Historic pirate bar rises from the depths

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Photo courtesy of Benbow Room
Photo courtesy of Benbow Room

Photo courtesy of Benbow Room  

Like a ghost ship out of the cold depths, West Seattle's historic pirate-themed bar, the Admiral Benbow Room, resurfaced last month — 20 years after its closure in 2002, and 72 years after its maiden voyage in 1950. Having an appreciation for the pirate aesthetic, some friends and I weighed anchor and set sail for the place to see what its full year of restoration efforts looked like.

My first impression came from the decor. Some of the trappings of cartoon piracy were present, like pulleys, chains, a cannon, and a ship's wheel. Barrels were ubiquitous as two-person tables, and about a dozen hung from the ceiling as if in mid-tumble.

Photo courtesy of Benbow Room  

The joint's signature feature, a room off to the side styled like the interior of a wooden ship, was quieter than the main room, with better lighting. A doorway there led into a room with arcade games — Skee-ball, pinball, and the like. Shelves of gold-painted skulls sat behind glass in the hallway outside the restrooms.

Portraits of people in Hawaiian dress hung high above the bar, likely as a tribute to owner Mark Fuller's now- closed Hawaiian fried chicken restaurant, Ma'ono. My favorite bit by far was the towering, wooden statue of a skeletal pirate, with a barrel of "RUM" and a cutlass at its feet.

Photo courtesy of Benbow Room  

A few things threw me off. There were portholes set in the wall, an anachronism to in the Golden Age of Piracy. Although I appreciate alt-rock like Beck's "E-Pro," the music was modern, and the staff wore black T-tee shirts rather than clothes with a more authentic pirate feel.

There was so much missing to that could have completed the pirate experience. Where was the obligatory parrot? And where were the ropes, nets, moorings, and jolly rogers? The decorators hadn't gone far enough with the pirate theme — or haven't yet.

When I asked a waiter if pirate movies were ever played on the three big screens (which were showing a baseball game at the time), he said they'd only just gotten the cable box connected; that night, it seemed, was a kind of test, since up until then they had been broadcasting a 20-second loop of the Black Pearl, a ship from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Pirate-themed events were in the works, the waiter said, and I got the sense that the whole place, as a pirating experience, wasn't static. It was a work in progress. And I realized that authenticity can't be manufactured. It has to accrue over time, with the wear of boots and salt on the deck — even if that salt comes from a margarita.

The bar had cocktail staples and a few thematic additions. I tried the Pearl Diver, a mix of añejo rum, gold rum, falernum, gardenia, simple syrup, orange juice, and lime juice. (As one might expect, rum is a common ingredient on the menu.) It was easy drinking, with a smooth, lingering gradient of sweet and tart as it went down. As a bonus, it came with a slice of lime to help stave off scurvy.

Some cocktail staples took the form of slushies, like the Banana Daiquiri, which was quite tasty. Strange shots like the Bazooka Joe and the Chocolate Pretzel were also available.

As for drinks on tap, most were in the sea-worthy category of the IPA, but a cider, a pilsner, and a decent porter were there for any landlubber who wanted them. My only complaint about their drink selection: no grog!

Food was limited to chili dogs, chips, nachos, and potato mac salad. I tried their B's Coney Dog, expecting a large frank with bounteous chili and grilled onions for my $7.25. Instead what I got was a cigar-sized kosher dog with meager condiments. I recommend choosing another snack.

At around 10 p.m., the music shifted from indie rock to club music so loud I had to shout to talk to the people at my table. Two drinks in and thus unabashed about staring, I turned to get a good look at the bar's patrons. It wasn't an especially young crowd, ranging from people in their 30's up into their 50's. That makes sense, given that North Admiral is largely a neighborhood of single-family homes. At least two couples present were aging punks with the clean-cut feel look of tech professionals.

To consistently bring in a younger crowd like mine, though, tiki room cocktails aren't enough. My hope with the Benbow Room is that it will fully embrace the "pirate thing," and become the closest thing to a Tortuga of the Pacific Northwest, with pirate movie nights, live trad music and sea shanties, and the full range of pirate decor. It's not there yet, but it has potential.