by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Bartender Gregg Holcomb has been a fixture of the Seattle craft cocktail scene for years. He’s best known for holding court at the Knee High, a bar that adopted the speakeasy style before, as the saying goes, it was cool. Behind the screened entry and mostly-serious list of rules at the Knee High, there was no gimmick to Holcomb’s approach. He always kept things relaxed and congenial, and his technical skill as a mixologist was beyond reproach. Now, Gregg Holcomb has branched out with a venue of his own.
Witness, a bar and eatery on Broadway, just opened its doors last week. Unlike the hidden-away warren of the Knee High, Witness spent its inaugural weekend with windows wide open, welcoming all comers to grab a drink and a bite to go with it.
“If somebody in the room’s not happy, I’m not happy,” Holcomb said of his career in customer service. Along with his wife, Alison (who worked with City Attorney Pete Holmes to champion Initiative 502 in 2012), Gregg aspires to give Capitol Hill a true neighborhood hangout. Both were regular patrons at Cafe Septieme, a Broadway favorite Gregg thought of as “a community center” that closed in 2009. The Holcombs want Witness to be nothing less than a legendary slice of home.
“You can get good drinks at a lot of places. You can get good food at a lot of places. You can get both of those things together. But can you find a place where it’s good food, good drinks, great atmosphere, and the people there actually care that you chose to spend your hard-earned dollars at their restaurant?” Holcomb asked.
Witness owes its aesthetic to the designs of Southern churches. Partnering with ReSettle Design, Holcomb got his hands on a set of real pews he converted into booth seating, transformed some old stained glass windows into lighting fixtures and pulled his venue’s sense of humor straight from the language of charismatics. Of course, booze fits about as well among Southern Protestants as a pig roast would fit at Temple de Hirsch Sinai, but Witness isn’t in the business of saving souls. More purveyor of potables than passionate presbyter, Gregg Holcomb’s hymnal is his libations menu.
There are some Southern classics in the short but nicely curated drink list. The Mint Julep and the Sazerac have both been standards below the Mason-Dixon line for over a century, while other cocktails feature delightfully Dixie spirits like Benedictine and Chartreuse. It’s also a joy to see a house-made sweet tea among the soft drinks, as Heaven knows it’s a challenge to get a proper glass of the stuff anywhere north of Kentucky.
“I’m really conscious of the fact that we don’t have just cocktail nerds that are coming in,” Holcomb said, “I don’t want to win the award at Tales of the Cocktail for ‘the most innovative cocktail bar’ or ‘the most interesting bar program,’ I want to win the award for ‘most pleased customers’ right here on Broadway.”
The food (pardon, “sustenance”) menu performs to a modern standard. Holcomb worked with his chef, Jesse Elliot, to devise a lot of Southern classics with the kind of fancy, inventive twists Seattle crowds have come to expect. The chicken and waffles come with a bacon maple gravy, the baby back ribs have gone past meat to reach the marrow (a bit of culinary trend as of late) and the Clams Casino come from Penn Cove. But if there’s any indication that Holcomb and company are on the Southern eats wavelength, look no further than the bacon peaches. Southern cooks were putting pork in odd dishes long before the state of Washington was a glimmer in Arthur Denny’s eye.
“Jesse was kind of a quiet guy at the end of the bar and we started talking about food,” Holcomb said of the night he served his future chef at the Knee High. In a later meeting over coffee, Elliott impressed with his knowledge of Carolina cuisine.
But the real draw of dining at Witness is the brunch menu care of chef Jesse Elliott, who worked at Bleu Bistro and Cuoco. Bars, being legally compelled into night service, tend not to coexist with brunch, so the chance to have a proper cocktail in that context is intriguing. Beyond the Mimosa dressed up with orange flower water mist and a cheeky Bloody Mary variation, the brunch cocktails at Witness veer downright antique. The Pimm’s Cup was a pre-Prohibition favorite that has had a revival in the craft cocktail scene, likewise the Ramos Gin Fizz. The Root Down, a mix of Fernet Branca, condensed milk and (in an impressive detail) chicory coffee, is the adventure drink of the bunch. All are meant to accompany biscuits, gravy, eggs served with Hollandaise, and white corn grits.
If it were just a game of novelty, Witness wouldn’t be worth more than one or two visits. The pews and churchy menu names aren’t the bar’s foundations, though. Gregg Holcomb has put together a very carefully and lovingly crafted drink list that any of his loyal patrons from the Knee High can attest fit right in his wheelhouse. The food selections push past potentially perfunctory Southern dishes without straying from what makes them great. Along with the Wandering Goose nearby on 15th Avenue, Witness brings a bit of the South to Capitol Hill with a wink, but not without respect.
410 Broadway E.