The line seemed as long as one to see Princess Diana’s coffin. It snaked halfway down the block on Second Avenue into a basement, rolled through a sunken bar, and went back to a simple dining room. I swore I would never stand in line and wait half an hour for a sandwich. But that was something special.
It was a solemn farewell. People gathered for one final meal at Bakeman’s, the downtown restaurant that has served Seattle since 1970. Think about it for a moment. What an incredible survivor it was.
In Seattle, people didn’t start restaurants in 1970. It was in the middle of the Boeing recession. Seattleites turned off lights. There was social unrest; Unemployment rose to 13 percent. In 1970 Seattle opened 34 food banks. If restaurants are a risky business, how about a downtown lunch counter in a basement in Pioneer Square during a bankruptcy?
However, it worked and took 47 years to complete. It ends on December 22nd as owner Jason Wang retires.
Bakeman’s is venerable for such places. It will be greatly missed and honors have been received from writers and patrons, none better than the enormous serpentine line on one of the last days. People of all ages, some bring their children so they can tell their children, “I remember Bakemans.” The long line I was in was amazing – there were probably more people in there than the restaurant usually serves in a week.
When I heard Bakeman’s was closing, my first thought was, “Old Seattle has finally died. REST IN PEACE. December 22, 2017. ”
Restaurants come and go. Why is a joint like Bakeman important?
We live in a time when authenticity is hard to come by. Bakemans was what it was and what it was. Not neo, not retro, not pan-this or nouvelle that. It was a diner with no irony or shtick, complete with a capricious owner who barked inattentively and indecisively. It’s a shame he’s not responsible for traffic in Seattle.
If his last days are an example and they are, it was one of those places in Seattle with no excuse, it served all races and classes and types, the suits and the hobbits in the cabin. Lunch was cheap: turkey bread was $ 5 and meatloaf was $ 4.95. Served quickly. Add in a cucumber, piece of cake, cup of turkey noodle soup and it was still a bargain.
The spirit of the 1970s recession lived on in its prices and no-nonsense functionality. Believe it or not, Seattle used to be a city of a lot less shit. This wasn’t yuppie Seattle of the 80s, grunge city of the 90s, Amazonia of the 2010s. It wasn’t Ivars quirky or Canlis noble. It was an egalitarian place where freshly roasted turkey or meatloaf on plain bread with a piece of apple pie was a treat to give yourself after spending hours in downtown offices.
The choice of seating was an open dining room with small tables or a unique bar area with subdued lighting that could be hidden in a cabin. Customers have included many government employees, councilors, bureaucrats, city and court officials – people known to journalists as “sources”. Many a meal was eaten while on politics, building permits, legislation, what was going on at City Hall or at King County Council. Even reporters could afford to buy lunch without putting it in the expense account. Story leads could be obtained by listening to an adjacent table. Confidential conversations could be held in the dark corners below.
I talked to people about the city process there, but you also had to learn the Bakeman process. How to order: A turkey bread with only dark meat on wholemeal bread was “dark on dark”. You had to state what you wanted or didn’t want (hold the cranberry sauce!), Otherwise you could be scolded for being slow.
On my last visit to Bakeman this week, there was no disappointment with the standards – even though the meatloaf sold out before noon. Still, I was pleased that the well-known bald sandwich man yelled at me for being distracted. “What? What?” he yelled, wanting my order.
Once spoken, sandwiches appeared at a miraculous speed, created by a pre-industrial assembly line efficiency of skilled human hands who scooped the meat and salad with mayo on bread, cut the sandwich in half on a plate, and handed it to you in seconds. To my delight, two young women were clustered in front of me at the cash register for not saying quickly enough that they wanted some of their lunch to take away. This was the full Bakeman experience, with customers and servers operating to a basic “get it” standard.
The old Seattle style used to have a kind of lively cleanliness and no-nonsense approach. Jonathan Raban has called this culture “Scandoasian” ethics – Ikea-like pragmatism that is consistent with a work ethic. Efficient. Easy. Practically. Affordable. Bakeman’s was a great place for lunch, but also kind of a role model for what the city could be, used to be, but is no longer. I miss this city as much as I miss my darkness.