The Central Tavern – located in the historic Skagit Building at 207 First Avenue South -- has been near the center of Seattle’s nightlife action for many decades. What began as a café associated with the Famous Hotel has existed in many different incarnations, from a Gold Rush-era eatery, to a fleabag Skid Road dive, to a legendary live music venue. The Central survived the lean Prohibition era, as well as the 1960’s urban-renewal phase, when Pioneer Square buildings were razed before the wider community’s sense of historical preservation took hold and the area was designated as the Pioneer Square-Skid Road National Historic District. In the 1970s the Central helped introduce live blues and rock and roll to the neighborhood, and in the 1980s it played a role in the rise of Grunge Rock, hosting shows by such bands as Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees, and Mudhoney. In 1990 it was redubbed the Central Saloon. Today it remains popular with locals, as well as being a must-see shrine for globetrotting Grunge tourists.
After the founding of Seattle in 1853, community gathering places became central to the civic life of the village. The first one was the log cookhouse associated with Henry Yesler’s (1810?-1892) waterfront sawmill, which was built in 1853 and sited near the crossroads of Commercial Street (today’s 1st Avenue South), Front Street (today’s 1st Avenue), and Mill Street (now Yesler Way). As the tiny timber town grew, its first neighborhood (today’s Pioneer Square area) arose. It soon became infamous as a rough and tumble place – nicknamed "Skid Road" -- where the down-and-out resided. The area’s long association with nightlife began in 1861 when businessman John Pinnell founded the Illahee saloon/brothel on a lot at 2nd Avenue and Washington Street and imported a San Francisco-based musical trio to entertain his rowdy clientele.
Over the years Seattle’s business district expanded to the north and east. Hundreds of wooden houses and commercial buildings were erected and the town was coming into its own as a thriving West Coast hub. But on June 6, 1889, fire broke out in a shop at Front and Madison streets, and the Great Seattle Fire was underway. In the end, about 25 square blocks lay in ruins, including the entire old-town section. But the townsfolk rallied, businessmen stepped up, and reconstruction efforts began at once. Among the many new brick buildings put up in 1889 were a few at the southwest corner of Commercial and South Washington streets. A Mr. Jamieson and his partner Mr. McFarland opened their J&M Hotel at 203 Commercial Street. Just south at 205 Commercial -- the original site of the Yesler Cookhouse -- was a restaurant. Located just south at 207 Commercial Street was the new Skagit Building, which initially housed the Skagit Hotel and would become the home of the Central Tavern. The hotel hosted loggers, sailors, and railroad workers. So too did the New England Hotel in the upstairs units at 209, 211 and 213 Commercial Street, which also served as a brothel during the Alaska and Yukon Gold Rush era.
The Seattle Saloon
In 1890, businessman Tommy Watson and his brother -- operators of the Watson Brothers Stables at 1725 1st Avenue South -- acquired the Skagit Hotel and opened their Famous Hotel and restaurant there. Their enterprises served the ever-fluctuating tide of restless people passing through Seattle. But the Watsons (and Jamieson and McFarland) were far from the only ambitious men who sought to get in on the action. The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 1893 offers some indication of the density of saloons in the neighborhood. In just the area between Yesler Way to the north, Jackson Street to the south, Railroad Avenue to the west, and 3rd Avenue to the east, at least 28 saloons and six wine and/or liquor stores were noted as being active, including wine and/or liquor stores in storefronts at 201, 209, and 213 Commercial Street.
According to a listing in the 1898-1899 Bard & Co’s Business Directory, the Famous Restaurant had now been renamed the Seattle Saloon and the proprietor was noted as J. B. Webber. In 1902, Jamieson and McFarland bought the Seattle Saloon and renamed it the Seattle Bar. Then, around 1903, the duo opened the J&M Café below the J&M Hotel (where it remains). In 1907, Mr. Master and Mr. Casey bought the Seattle Bar. Still, the neighborhood was sketchy. Despite efforts by lawmen to keep a lid on crime, the area was rife with fly-by-night ne’er-do-wells, ruffians, and scofflaws. Seattle’s newspapers were full of items about the crimes and outrageous activities regularly taking place there, including robberies, assaults, and murders.
The Central Café
When Washington state’s Prohibition era commenced in 1916, the corruption it engendered only increased the crime rate, while simultaneously making it challenging for saloons to find legal ways to stay in business. By 1919, Master and Casey had refocused their Seattle Bar, revamping it as the Central Café – but it still made newspaper headlines on various occasions, like when a gambler keeled over with shock after playing a winning hand. Or, when a passerby was brutally assaulted in broad daylight outside their front door. Or when a former Seattle Police officer was brought in on charges that his gang of ex-cons was planning on robbing the Central. Or, when the café was caught selling wine after a drunk police patrolman was arrested there.
