The Elite - a tavern with a difference

The Elite Tavern, on the north end of the Broadway business district near East Roy Street, is the kind of single-store-front hole-in-the-wall tavern you don't see much anymore. Broadway was once studded with such watering holes, but now the Elite, in place with the same name since the end of Prohibition, is the last of them.

"As far as I know, The Elite is the original name," said Eugene Trupe, who manages the bar. He said that it is not only the last tavern on Broadway, but it is also the second oldest gay bar in Seattle, recently celebrating 25 years of gay orientation and ownership.

It really is an old-fashioned tavern, right down to the bell behind the bar (for you youngsters, when the bell rings, someone has bought a round for the house). There is even a dice cup hidden away under the 30-foot, wooden bar, once an indispensable accessory for every tavern and café in the state. All the seats in the place are tall, red-upholstered stools for use at the bar or along the counter that lines the walls.

One of the reasons that the Elite is the last tavern on Broadway is that liquor laws have changed. Nearly all the old places have added hard liquor to their offerings or gone out of business. The Elite is still just beer and wine, and prefers it that way.

"We looked at going to liquor, but basically everyone is comfortable with the beer," Trupe explained.

Comfort is a major ingredient in a neighborhood tavern, and that is how the Elite bills itself. Many of the tavern's customers have been regulars for 25 years according to Hugh Charest. He ought to know. He started coming into the Elite the day Alex Vetri, the first gay owner, bought the place in 1979. Charest has been a regular ever since.

"It's about the only bar I ever get to," Charest said, adding that the customers, all good people, are like family. "You rarely have the kids who fight. They get thrown out of here real fast."

One of the Elite's charms is the broad cross-section of patrons, according to Charest. They range from 21 years old all the way up to a regular who Charest knows to be 83. The clientele includes men and women and transgenders - even straights.

"In the evening you may find 10 to 12 straights and 20 gays in here around 6 o'clock," said John D., the daytime bartender.

John added modestly (well, not that modestly) that he was Emperor of Seattle XXVII. Each year an emperor is crowned in February as part of the oldest gay charitable function in Seattle.

"Daytime around here is neighborhood regular customers. They're like the Cheers crowd, where you know everybody by name," John said. "If someone is in the hospital we are all concerned."

Outside, on a ledge under the window, there is always a handful of doggy treats. On the sidewalk is a bowl of water.

"A lot of the regulars in here have dogs," explained Trupe. "They'd walk down here with their dogs and ask for some water for their dog outside." That's how the water bowl began. The doggy treats were a natural outgrowth of that.

"I'm very surprised," Trupe admitted, "they do not abuse it.

"We know the regulars by their dogs' names as well as their own,' John said.

The tavern owner puts large, decorative balloons atop the one-story building to celebrate the seasons and provide a little levity for the neighborhood. Currently an anthropomorphic turkey in a pilgrim hat sits on the roof. Other balloons that change with the season are ghosts and a pumpkin for Halloween, a snowman for Christmas, chicks and bunnies for Easter and, of course, a big inflatable rainbow for Gay Pride week.

"This was the only gay bar on the Hill for many years," Charest said. "All the others were downtown."

The Double Header, near Pioneer Square, is the oldest continuously gay bar in the United States, Charest said. It just celebrated its 80th anniversary.

"We are number two in Seattle as the oldest continuous gay bar," Trupe said.

In a nod to progress, the tavern has three televisions, usually tuned to sports.

"We come in in the morning and have coffee a lot of the time," Charest said. "You come in the afternoon and you have a beer." He said that occasionally someone will leave the Elite and patronize another bar for a few weeks, but they always "come right back."

"This is one of the friendliest bars around here," offered Tuffi D. from the end off the bar near the door. She was a bit overdressed for 10:30 a.m., but fashionable and attractive. "This bar is very transgender friendly. They treat us as the queens that we are."

Charest said he has made a lot of friends during his quarter century at the Elite, and he has seen a lot of changes.

"I think it is a little friendlier," Charest said. "The whole gay scene has changed. People used to sneak in and sneak out of gay bars, and this is not true anymore."

The tavern windows also used to be almost covered over for privacy, Trupe said. That's no longer true, either. The big windows that face Broadway now give good views both into and out of the tavern, and you can often peer in to see excited sports fans drinking beer and watching TV.

"Football is a big thing here," Charest said. "People don't think that about gay bars."

Freelance writer Korte Brueckman lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached c/o

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