There are bad bar names, good bar names and great bar names. Opening just about a month ago on Capitol Hill, Life on Mars (722 E Pike St.; 206.323.9166) falls into the latter category as the moniker is fun, uniquely memorable and comes from a David Bowie song. But the naming isn’t solely why this bar has been one of the year’s most anticipated. Instead, it’s the ownership: longtime KEXP deejay John Richards, aka “John in the Morning,” soon-to-be-doctor and Pair Music Collective partner Amy Richards, Steven Severin (co-owner of Neumos and more) and Woodchuck PR’s Leigh Sims. It’s also the concept behind the bar: sharing love for good music, good vegan food and good drinks.
On a recent visit, it certainly seems like that idea is becoming a reality. Located on the corner of Pike and Harvard streets, the bar has large windows out to both streets, and as you walk up you see and hear people having a dandy time. It’s super inviting. Once in, the visual and aural pops into view via a mighty wall of nearly 6,000 vinyl albums, and that number is expanding (a curated small selection—everything from Seattle’s swell Tacocat to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings—are available for purchase). During happy hour from 4 to 6pm, customers can pick one from the wall they’d like to hear and put it in a wooden slotted cabinet attached to bar and beneath two turntables. The bartenders play the selected records, creating an amazing community-playlist. As you might expect, when others are deejaying, the music is pretty hopping and varied, too.
Of course, the bartenders aren’t just there to spin records. Led by friendly general manager Missy Cross (past at Sun Liquor and more), they’re also crafting cocktails from the list of 12 house mixes, and opening and pouring an array of local-leaning wine and draft, bottled and canned beers, highlighted by a Life On Mars Imperial IPA from Reubens Brews, though the cocktails might be too intriguing to pass up. Take the Wanderlust, one of my drinkable chart-toppers, with Novo Fogo cachaca, pineapple, fermented pineapple-based Tepache, lime and celery syrup: tangy, yummy and a tad funky in the finest way.
Talking to Richards, he said they plan on adding more drink specials to round out the menu, and let the bar staff continue to show creativity. But even when that happens, don’t miss the Southpaw. It’s a summer hit, with Plantation 3 Star rum, coconut, coconut cream, pineapple, lime and aquafaba. What (I had to ask, too) is aquafaba? The thick liquid from canned chickpeas, subbed in often for egg whites in vegan dishes. Here, it adds a rich foaminess to a tropical, light sipper, which Cross describes as if “the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Pina Colada had a love child!”
The vegan touch points to the plant-based food menu, which dances to a bar food staple beat covering a big sharable plate of fried goodness (sweet potatos and regular, soy curls, corn relish) folks seem to delight in, snacking items, and their own vegan burgers. While I love a good veggie burger, in this case, my suggestion is to head past them to the waffle sandwiches. There are two, a Summer BBQ (with pulled jackfruit) and a BLT (with coconut bacon), and both were wonderful, thanks in part to the house waffles: thick, crispy outside, fluffy inside, like a good pop punk song. If you’re with others, get both and share! They’re accompanied by coleslaw or fries.
Even loving those thick, waffle-icious sandwiches, top billing for me goes to the chicken-fried artichokes on the kale salad. The kale was fine (poor kale, relegated to supporting act here), but the artichokes! Sturdy, crunchy batter, and then the zing and inimitable artichoke-ness. Richards told us that they’ll be expanding the food line-up going forward and might just start serving these beauts sans kale—and perhaps add a cauliflower version using that same batter. That’s a song I’d sing along to.
While the album wall dominates a side of the space in the Pike Flats building, the big U-shaped bar with its tall bar chairs and wood paneled side is center stage. To the west, low brown couches and that big wall of vinyl provide a sort-of ultimate record room vibe, while the other side of the bar has a cool 1970s refrain going, with mustard-colored tufted vinyl booths around wooden-topped tables. Everything, the seating, the drinks, the food, the staff and the records, all combine into a chorus that will woo you into sticking around for one more cocktail encore. Neighborhood locals are happily packing in—but, like a good rock show, it’s worth traveling for, too.