The coming of the Great Depression in 1929 saw ever-greater hordes of homeless people tramping the streets, and Skid Road’s seedy reputation was firmly established as a place of desperation, dissolution, charity missions, and breadlines. When Prohibition was repealed via the Volstead Act in 1933, scores of saloons, taverns, nightclubs, and wineries applied for licenses to begin legitimate operations. Meanwhile, a few survivors such as the Central Café got back to business.
In 1937 the new owner of the Central Café, Vito Carnovale, did what he could to help. A native of Italy who’d emigrated to America in 1908 and arrived in Seattle in 1910, Carnovale initially worked as bouncer at the Dreamland Dance Hall. In the three decades he ran the Central, he was widely admired for treating hundreds of Skid Road denizens to a free Christmas dinner.
Preservation and Gentrification
A huge influx of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest during and after World War II created a strong demand for new housing in Seattle. Yet Skid Road lingered on as a blight -- albeit one that developers and investors began to covet. Eventually many historic structures were razed before a community outcry led to a keener sense of conserving what remained, and in January 1965, members of the Seattle Junior Chamber of Commerce took an interest in the historical nature of the Pioneer Square/Skid Road area. The chamber's 20 members explored the catacombs of "Underground Seattle" looking for artifacts, and among their findings were some old "copper tubes of a still" in the basement of the Central Café (Sterling). The public’s enthusiastic response to this news led a local publicist, Bill Speidel (1912-1988), to launch his Underground Tour business, which remains active today.
Slowly the neighborhood began to attract a new generation of business entrepreneurs, and art galleries and cafés began emerging. In addition, some daring bohemians began moving into the cheap apartments and dusty industrial lofts there. It was 1970 when the Seattle City Council created the City of Seattle Pioneer Square Preservation District, and the area also got listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation was now a formal goal, and a revival of the area began accelerating. Such dramatic changes in Seattle’s sketchiest neighborhood surprised some observers. Seattle Times columnist John Hinterberger began a 1972 column:
"Where did all the bums go? ... The Skid Road has been repopulated with hips, hop-heads, intellectuals and politicians ... Whoever thought a real-estate boom — and a minor sociological migration — could have been based on the unforeseen appeal and dubious esthetics of sand-blasted brick? Where phalanxes of derelicts originally wove in boozy abandon, Mercer Island matrons now contemplate art in a gallery ... the old cardrooms have become fashionable bars; the cheap lunchrooms are competing against 'New York Deli' and $1.25 hamburgers” (Hinterberger, November 16, 1972).
"The hard times in this neighborhood never ebbed until the late 1960s," Seattle historian Paul Dorpat wrote, "when the preservation of the city's oldest neighborhood became a priority of those not living there. This gentrification helped uproot the thousands of fixed-income tenants living along First Avenue between King Street and the Pike Place Market. It also either closed out or cleaned up a number of their dives, like the Central" ("The Central's Centennial").
The Central Tavern
In 1970, the same year Pioneer Square was designated a preservation district, two far-sighted engineers, Robert J. "Bobby" Foster (1946-1979) and Jamie Anderson, had become desperate to escape working on Boeing’s Minuteman Missile project. As Anderson described their decision process: "We simply had to get out of that. We – and a lot of our friends – used to enjoy spending our leisure hours in taverns and we started looking for one of our own. We knew we liked the idea of the Pioneer Square area, but it was risky. We had considerable debate over it. At the time there was only one 'renovated' place operating down there. It was called Your Mother's Mustache [at 200 1st Avenue South]. When we walked into the Central, the place had a certain feel about it that we liked. We bought it. It was cheap -- $8,000 – and we borrowed most of that" (Hinterberger, March 7, 1979).
Hinterberger dubbed their new watering hole a "den of antiquity" (Hinterberger, August 19, 1972). Recalled Foster: "This place was once a black, wino, smackhead dive. It was rough. Incredibly tough. A few weeks before I took over, the bartender shot a man in the chest with a .45" (Hinterberger, October 9, 1976).
