored orgeat and a float of overproofed Plantation. The French Polynesian 75 ($8) was a lighter take on a rum cocktail with cinnamon syrup, grapefruit juice and a splash of sparkling wine. The pina colada ($10), made with fresh pineapple and coconut cream, was more citrus than sweet.
From the happy hour menu (drinks deals only), try the aku aku zombie ($6), a sour lime-kissed cocktail heavy on cinnamon, or the Western sour ($6), similarly spiced with cinnamon, but with bourbon standing in for rum.
Murphy is the restaurant’s chef with a penchant for what she calls “vacation fusion.” If it’s food served on a beach, it’s a candidate for the menu. She prefers flavors from Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. Sample almost her entire repertoire of the appetizer menu in the pupu platter ($10). Pork sliders on Hawaiian rolls were kicked up with a spicy pineapple barbecue sauce. Chicken skewers were flanked by a chopped peanut vinaigrette. Sweet-smoky rumaki combined pineapple with thick-cut bacon. Dense meatballs came with a sweet barbecue sauce.
Tacoma Cabana is a little patch of tiki theater. A Polynesian soundtrack lilts in the background. Alexander’s bar is a grass-hut perch. A gurgling fish tank holds court in one corner. Overlooking the main lounge is a replica of a marlin and an out-of-service surfboard. Make your way to the back lounge and you’ll feel as if you’ve entered an underwater tiki world.
A hand-carved bar from Franciscan monks. Octagonal floor tiles withstanding the test of time. Old dark wood wainscoting wrapping the room. The Forum might be the newest bar on the block — it opened in January 2014 — but it’s got the oldest bones. What’s remarkable is the survival of those bones, considering the building that formerly housed the Olympus Hotel sat vacant for about a quarter of the last century.
Business partners Tim Mellema and Geoff Kaylor, who own a bar of the same name in downtown Puyallup, opened The Forum with Greg and Tanya Troger. They preserved the back bar and tile floor — all things the previous occupant, Paddy Coyne’s, treasured.
Greg Troger runs the daily operations at the pub that serves way-above-average sandwiches and burgers for lunch and dinner daily.
Happy hour eats were a fine first introduction. A beefy patty ($7) anchored a brioche bun with caramelized onions and a tomato andalouse sauce, one of several made in-house. The fries with the burger came with seven dipping sauces (the bacon Parmesan and sriracha mayo were favorites). Fries received royal treatment in poutine ($6), coated in a sticky brown gravy, with battered-and-fried cheese curds. A cup of beef-onion bisque ($5) tasted like stroganoff in soup form. Crostini ($5) came with zigzags of balsamic syrup and heaping mounds of tomatoes, onions and basil.
The phrase “steeped in fresh flavor” succinctly described the cocktail lineup. Lined against that ornate historical back bar were myriad liquors — bourbon, gin, rum, vodka and tequila — percolating with fresh jalapeños, blueberries, chamomile tea, toasted pecans and a half dozen other add-ins.
I appreciated the bar relied less on commercial spirits and more on house-built flavors.
A basil-and-garlic-infused vodka boosted the dirty part of a martini ($9.50), in lieu of the more traditional blast of olive juice, which was present, but not dominating. A rope of balsamic syrup was genius, but resist the urge to stir it in.
An assertive Manhattan ($9.50) got a nutty infusion from pecan-steeped bourbon and a splash of broVo amaro (that’s the Woodinville distiller getting a lot of attention) and an astringent splash of cherry bitters. An old fashioned ($9.50) wafted a heavy scent of citrus from orange-infused bourbon.
From the sweeter cocktail category, I thought the barkeep’s botanical take on a Bee’s Knees was genius with a chamomile-infused gin, honey and lemon juice ($9.50). A grassy jalapeño-infused tequila ($9.50) left a lasting sting and refreshing sweetness, long after the cocktail was drained.
THE NEW BREWERY DISTRICT
ODD OTTER BREWING
Porter is flavored with Vermont syrup; another with coconut chai tea. A blonde ale is made with strawberry. Beer flavors are just left of center at Odd Otter Brewing, opened in November by five friends: Owen McGrane (head brewer), John Hotchkiss, Pablo and Derrick Monroy, and Teresa Smith.
The brewery has an always-changing list of brews. On every table, find complete lists of the brewery’s inventory of more than 20 beers, but the wooden board above the bar lists what’s on tap for the day. On a visit early this month, we counted a whopping 14 beers.
Those who prefer to sample will appreciate that Odd Otter offers 5-ounce pours for $2-$3, making it easy to mix-and-match.
The working brewery is on view at the back of the long space, with communal tables at the front for group seating. The brewery doesn’t serve food, but visitors can order food online from neighboring Cafe Vincero, which delivers to the taproom.
