by Mark Van Streefkerk
Last year when the Columbia City Ale House announced it was closing its doors for good due to the pandemic, bartender Emily Eberhart knew she had to do something about it. Having worked at the tavern for seven years, Eberhart wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her coworkers and South End community of regulars. Although a global health crisis loomed, Eberhart approached Ale House owner Jeff Eagan and asked to take over the business. He said yes, ushering in a new chapter for the Columbia City watering hole.
Eberhart remembered last year’s turning point that galvanized her into action: “[Eagan] made a statement about closing forever and my immediate response was, ‘No we’re not.’ I had an amazing group of regulars and people [who] came to me, ‘What are we doing and how are we going to do this? Let’s make it happen.’ I knew the support was there.”
Starting mid-April, the negotiations, transfer of licenses, and other technicalities took a few months to finalize, so Eberhart reopened the Ale House in July while still under Eagan’s ownership. “I just didn’t feel good about dragging it on anymore, so I reopened under him just to keep the wheels turning and pay some bills,” she said.
In accordance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start guidelines last summer, the Columbia City Ale House reopened for takeout and reduced seating — until last fall’s shut down of in-person dining that is. Maintaining a takeout food and drink menu, powered by the small but mighty staff of Jesse Madrid and Executive Chef Kelly de la Barreda, Eberhart kept the Ale House going, officially becoming owner at the end of September. One of the first things she did was put up a Black Lives Matter flag and rainbow Pride flag in the window. In addition to expanding to a full bar — the Ale House previously offered only beer — Eberhart is unequivocal about creating a safer space, fostering inclusivity, and keeping her staff and community as safe as possible throughout the pandemic.
Eberhart reigned in the elevated pub food menu to favorites like the Baked Goat Cheese Salad, Columbia City Gumbo, Reuben, and Southwest Flat Iron Steak Sandwich. Although restaurants and bars can now open at 50% capacity, Eberhart chooses to remain at 25% for now, continuing a pattern that started earlier this year under Inslee’s “Healthy Washington” plan. The pub’s COVID protocols include no bar seating, ample space between tables, encouraging guests to wear their masks indoors as much as they can — though they can be removed while eating or drinking — and use of a CO2 monitor to gauge the air flow.
The Ale House’s building, which is a historic landmark built in 1914, is a spacious location with high ceilings and plenty of windows. Eberhart keeps the doors open during business hours to improve ventilation and said everyone has been accommodating of the rules. “We have an amazing community here that is so respectful. They’re asking, ‘Do you want me to keep my mask on between sips?’ [They’re] very engaged in the concerns that we might have,” she said.
Eagan opened the first Ale House in Greenwood in 1991. Influenced by English-style pubs, the 74th Street Ale House coincided with the increasing popularity of craft breweries in Seattle. In 1993, Eagan opened the Hilltop Ale House in Queen Anne, and the Columbia City Ale House in 2000. Eberhart’s first introduction to the Ale Houses was when she became a regular at Hilltop.
Originally from Minnesota, Eberhart had made her way to Tacoma to attend the University of Puget Sound. She graduated in 2005 and moved to Seattle, settling in Queen Anne, where she frequented Hilltop for about a decade before moving to Columbia City. Also an artist, Eberhart currently has oil paintings on display at Taproot Cafe & Bar, a Columbia City neighbor.
She managed Serafina in Eastlake for three years, connecting with Chef Tarik Abdullah of Feed the People, before stepping behind the bar at the Columbia City Ale House. The career move was “a natural fit,” for Eberhart, who already had a taste of the close-knit Ale House family. She credits Eagan for fostering the caring Ale House culture that drew her in. Eagan eventually sold the 74th Street and Hilltop Ale Houses, leaving the Columbia City Ale House the last under his ownership, until the pandemic proved to be too daunting of an obstacle. That’s where Eberhart stepped in.
In the early days of the pandemic, as everyone braced for the constant waves of new information and health guidelines, Eberhart saw taking ownership as a lower-than-usual risk of sorts, especially as all businesses were scrambling to survive. The uncertainty had a way of leveling the playing field for someone without ownership experience. “Selfishly, I think that was a bit of a gift in the pandemic. Everyone was kind of flapping about, and so for me as a new owner … figuring out new accounts and all the things, we were all kind of flapping around,” she remembered.
One of the first things she did after the initial closure last spring was contact Abdullah to donate the Ale House’s unused food. Through him, Eberhart was able to donate food to Musang as well, part of the important Seattle Kitchen Collective that mobilized to feed the community. Looking to the future, Eberhart is excited to collaborate on neighborhood events like Beatwalk and explore other ways of supporting her community — in a way that feels more like family.
“There’s nights where I look around [at the bar] and I know every single person’s name,” she said. “People show up. They show up big time, and I think now more than ever. This is my forever home.”
Stop by the Ale House from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, or order from their menu for pick-up at (206) 723-5123.
Featured image by Susan Fried.
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