There is a bar that only exists in my dreams (or perhaps just far from my current zip code); it revels in simplicity to a pathological degree, stocking one bourbon, one scotch, one vodka, one gin, one rum, and one tequila. It has two beers on tap, one light and one dark, which it serves in mugs with handles. It is clean, comfortable, and otherwise unadorned. I don’t want every bar to be like this, just one. I thought for a moment that The Rhino Room approached this minimalistic ideal, but if it ever aspired to that, it got lost along the way.
That’s not to say that The Rhino Room hasn’t found something pleasant where it actually landed. The bar is a project from Seattle food and drink veterans Patric Gabre-Kidan, Emma Schwartzman, Chris Rice, and brothers Jacob and Lucas (a.k.a. IL) Mihoulides. The five of them picked up the vacant storefront most recently occupied by Velo Bike Shop at the corner of 11th Avenue and Pine Street, approaching the space with every intention of going no-frills. Tentatively titled “Big Fun,” the bar got its final name after Rice apparently found a large plastic rhinoceros statue on Craigslist. That statue is now one of the only pieces of décor in the spacious venue. As bartender Bill aptly put it, gesturing at the eight-foot-long observer on the wall, “There’s no concept. There’s just a rhino.”
What actually counts as no-frills is ultimately relative. With its brown leather seats, slick bar top and mirror columns, The Rhino Room would be posh were it not a stone’s throw from a metric bazillion bars, each succeeding in its own gimmick to varying degrees. By comparison, the Rhino Room feels as bare-bones as anything in the neighborhood since the Comet shut down. I mean, even the proud, long-lived dive that is Linda’s has a kitchen.
This seeming simplicity is deceptive, though. However stripped-down and unassuming Gabre-Kidan and company wanted to make The Rhino Room, the neighborhood’s tastes seem to resist the aesthetic. Despite the prominent cases of all-cans beer and the visible liquor collection that refuses to veer into the “50 bottles from around the world you haven’t tried” philosophy that’s practically bog standard in new Seattle bars, there are secrets in The Rhino Room’s well. After being open for just 10 days, Bill had to marry two surreptitious bottles of Fernet Branca (a virtual unknown to American drinkers just a few years ago), and he expressed surprise at what was running out first.
“The Cynar and Chartreuse are almost gone!” Bill discovered shortly after being asked when, if at all, The Rhino Room would have a cocktail menu. Cynar, an Italian tincture made of many things, including artichoke, and Chartreuse, a yellow-green, French liqueur invented by monks that had its last heyday some time shortly after the bicycle seemed innovative. The cocktail culture of Seattle, which has its beating, barrel-aged heart in Capitol Hill, has taught Friday night revelers to ask for Fernet, Cynar, and Chartreuse by name. Apparently, stocking Miller High Life isn’t a sufficient distraction.
Which brings me to the question that I usually ask whenever a new bar or restaurant opens in Capitol Hill: why is this here? Why should I go to The Rhino Room and not to the many other watering holes within blocks of the space? What does it do that nobody else does better? Though it may seem like a small thing at first, Bill shines some light on the appeal, literally.
“I’m just glad it’s bright,” he said, nodding toward the wall-tall windows dominating the two street-facing sides of the storefront. “Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice, dark, small bar. But on a beautiful day like it was on Friday, it’s great being here.”
I agree. The Rhino Room has an enviable view of Cal Anderson Park, and the sunshine streams in when the clouds part. Even if many of the bar’s patrons will always bring their refined-to-a-fault tastes with them, those cold cans of no-nonsense, unapologetically macro-brew beer aren’t going away. On a hot, sunny day, there are few places better than a cool, relaxed bar. That’s the eureka spot of The Rhino Room. It’s a summer bar, a place where patrons can avail themselves of the plentiful seating, have a slow, unfussy drink, and maybe wait for the nighttime party that comes with the weekend DJ and vaulted ceiling acoustics.
Soon, The Rhino Room will host a sandwich bar run by Pioneer Square’s La Bodega. There’s no word on whether the bar’s mascot will get any company on the walls, but that may be a waste. The entire building is slated for redevelopment sometime in the next few years, which will be the end of The Rhino Room, Value Village and the current offices of The Stranger. So, hello Rhino Room. One way or another, it won’t be long before we say goodbye.