Smoked out, the Red Onion still maintains its charm

The Red Onion Tavern is a Madison Park institution. Opened in 1934, it is not known as a place that does not change much with time. The tavern changed location once: It moved five doors down to its present location at 4210 E. Madison St. in the mid-'70s.

It was the neighborhood's lone smoker-friendly holdout. That ended last December, when Initiative 901 became law, and smoking was banned in all public places in Washington.

Three months after the last cigarette was stubbed out inside the cozy, dark interior of the tavern, the Red Onion is much the same as it ever was.

Benefiting from ban

The tavern is dark inside, despite the large front windows. A great fireplace warms the front, and looks inviting, but there is something different about the Red Onion.

When you walk in, you know you are going into a local hangout. The people are friendly and welcoming and they talk about each other's friends and have running jokes.

Business has been typical since the ban went into effect, according to owner Tim Johnson. Though, he added, it is difficult to gauge the effect in the slower winter months. He would not publicly disclose any numbers, but said business may have even picked up slightly. Johnson thinks the ban has helped his day business, and smokers have learned to adapt.

"This neighborhood isn't as affected" by the smoking ban as others, Johnson said. He has heard from other tavern owners that they have "been hit pretty hard." Yet, he expects to see a boost from the ban at the Red Onion when warmer weather arrives.

'Rustic charm'

Like several nightspots around Seattle, the Red Onion ushered out the smoking-in-public era with a bash. Local musicians performed for a capacity crowd varying from 80 to 100.

Now, smokers slip out a back door and up a narrow walkway between two buildings to reach a little enclave. It is a small parking area for two cars that opens into the alleyway running behind the Red Onion Tavern.

There is a coffee can for butts and - most importantly, notes customer Linda McGill - there are no pedestrians. It is a quiet spot where a person can get away from the hustle and bustle of a busy weekend night or have a private chat with a friend.

McGill grew up southwest of London in Swindon, England, and has a warm, cheerful accent that makes everything sound better. A few years ago, she was introduced to the Red Onion by a friend. The two had just driven from New York to Seattle. She was in town for one day, so her friend took her to the tavern.

McGill moved to Seattle a year and a half ago and lives in the Central Area now, but still stops by to meet with friends who work in the neighborhood.

"There's always somebody you know" here, McGill said. "It used to be really smoky and dark. It was really seedy-looking, but good 'seedy.'"

"Rustic" is how Johnson described the atmosphere at the Red Onion. It is a feeling that he has been reluctant to change, despite economic pressure.

Johnson's father, Lyle, and a partner bought the tavern in 1959. Within a year, Lyle was the sole owner. Johnson took over the Red Onion when his father retired in February 1996.

"I didn't want to come in here and change it. It had been successful. The people who came here liked it," Johnson said. "Of course, the industry has changed. [The Red Onion is] one of the last taverns left."

Until the 1980s, no establishments in the neighborhood served hard liquor.

"I'm kind of surrounded by it now," said Johnson, who is considering obtaining a license to sell hard alcohol. "It would help business a lot." As a tavern, the Red Onion is permitted to sell only beer and wine.

A changing crowd

The tavern has remained a mainstay in Madison Park, despite the neighborhood's influx of new residents and increasing property values. McGill thinks the newer Madison Park residents tend to avoid the bar.

"As the day goes, the crowd gets younger," Johnson said. The nighttime clientele is younger and louder than the lunch and daytime sets, which consist of local business people, construction workers and older residents, he explained.

Seated by the windows, Andy and Gwen Brinkley were enjoying the lingering twilight with a couple friends. Gwen grew up in Madrona, and her husband, Andy has lived in Seattle since 1957.

The couple have been tavern patrons since the early 1970s and live a few blocks north of it now. They celebrated Lyle Johnson's 25th anniversary as owner in 1984 and have even been to a couple of wakes at the tavern.

"I think of this place as a comfy pair of tennis shoes or Levis," Gwen said.

(According to Roger Valdez, manager of the county health department's Tobacco Prevention Program, the department has received more than 300 complaints about law violations in King County. No fines have yet been issued, but the department continues to conduct inspections.)

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