Nevertheless, throughout the summer of 1971 Foster and Anderson gutted and remodeled it, and the Central Tavern was born. "But the first thing we did was close the door for three months. I wanted the folks who had been coming here to have time to find someplace else to go," Foster said (Hinterberger, October 9, 1976). The plan worked, and the winos moved on, making way for a new generation of professionals, politicos, and yuppies. Between the Central, the adjacent J&M Café and Card Room, and the circa 1890 Merchants Café located around the corner at 109 Yesler Way, a gentrification/renaissance of the neighborhood took hold. Over time, all three venues began featuring live music, and crowds of young people began flocking there to drink, dance, mix, and mingle. Foster began touting his scruffy joint with a new motto: "Seattle’s Only 2nd Class Tavern."
Skid Road Rocked
The rock and roll invasion of the area likely began on July 8, 1971, in conjunction with a new Pioneer Square Day celebration. A street dance was mounted in front of the Main Street Gallery at 76 South Main Street and inside the Grapevine Tavern at 300 Alaska Way South. The featured bands included Grassy Butte, Meat Ball, Sin City, and The Tread.
During this time of socio-political upheaval, the Central Tavern saw its share of the action. On November 2, 1972, it was host to the "Rights on Celebration" event -- a women’s rights fundraising benefit in support of House Joint Resolution 61 -- and where, "All the recordings played during the event will be female artists" ("Women’s-right ...").
In 1972 the Central served as the headquarters for J. J. "Tiny" Freeman’s quixotic mock-Republican campaign for a seat in the U.S. Congress. The first time rock and roll combos gigged at the Central occurred in conjunction with Freeman’s antics, and it was announced that on October 8, 1972, "local rock bands will play at a benefit for Tiny Freeman" ("Tiny Benefit"). One of them was Jr. Cadillac, comprised of former members of pioneering Northwest rock bands including the Wailers, Sonics, and Frantics. Jr. Cadillac would become Seattle’s most popular tavern dance band over the decade.
In 1973 Seattle was rocked with news of scandal surrounding a complicated Seattle Police Department corruption case. At least as far back as the 1950s, officers had been extorting local businessmen for weekly cash protection money. And the Central – along with scores of other nearby bars, brothels, and bathhouses – was publicly identified as having been among the victims. "Payoffs were collected from the Central Tavern on First Avenue, the J&M Café, and cardrooms and steam baths on First Avenue" (Brown and Corsaletti). The resultant grand jury conspiracy trial exposed a crime network involving scores of racketeers, lawmen, and politicians.
It was mid-decade when the Central began booking bands on a regular weekly basis. The noted Portland bluesman Tom McFarland and his band played some early gigs there. Seattle’s top country rock band, the Skyboys, debuted there on October 22, 1976, followed by Lance Romance, Chebere, Gopher Broke, Holy Modal Rounders, Les Clamtones, and Slidin’ Jake. Bobby Foster was a popular character around the Pioneer Square scene, and his knack for brainstorming promotional opportunities to boost the neighborhood led to Seattle’s first annual Fat Tuesday street party in February 1977.
In February 1978, Anderson and an exhausted Bobby Foster sold the Central for $80,000. That year, shows by Gabriel, the Big Sky Mudflaps, and J. B. Hutto & the Hawks occurred. Foster died on March 2, 1979, and that same year the Reputations, KittyHawk, T. J. Bonner, Wet Paint, Air Head, Mark the Spark, and the Rainy City Ramble bluegrass band all played at the Central.
The Central seems to have changed hands a couple more times, including when Angus Duke bought it. Meanwhile, the room became known for booking blues, country rock, R&B and rock bands, including the Fremont Flyers, Brian Butler Band, Buffalo Rose, the Stonetones, Alley Cat, Seafood Mama, Pat Garvey Band, Longhorn, Foot Lucy, Rain, Lucky Pierre, the Derailers, Sweet Talkin’ Jones, the Substitutes, and Herb & the Spices.
In 1978 one of the first of the punk/New Wave generation bands, Roland Rock, got booked there. In 1979 others followed, including the Jitters, the Pick, and the Heaters, who drew such huge crowds on May 18-19 that the Central rewarded them a bonus of $1,500. Seattle’s "new music" scene was just beginning to pick up steam while blues bands still largely dominated Pioneer Square. The Central maintained an eclectic booking policy, launching a Wednesday night open-mic series, and presenting acts including Shy Lady, Bunny Swan, Erinmore, Sylvan Zephyr, Mardi Foster, Pedana, Hotcha, Dcoda, Cindi Boulding, Rainbow Trail, and the Blaine Sisters Band. In 1981 the Central refocused on rock bands including Archer, Rail, Red Dress, the Numatics, Scargill, Skeezix, Slamhound Hunters, Freddie & the Screamers, and Shatterbox.
