In the last edition of the cocktail roundup, my study in libations around Tacoma centered on a few modern bars serving craft beverages, namely 1022 South, Marrow Kitchen & Bar, and Maxwell’s Restaurant and Lounge. I wondered how some of Tacoma’s longest standing establishments measured up against the relative newcomers of the last edition.
I had high expectations. Restaurants like Harbor Lights, Stanley and Seafort’s, and Johnny’s Dock have been around the block for a long while and have clearly stood the test of time. Where other restaurants could not survive the throes of the economic downturn or increasingly high rents and food costs, these have thrived.
I thought for sure that even if these bars were not hip to the new trends of craft cocktails or drinks that include obscure and difficult-to-find ingredients, I would still be able to find a solidly made Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
I am disappointed to report that what I experienced was exceedingly mediocre.
First, I’m not sure what audience the bar menus attempt to appeal to at Stanley and Seafort’s and Johnny’s Dock, but I am not sure they are of legal age to drink.
Both cocktail menus focus heavily on drinks made with flavored vodkas and syrupy liqueurs. And I’m not talking about well-built, quality flavored vodkas like those made by California distillery Hangar One; Stanley and Seafort’s and Johnny’s rely on flavored Finlandia, Stoli, and Smirnoff, all of which taste mostly of artificial flavoring and finish with overtly chemical aftertastes. It is no wonder that the featured drinks are piled with sugary ingredients to try to mask the artificial notes of the flavored base alcohol.
While I have already made it clear that overly sugary drinks should not have a place in the cocktail canon, I am going to take a step even farther into curmudgeon territory: your cocktail should not also be appealing to children.
As acclaimed bartender Derek Brown explains in an article for The Atlantic, the conventions of drinking began as medicinal. Flavored vodkas lack depth, but more importantly “seek to deliver the package (intoxication) without asking for the toll.” You should be able to taste the booze in your cocktail, not seek to mask it entirely.
Okay, so both Stanley and Seafort’s and Johnny’s Dock have pretty terrible cocktail menus and I’m not suggesting that their longevity is predicated on their ability to create satisfying alcoholic beverages. Regardless, establishments of their age and endurance should staff bartenders worth their salt and able to make the classic standbys I ordered.
At Stanley and Seafort’s I ordered an Old Fashioned and was instead served something more akin to fruit salad floating in watery bourbon. Several muddled orange slices, maraschino cherries, and an outrageous amount of sugar were muddled then topped by a pour of Maker’s Mark and some crushed ice. The ice melted nearly immediately, resulting in a boggy, weak, fruity concoction that was barely drinkable.
It should also be noted that the Stanley and Seafort’s Happy Hour menu contains only three cocktails: a Green Apple Drop, Cranberry Mojito, and Pomegranate Margarita. No thank you, I am a grown person and prefer my drinks not to taste like a Capri Sun.
I was hoping for better luck with Johnny’s Dock. Johnny’s has been serving thirsty patrons for over 50 years on the Tacoma Tideflats, so the restaurant must be doing something right even if its cocktail menu is lacking.
Off the menu, I attempted a poorly assessed risk on the Tuaca Side Car, made with Tuaca (an Italian liqueur), Grand Marnier, triple sec, and muddled oranges. Surprise, surprise, the drink was excessively saccharine, even sans sugared rim and as one could imagine, very forward on the orange flavor. Each component of the drink is derived from citrus, but the vanilla flavor from the Tuaca was too much when paired with the Grand Marnier. It tasted not unlike a boozy Tang and although that might appeal to some, neither I nor my research partner could finish the Orange Drink.
Despite the painful cocktails, Johnny’s is redeemed by their excellent location. The restaurant sits on the Thea Foss waterway and has a welcoming deck where diners can watch boats come and go. On a sunny day, the deck is much preferred to the dank and charmingly outdated lounge area, outfitted with mauve-pink booths and chairs (with wheels!) that haven’t been manufactured since the early 1980s.
On Wednesdays, martinis and Manhattans at Johnny’s are only $2.50. The Manhattan I ordered was worth all 10 quarters spent on it, but probably not much more. Made with Early Times Kentucky Whisky (it can’t be legally called bourbon because it is aged in used barrels, not new charred oak) and not quite enough sweet vermouth and bitters, this was not a complex drink. Early Times is not known for its smooth drinkability, but sipping Johnny’s Manhattan did make me reminisce about college days gone by when Early Times was the preferred whisky due to its very affordable price point. Although those were good days, I am thankful that they were the early times indeed.
I was feeling a little downtrodden after my visits to Stanley and Seafort’s and Johnny’s Dock, but the friendly blinking bulbs of the iconic Harbor Lights sign stoked some optimism. Perhaps this research excursion would not be a total bust.
What a pleasant surprise: not only does the restaurant sit over the waterfront with a commanding view of the Sound, the lounge is done up in 1970s naval-tiki kitsch without any irony whatsoever. Harbor Lights isn’t trying to be cool, it just is cool and doesn’t know or care.
A bowl of help-yourself snack mix sits in the corner available for patrons to dish up at a whim. This, as well as the basket of crackers and butter available at every table are welcome, because, as I was about to find out, Harbor Lights pours a very stiff drink.
The friendly bartenders at Harbor Lights have no qualms about making sure the spirits in their cocktails are prominent. The Old Fashioned was made with Northern Light, an inexpensive but but perfectly drinkable blended Canadian whisky. Although served with crushed ice (which, it should clear by now, I regard as an irritant and near immediate drink imbalancer as it melts so quickly), the drink managed to maintain balance, if a little on the citrusy side, and was thankfully not too sweet. The quarter of orange slice as a garnish was unnecessary, but the tiny plastic cocktail sword it came skewered on fit in well with the lounge’s unpretentious vibe.
The Manhattan and martini at Harbor Lights were crowd favorites among my fellow drink-testers. Both drinks were classically straightforward and simple in the best way. The Manhattan was stirred with an appropriate amount of slightly herbal sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters to complement the charred oak flavor of the whiskey. The martini was an generous and well-balanced cup of liquor, with the welcome option of hefty olive garnishes.
The Harbor Lights Mai Tai was a great representation of the classic– juicy, fruity, undeniably rum-forward, and best of all, served in a giant glass tiki mug. Did I mention that it was giant? Although most of the cocktails on the Harbor Lights menu are very affordable and sizable, the Mai Tai might be the best bang for your buck.
Classic cocktails are intriguing to me because their construction and ingredients are deceptively simple, inviting careful reinterpretation and experimentation. Alterations in small ways can create something familiar, yet unique. Now, the wide availability of different types of vermouth and bitters opens up so many new possibilities that classics can spawn captivating variations without altering the character of the drink.
In recent years there has been a resurgence in popularity of all things mid-century, from fashion to design and certainly cocktails. It would make sense that these classic Tacoma establishments should be willing to embrace this trend since it is the fabric of what they are of–representing a bygone era.
I hope that other Tacoma bars will take a cue from Harbor Lights’ 50+ years of success– a menu focusing on classic drinks with talented bartenders and excellent service is a recipe for longevity.