Another round of drinks: The Blue Moon applies to sell hard liquor for first time in tavern's 71-year history

For many, taverns conjure up an image of a neighborhood gathering place where hardworking folks meet for lively conversation in unpretentious surroundings. The renowned Blue Moon Tavern, 712 N.E. 45th St., has been serving up this kind of atmosphere since it opened its doors in 1934.

But a transformation is slowly taking place: More and more taverns, licensed to sell only beer and wine, are turning to liquor to boost profits. And the Blue Moon, among the oldest taverns in Seattle, may soon join their ranks.

Disappearing taverns

Owner Gustav Hellthaler Jr. recently applied for a change in the tavern's liquor license to include the selling of hard liquor for the first time in the tavern's 71-year history.

"Except for the Big Time Brewery, the Blue Moon is the last tavern in the University District to make the switch," Hellthaler remarked.

In 2000, there were 129 taverns operating in Seattle. Now there are only 56, according to the Washington State Liquor Control Board. "Many of them are changing their class of license to include liquor," said Liquor Control Board regional manager Bill Schrader.

Neighborhood taverns are slowly disappearing because of trends in drinking patterns and a loosening up of state law, according to the liquor board.

"More and more people are trading up to higher-priced, more sophisticated spirits," said Bob Burdick communications director for the Liquor Control Board.

The Legislature also changed the law five years ago, making it easier for taverns to meet the licensing requirement. Under current law, liquor establishments are obligated to serve a minimum of five complete meals on the premises. The Liquor Control Board defines a complete meal as a hot entrée, plus one side dish, served with eating utensils.

Hellthaler always wanted to serve hard liquor, but to qualify for the license, he needed to maintain a certified, commercial grade kitchen. The modifications to his tavern would have cost from $75,000 to $100,000, a tidy sum for a small business owner.

In 2000, the Liquor Control Board revised its rules, removing a condition that the licensee needed to have five specific pieces of equipment, Burdick stated. The change enabled many taverns to meet the minimum food requirement with equipment sufficient for their needs, such as a microwave or hot plate.

'It won't change business'

So far, the Liquor Control Board has received no formal comments on the Blue Moon's application. The city was granted a Jan. 31 extension to respond with opinions or objections for granting the license.

Hellthaler looks forward to the conversion and is optimistic that the application will be approved.

Does this mean that the Blue Moon will soon be invaded by fancy liquors, exotic drinks and nouvelle cuisine? Not likely.

Hellthaler intends to keep things uncomplicated, incorporating a basic selection of liquor and a menu consisting of pizza, pot pies and pocket sandwiches.

"It won't change business," he said of the addition of booze. "It will only broaden our customer appeal."

Still, Hellthaler admitted that some longtime customers have their doubts.

James Grey is among those concerned about the impending transformation. "It will change the atmosphere of the place," Grey said, adding that customers are split 50/50 over the change. "The clientele will change; the tavern culture will change."

Keith, a metal artist who has patronized the Moon since 1971, doesn't mind the addition of liquor. "My doctors against it, but I think it's fine," Keith joked, remarking that fewer customers will go next door to drink at the Rainbow Bar & Grill.

Loyal customers

Regardless of the type of alcohol served, the main attraction at the Blue Moon is its customers. Over the years, the tavern gained a reputation as one of Seattle's funkiest bohemian hangouts, attracting an eclectic crowd of students, political radicals, artists, writers and musicians.

Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg and Richard Hugo are among the many creative luminaries who have patronized the Blue Moon.

Before Hellthaler bought the tavern in 1982, the Moon had several previous owners. The tavern was falling apart from neglect when he and his partners, Robert Morrison and John Caldbick, took ownership.

"It was going through a period of decline," he said. "We brought it back to its former glory."

Except for the addition of free wireless service, not much has changed at the Blue Moon. The tavern still maintains a loyal following of longtime customers who welcome its familiarity. Even its founder Hank Reverman, 92, still stops in for a pint.

Hellthaler's long-term goal is to keep the Blue Moon alive as an institution, and profits from liquor sales may help him to do so.

"It's good to have a community where people can share ideas," Hellthaler said. "Everyone is welcome here, especially if they can hold a good conversation."[[In-content Ad]]