Saturday, October 23, 2010

13 Coins

Detail of the Coliseum from a '60s era postcard. The west bucket spotlight position.

It's 1981, and the load-out for the Kiss concert at the Seattle Center Coliseum ended at 1:00 AM - just enough time to get to Dez's Tavern on the corner of Mercer and 4th Avenue North before last call. The guys from the Opera House across the street have been drinking since 11:00. You're tired. You spent the evening running a Super Trouper from the west bucket, then loaded a truck full of Clair Brothers S4 speakers. The beer tastes good, but what you really want is some food.

Where do you go?

"I'm starving," someone says. "Let's go to The Coins."

Just north of Denny Way, just around the corner from the Seattle Times building, there's a brown awning sheltering the entry of the 13 Coins Restaurant, a Seattle institution.

Started in the '60s by restaurateur Jim Ward, the 13 Coins is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

You walk in the door and the decor envelops you in dark brown earth-tones, muted lighting, and padded, sound-absorbing surfaces. It's a narrow room, with a long counter facing the open grill and kitchen, and deep enclosed booths behind. The seats at the counter are large padded swivel stools, with high curved backs upholstered in tufted brown leatherette - sitting in one is like sitting in a padded womb, the chair's back curves around your ears to shut out noise and sights.

The deep booths are also padded with tufted leatherette that goes up the wall above your head. It has a nostalgic, aging bad-boy glamor, like your bachelor uncle who used to be quite a ladies' man but is now a bit over the hill, and still drives that Pontiac Fiero.

It's a great place to go when you're drunk and hungry, or when you're hungover and need that sense of gentle enclosure to shield your aching head from the rest of the world.

And how's the food?

A huge menu covered in brown vinyl lists the offerings - Monte Cristo sandwiches; all-day breakfast; crab and cheddar omelettes, eggs Benedict. There's a breakfast item called "Joe's Special" which is a heap of browned ground sirloin mixed with spinach and scrambled eggs. You can get steak and eggs, liver and onions, spaghetti and meatballs, fettucine alfredo, and surf-n-turf. This is the food of partying clubbers, late night pressmen, rock-and-roll-band truck drivers, kids-after-the-prom and policemen. It's filling, protein-rich, and perfect for soothing a stomach unsettled by too much Vitamin R.

You sit at the counter - which used to have real antique coins inset in the surface, covered by a thick layer of polyurethane resin - now gone in a 2007 remodel that brightened the place up while maintaining its dark '70s swinging style. The carpet is brown and the walls are faced with patterned copper panels, and a row of wooden, abstract-carved lamp holders hang low over the counter, all creating a warm dark womb-like atmosphere where you don't know what time of day it is and you don't care.

Before you the chefs work, juggling 3 or more sizzling saute pans over the gas flames - which often leap high in the air, spectacular sights at 3:00 AM.

If you get here before last call, you can get a cocktail, like a classic French 75 or an Old Fashioned. But since most folks come here already drunk or hungover, strong black coffee is the popular choice.

A lounge off the hostess stand has a bar and a small stage where jazz bands play on weekend nights.

The entry to The Coins at Sea-Tac

On our recent trips to Seattle, we went to the Coins twice - first at the branch near Sea-Tac International Airport, where our first hotel was. It was the first time I'd ever been to this branch, but inside it looked just like the original in the Denny Triangle. The clientele here runs more to airport workers, shuttle operators and (probably) hookers than the hipsters, rockers and workers that frequent the downtown branch.

The second trip, our hotel was right across the street from the original, and we went in for mid-morning breakfast - an hour I'd never before visited the place.

Twenty years later and sober, you'd think it would feel different than it did in the '80s, sitting at the counter with my friends Tiny, Zipper and Sluggo, watching the saute pans flame up and clutching a cup of black coffee.

This time my choice of companion is much more wholesome

But we watched the chef, and listened to the soft murmur of voices hidden in the curve of the counter stools beyond us. We ate our toast and hash browns and watched as the bow-tied waitress set the booth tables for another set of diners. Even with a new owner, it still seemed timeless.

Every city needs a late-night hash-house. Seattle used to have more - the loss of Bob Murray's Dog House is still mourned by people of a certain age and certain louche background. Other classic joints are gone without a trace, like Ernie Steeles, the original El Gaucho, and Sorry Charlies.

But as long as the 13 Coins is still open, and still has those padded counter stools, I think we'll be all right.

What are your memories of late-night joints where you could get fed after a night on the town?


Cloudia said...

Verry cool post!

I posted about a stadium today too.

Great pic of you at the counter :)

Wanna eat at da coins.

Aloha from Hawaii

Comfort Spiral


smalltownme said...

Did I waste my youth? I didn't stay up late very often. The only place I ever went even slightly late at nite was Frimple's in Santa Barbara.

But I did have a nice steak dinner last night in a booth with a high tufted leatherette back!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

There was a place like this (i.e. in function, not exactly in style) that I went to in NYC a number of times.

Sadly, I can't recollect the name, for some reason or other...

Fantastic Forrest said...

We visited 13 Coins years ago. So good. Next time we go north, I think we'll check it out again!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Mamoun's Falafel in Greenwich Village is open until 4AM, and is the perfect place to get a post-bender pick-me-up for a couple of bucks.

Anonymous said...

The morning I brought home the man who was to become my husband, my mother and her husband took us out to that very 13 Coins for breakfast. The situation was a bit awkward, but the frittata was excellent!

In the mid-80's I was too poor to hit The Coins after a rock concert, so we went to Denny's instead.