by Marcus Harrison Green
Anyone walking through the doors of the Beachcomber Bar & Grill in Skyway might be overwhelmed by its apparent “ordinariness” – especially if one is prone to a fetish for the hip and trendy that is standard for any bar or lounge that graces Belltown or Capitol Hill.
As you enter, the decor doesn’t make you feel privileged just to have your eyeballs grace it – nor does the atmosphere drench you in an oasis of hipster chic. When you step to the counter to order a drink you won’t encounter a “mixologist” with the ability to instantaneously conjure whatever esoteric concoction an overactive imagination can conceive or an encyclopedic knowledge of libations (one indelible moment of a recent visit there was when a patron ordered a “Pinot” and the bartender asked if they wanted the “white” or “red” one). In terms of modern vogue, well the fact that its jukebox evidently believes they stopped making music after 1988 should say it all.
It’s the “everyman” of bars; the consistent, “likeable” Tom Hanks that runs afoul of today’s score of hot, flavor of the month pubs that seek to be more than mere “watering holes” that populate the more “attractive” segments of the city.
But if you ask any patron that has frequented one of Skyway area’s most venerable businesses, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This a a place that you can come and relax, while you pal around with everyone. No one is sitting here judging you or trying to impress anyone. It’s like going to your favorite uncle’s house every time you come in.” says Patty, who is semi-retired and been coming to the Beachcomber for years.
The theory that what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in communal spirit is on full display almost nightly, as immediately after walking into the place you’re treated to the sight of an ethnically diverse, mainly blue collar clientele from the surrounding West Hill area – including retired veterans from the nearby VFW who want to mingle with others, public servants of the Skyway Fire Station 20, and postal workers just discharged of their duties for the day, along with the hundreds of sole proprietors and small business owners in the area starved for social interaction with anything not a computer monitor – all locked in interaction with one another.
It’s where they come to clink glasses while they share highlights (and lowlights) of a long labored through work day, engage in raucous (but respectful) debate on topics that range from local politics to sports (everyone is of course a die hard Seahawks fan), and of course partake in a wallet friendly menu that features comfort food hostile to any diet and Washington mainstays Vitamin R (Rainier Beer, as if that needed explanation), PBR and Mac & Jack’s.
“You come here for the people. We accept everyone here. We don’t care your color, your politics, your income bracket. We just care that you come and respect everyone” says Bert Harvey, who has owned the Beachcomber for over a decade. He likens the place, with its “appreciably broken in” bar stools and chairs, to a community living room.
As one of the few sit-down establishments available to Skyway residents along the main Renton Avenue strip that connects the area with both Renton and Seattle, the Beachcomber’s functioning as a de-facto central adult gathering hub and facilitating comity between neighbors in an area that’s long held a reputation for sub-zero receptions between community members of different groups is something many residents see as needed.
“It’s a place where neighbors can come and actually be neighbors with each other. You don’t see a lot of that in Skyway unfortunately. There really isn’t another place people can go to where everyone in the community feels welcome. I know the comparison might be silly, but it really is like Cheers here,” shares Carlos Gavino, who works evenings at the bar.
This harmonious atmosphere is credited for the establishment remarkably being one of the few private businesses in Skyway that was able to withstand the extreme economic vicissitudes the area has endured – including a mass exodus of businesses that either departed for greener pastures or permanently closed their doors during the recent recession.
“Hey, you’re going to always need a place the drink. In good times, and especially bad times,” says Gavino.
Skyway’s “Cheers” has also easily withered the challenge from several competitors throughout the years. Harvey estimates that, including the recently closed Skyway Sports Bar that was located on Martin Luther King Way South, there have been at least seven bars that have opened and then abruptly folded during his ownership of the Beachcomber.
“Other places tried to be the ‘it’ place and wanted to transplant Belltown to Skyway, unfortunately they also got a lot of the riff raff associated with those places. People who don’t know, or want to know you, or have respect for others. We don’t put up with crap here. Me, OR the customers,” says Harvey.
Harvey points to Champs – a bar that was located in the adjacent lot from the Beachcomber and went out of business two years ago after a one week span that saw the King County Sheriff’s department cite everything from drug trafficking and underage prostitution to illegal gambling, not to mention the “wildness” that often spilled from inside the bar into the streets often requiring police attention – as a perfect example of problems that have habitually plagued other bars that attempted to set up in the area.
He says that credit for the Beachcomber being able to avoid those issues goes to both its regulars and its bartenders who not only act as community vetters, but also the local patron’s surrogate psychotherapist/shoulder to cry on/ love coach/ sounding board/sage.
“Gosh, I’ve heard everything in my time here. It’s life, people go through hard times and you’re glad you can be there to listen and perk them up. Some of my best friendships have started here – because of that, you learn to look out for each other,” says Kerri Lispie, who can be found commanding the bar during the morning shift most days.
But, before the impression fully sets in of a no-nonsense bar vigilantly surveying everyone who sets foot through the door, the anecdotes begin to fly of times that bartenders transformed what would have been uneventful Tuesdays night into rousing Wednesday mornings – helped mightily by a bottomless pit of complimentary jello shots and generous pours of alcohol. Those are the nights that the corner jukebox serves as a time machine back to 1985 as it blasts out Journey, Van Halen and OK Go songs into the wee hours.
While there is limited photo evidence to substantiate these claims mainly due to the fact residents don’t want to jeopardize the continued employment of those who may or may not be involved- its further proof that the Beachcomber acts as a second home for many in the Skyway community.
Adds Lispie, “You walk in here and everyone really does know your name.”