Dive bars from coast to coast are quietly shuttering, with little more than a few farewell toasts from their most loyal flies. So, when a place like Baby Bar in Spokane stays afloat amid the storm, it becomes an even larger treasure.
Living up to its name, the bar is all kinds of tiny. It’s essentially a large closet, windowless and always incredibly dark. The mirrored walls are deliberate, a sleight of hand to make the intimate joint look bigger than it actually is. There’s a decent jukebox, or at least there was, and it shares a wall with Neato Burrito, so you’re never far from some drunken gluttony.
Access to a kitchen — or, at least a shared microwave — afforded Baby Bar extra magic. Certain Wednesday evenings almost twenty years ago, the place offered something to the tune of a PBR and a grilled cheese for a single dollar. It was absurd even then (but a great way for the barkeep to make a quick 100% tip). And if the bar’s Facebook page is correct, the deal was alive and kicking as recent as 2017. The bar’s steadfast ways suggest that the offer is still on the table.
The place demands interaction, if for no other reason than you’re bound to physically bump into somebody there. Capacity has got to be around twenty. With just a few good friends on a given night, you can completely take over the bar. Have we discussed the logo yet? A masterful piece of literal branding, it depicts a hastily sketched infant with a bottle of hooch in hand. Sums things up nicely.
Miraculously, Baby Bar hosts live music. If you’re lucky enough to be there on such a night you’re essentially sharing the stage with the band. All the mirrors in the world can’t distort the fact that the bassist’s guitar keeps nearly knocking your drink over and the drummer is using one of the walls as a backrest. People rave about house shows but real, in-your-face intimacy is what Baby Bar specializes in.
The fact that the joint exists in Spokane makes a great deal of sense. I didn’t necessarily see the logic while living there, but I do now. Washington’s second-largest city could not be more different from its largest city. The weather, the elevation, the people, and the landscape of the two are practically perfect opposites. Spokane is an old railroad town nestled in a Ponderosa-strewn valley between the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains with a famous college basketball team — a school where an even more famous crooner was once enrolled (school legend contends he was kicked out after dropping a piano off a dormitory building).
The Lilac City is the anti-Seattle. Its grit doesn’t come from the residual effects of grunge culture. It exists because its been in and out of good economic shape, like so many manufacturing towns or cities with a lot of rural in the vicinity. Spokane always felt broken-in just the right amount. It’s small-ish size meant you’d run into similar faces often. But it was big enough to have some personality. And unlike just about every other major municipality on the west coast, Spokane lacks preciousness. In fact, it sorta lacks self-awareness all together but I mean that as a compliment.
In such context, Baby Bar fits in like the last puzzle piece. It may be a dive, but it’s not going out of its way to be one. It’s novel but the novelty is secondary to the fact that it’s just an establishment taking advantage of an overlooked and undersized pocket of architecture. It may be dangerously small but if you don’t like it, there are other options in town. Like a fair number of great and overshadowed haunts, it doesn’t have a website so much as a legion of online believers, posting useful info here and there.
The online reviews are priceless. Patrons compare the homey bar to Cheers and admit they only award it five stars because they can’t choose six. A gentleman from Alaska remarks that the bartender remembered his first name despite a ten-year absence and not frequenting it that much in the first place. Oh, and Yelp folks just can’t get over the fact that they use fresh grapefruit for their Greyhounds, which is its own brand of delightful.
In an era of oversized bars with way, way too many televisions, Baby Bar is a quiet, confident, soft-spoken king. “Tiny, yet significant,” is how Emily W. from Bozeman, Montana sums it up. I’m not sure I can describe Baby Bar any better, even if I had an eternity to do so.
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