The Cradle of Grunge
In the big scheme of things, it would be the Central Tavern’s enthusiastic embrace of young bands who played original rock and roll that would cause it to have the longest-lasting impact of any club in Pioneer Square. Credit can be given to Mike Downing, who acquired the Central in 1982 and began booking rock and blues bands on more than the usual two nights a week. In January 1982, the room presented the Kinetics, Citizen Sane, and Spectre. In the months hence, other rockers followed, including the Wires, Shells, Saturn Transit, New Flamingoes, Matinee Idols, Living Dolls, Social Lites, Eagertones, Cowboys, Rockin’ Razorbacks, Bombardiers, Range Hoods, Strypes, Jim Basnight & the Moberlys, Mondo Vita, Chains of Hell Orchestra, and Life In General. Bluesy acts included the Isaac Scott Band, Eddie & the Atlantics, Kathie Hart and the Signatures, Freddy Pink & the High Tops, N. Cognito & the Seclusions, Paul DeLay Band, Charlie Musselwhite, Dick Powell Band, and Twist Turner & the Turning Point.
Seattle music chronicler Clark Humphrey nailed the vibe of the 199-person capacity room this way: "it was a dark, musty, beer-stenched, smoky fine place" (Humphrey, 85). Local drummer Sean Kinney said the Central "would sell these cheap pitchers and cram 2,000 people in here, with (an inch) of beer on the floor, and people were killing each other. It was great” (Humphrey, 85).
A turning point arrived in 1986 when the Central started employing a younger generation of talent bookers who were experienced musicians. One was a Texan named Terry Lee Hale, who played in The Ones (with Seattle’s now famed recording engineer and guitarist Jack Endino), and under his guidance the Central began booking some of the better new bands. Over the years thousands of different bands would perform at the Central – including a few who were favored because they dependably drew SRO crowds (including Jr. Cadillac, Red Dress, Duffy Bishop, the Rockin’ Razorbacks, Cowboys, Moberlys, Jackles, and Moving Parts) – but 1986 also saw a fresh batch of new bands score gigs.
Among the local up-and-coming bands booked in 1986 were Bam Bam, Napalm Beach, Feast, Bundle of Hiss, Fastbacks, Girl Trouble, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, Life in General, Room 9, Pure Joy, Wipers, U-Men, Skin Yard, Green River, Variant Cause, Young Fresh Fellows, Walkabouts, Silk Worm, and the Mentors. In addition, numerous notable touring bands came through, including Camper Van Beethoven, Nomeansno, Faith No More, Saccharine Trust, John Cale, TSOL, Soul Asylum, and the Dead Milkmen.
In 1987, particularly notable local bands gigging there included Soundgarden, Diamond Lie (pre-Alice In Chains), Screaming Trees, U-Men, Melvins, Room 9, Green River, Skin Yard, Bundle of Hiss, Napalm Beach, Center For Disease Control Boys (with Chris Cornell), DOA, Life In General, Chemistry Set, H-Hour, Crisis Party, Crazy 8’s, Refuzors, Limp Richerds, Boom Boom GI, Mentors, Coffin Break, F-Holes, and Dead Moon. Touring acts included Scratch Acid, Rank & File, Mojo Nixon, Meat Puppets, Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Flipper, Redd Kross, Live Skull, and Opal.
January 1988 kicked off with gigs by the U-Men, Skin Yard, H-Hour, and the Accused. February brought lots of locals and a few touring bands including Guadalcanal Diary, Grapes Of Wrath, and Paul Collins Beat. March saw the Walkabouts, Vexed, Pure Joy, Soundgarden, Blood Circus, plus Animal Slaves and DOA from Vancouver, B.C. In April 1988 Jan Gregor – a player and creative spark behind Northwest bands including Variant Cause – replaced Hale. That month saw notable shows by local bands including H-Hour, Boom Boom GI, Soundgarden, Bundle of Hiss, and Thrown-ups. He brought in plenty of local bands plus touring acts like the Flaming Lips, Grapes of Wrath, Gang Green, Soul Asylum, Naked Raygun, and the Goo Goo Dolls.
June 1988 brought 17 nights of live music to the Central, including shows by the Screaming Trees, Room 9, the Walkabouts, Dharma Bums, and Pure Joy. But one particular date remains particularly notable: June 5, 1988, the night Nirvana first played the room, after which it agreed to a record deal with Sub Pop. Two weeks later, on July 23, Nirvana was shoehorned into another three-band bill, and the following months saw the Central presenting full calendars of more great offerings including Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, Tad, Love Battery, Posies, Seaweed, Crisis Party, and Swallow, along with metal bands including Forced Entry, Bitter End, Panic, War Babies, Lethal Dose, and My Sister’s Machine.