PACIFIC BREWING AND MALTING
The original Pacific Brewing and Malting operated at South 25th and Jefferson. The brewery supplied the West Coast with its signature beers, “Pacific” and “Tacoma.” By the time Washington adopted Prohibition, the brewery was the second largest in the state.
When business partners Steve Navarro, an avid brewer, and Brent Hall, a financial backer for breweries, started researching Tacoma beer history, they were taken by the story of Pacific Brewing and Malting and decided to name their new brewery after the original. They found brewing space in a historic building, The Annex, adjacent to Old City Hall, that once housed horses used by the city’s police force.
Pacific Brewing and Malting opened in September in a space dominated by a working brewery, visible behind glass, and a seating area filled with communal tables. On tap, find four to five daily offerings with an emphasis on Navarro’s passion, Belgian-style beers. There’s no food served, but visitors are welcome to have pizza delivered or bring outside food.
GO FOR DINNER
Look deep into the long, narrow space of Cafe Vincero for the flicker of fire. The wood-fueled oven is the core of the attractive pizza and pasta restaurant that opened in April 2014. Like a lot of first-time owners, Kevin Cornwell hit a few bumps in his opening months. Pies were underbaked. Sauces needed to cook longer. Service tanked.
Consider those days behind Cornwell if my two recent visits are any indication of the restaurant’s current state. Service was swell, the pies much improved. He switched to double oo flour (a finer-ground flour intended to produce more tender results) and began making tomato sauce using San Marzano tomatoes. Despite the ingredient upgrades, he kept prices flat.
The proof was in the pie. The crust on each pie broke tender at first bite, growing more chewy toward the edge of the blistered crust. A Margherita ($10.99) was dotted with fresh basil and creamy pools of fresh mozzarella. A salame piccante ($10.99) held even distribution of two kinds of salami and a thin swipe of pomodoro. An artichoke and mushroom pie with a garlicky alfredo ($12.99) should be the first pizza to try for any newcomer.
A dark, rich ragu clung to al dente spaghetti ($12.99), an improvement over the same sauce last year.
The restaurant serves pasta, sandwiches and flatbreads at lunch, with the addition of pasta dishes at dinner. Cornwell was just approved for a spirits license, which means he’ll soon expand his beer and wine list to include cocktails.
EVERYONE LOVES PINBALL
What happens when a gritty bar and a gaming arcade collide? Dorky’s is a “barcade” with a long list of bottled craft beers and a massive space crammed with vintage video games and pinball machines. The business opened in 2010.
A recent visit showed something surprising — a locked bathroom requiring a key, which can be found at the counter (never mind the surly counter help, it’s all part of the charm). Kids are allowed until 9 p.m., but my visits found far more adults than kids.
The menu is a half step up from a snack bar. I wouldn’t go for the food, but I would return for the gaming. Donkey Kong Jr., Space Invaders pinball, Centipede. It’s like walking into your ’80s-era childhood.
Meconi’s has a number of ambitions. To be a great place to catch a game. A place to hang with the guys. A place for a cold pint or stiff well drink ($4 at happy hour). It also happens to be the oldest bar in that stretch of neighborhood. Dave Meconi opened his pub in 2004.
Consider Meconi’s a come-as-you-are pub meant for groups large or small. The visual backdrop feels distinctly Tacoma. Old beer signs, an ancient phone booth, an oversized vintage sign declaring, “Fellowship Hall.”
What Meconi’s might be best known for is its sandwiches, such as the messy meatball with a sharp red sauce ($13.99) or the beefy Philly ($14.99).
Happy hour brought food fit for a bar king (or queen): A trio of beefy sliders ($4.99) were smeared with a piquant special sauce. Fries ($3.99) were tossed in equal parts parmesan and garlic. A hummus platter ($5.99) held stacks of crisp veggies, a pile of kalamata and feta, with wedges of warm pita and chunky-textured hummus. Everyone gets well fed here.
You can’t turn your head more than a few inches without spotting a flat screen at The Office, which makes it ideal on game days. The atmosphere screamed casual, as did service, literally. A server, who also was the bartender, preferred to negotiate our order by yelling across the bar.
Ignore the specialty cocktail menu. Four cocktails on different visits arrived too sweet (blood and honey, $7.50), too bitter (the ramon, $7.50), over flavored (desert rose, $7.50) and undrinkable (ginger rooster, $7.50). Instead, stick with what sports bars do well — pub food and beer.
Happy hour seekers will appreciate prices, but not uneven execution. Prime rib sliders ($5) went heavy on rib, light on slider, with salty au jus and lots of fries. Poppers ($6) were bready bombs filled with gooey spinach-artichoke dip. Fish tacos ($5) were flanked by loads of fresh avocado and crisp veggies, but little flavor. Bacon-wrapped tots ($4) arrived overcooked. The side dish of hummus outperformed grilled chicken kebabs ($5), coated in dusty basil.
Outside happy hour, if you order one thing at The Office, make it a burger ($10-$11).