End of an Era
January 1990 kicked off with the Melvins, Blood Circus, and the Tree People rocking the Central. On March 9 Mother Love Bone played what would be its final live gig before frontman Andrew Wood (1966-1990) died on March 19. A few bandmates then regrouped as Pearl Jam. The Central bustled throughout the following months. Mike Downing had overseen significant structural upgrades to the room: all-new restrooms along the south wall replaced the nightmarish originals along the north wall, and the old low stage was superseded by a taller and larger stage against the west wall. He put a ton of effort into making the Central more attractive, but the problems associated with running a rowdy rock club took their toll and he decided to sell.
On November 23, 1990, the Central announced that it would host a final seven-night farewell celebration that would feature three dozen bands. Downing told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that, "People have been really supportive. Hopefully we’ll go out on a positive note. Everybody and their brother wanted to play there one more time. It just kind of snowballed" (Stout). Among them were Skin Yard, Love Battery, Hammerbox, Paisley Sin, Imij, Unearth, and Son of Man. The final swan song show on November 30 included the scene’s humor-rock stalwarts, the Squirrels, and My Sister’s Machine. All in all, it felt like the sad end of an era — which it was. "I was surprised when he put it up for sale," recalled Gregor. "But there had been never-ending drama and hassles — people had trashed toilets until he’d put in metal ones; at one show a woman pulled the fire alarm ... and released white powder everywhere ... That said, I’m sure if he knew the whole scene was about to explode he wouldn't have sold that soon" ("Pop Notes ...").
Explode it did. Mere months later Pearl Jam’s Ten album and Nirvana’s Nevermind album led the pack, and a string of successful records by Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, the Screaming Trees, and other Northwest Grunge bands led to Seattle dominating the rock realm globally for a few years in a full-on cultural phenomenon.
The Central Saloon
On December 1, 1990, the tavern’s new owners, Guy Curtis (a longtime manager of the J&M Café), Jim Napolitano, and Ken "Jomo" Ward, took over and shut the room down for refurbishing. When it reopened in January 1991 it had been recast as the Central Saloon and their crowds only increased as Grunge tourism began in earnest. It didn’t hurt that from 1987 to 1995 the offices of Mark Alan Productions – Kelly Mark Curtis (no relation, and former longtime Heart roadie) and Ken Alan Deans (former Heats drummer) – were located directly upstairs. Curtis began managing Mother Love Bone in 1988, while Deans managed Alice In Chains. An associate in the office, Susan Silver, had started out managing the U-Men and Screaming Trees and then took on Soundgarden, and in 1990 Curtis took on Pearl Jam. The Grunge phenomenon went global in 1991. To honor that remarkable success, Governor Booth Gardner proclaimed April 7, 1992, as Washington's official "The Central Day."
As the Grunge momentum tapered off over time, the Central Saloon once again diversified its offerings – bringing back local blues artists including the David Brewer Band, Stevie and the Blue Flames, Tim Sherman Band, Bill Brown & the Kingbees, Too Slim & the Taildraggers, Lily Wilde, and Kathy Hart & the Bluestars. The Fat James Band released their Live At The Central recordings from October 1993. Various other genres including reggae and country music made their way onto the schedule. Still, the Central continues to attract hordes of tourists who show up every week chasing the ghosts of Grunge days past.
On July 9, 2021, the Central hosted an all-star show -- Bam Bam Tributaries – as a tribute to the long-gone 1980s Seattle band, Bam Bam, and its dearly departed singer Tina "The Godmother of Grunge" Bell. Among the participants were Bam Bam’s original drummer Matt Cameron (pre-Soundgarden and Pearl Jam), D’mitra Smith, Ayron Jones, Eva Walker, Stone Gossard, Jenelle Roccaforte, and Kendall Rey Jones. Then on September 2 the Central was the site of the Flannel Thursday grunge-era photography exhibit by Seattle’s Karen Mason-Blair with a DJ set by Marco Collins.
In June 2022 news broke in The Seattle Times that Guy Curtis and new business partner Eric Manegold had purchased the Skagit Building for $2.75 million, thus ensuring that the Central Saloon would live on. Indeed, "the co-owners plan to forge ahead with several other upgrades that won’t change its character: a renovated kitchen, air conditioning and a basement green room Manegold hopes will allow them to book some bigger bands in addition to the local up-and-comers still getting their start at the Central" (Rietmulder).