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Merchant’s Cafe in the Pioneer Square area of historic downtown Seattle is said to be Seattle’s oldest restaurant. It was built in 1890 and has been in continuous use ever since.
Pioneer Square (which we first visited when we took a look at the Pergola here) was once the heart of the city. The early settlers arrived here in 1852. The structures in those days were mainly wooden, with nearly all of them being destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. By the end of the following year dozens of brick buildings had been erected in their place including Merchant’s Cafe.
Much of the original Pioneer Square area was either a low-lying offshore island or landfill connecting it to the mainland. Because of drainage problems, when the area was rebuilt after the fire, many of the buildings had two entrances, one at the old level and another higher up at what today at what is today street level. Many of the buildings in the area still have the old lower level entrances even though these are now beneath the sidewalk. The Seattle Underground Tour takes visitors through this subterranean world.
The early clients of Merchant’s Cafe were the loggers working the vast forests of the northwest and miners preparing to travel to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. In the latter part of the 19th century, Pioneer Square had a reputation for providing any vice a person could desire. The area was filled with dives, brothels, hash houses and gambling dens. Merchant’s Cafe was just one of the many businesses in the area servicing the needs of those wanting to escape the hardships of the lumbering industry or waiting to go north to find their fortune. In those days, Merchant’s Cafe served five-cent beers to the miners as they waited their turn to visit the brothel upstairs. Lining the saloon walls were pictures of the ladies working upstairs. All a man had to do was to point at the picture and he would be directed to the appropriate room upstairs.
Long gone are the five-cent beers and the working ladies. However, Merchant’s Cafe keeps a lot of its historic decor as well as some more modern fittings and fixtures which actually do not look out of place. The Tiffany stained glass chandeliers, although not an original item, add to the old world charm, hanging, as they do from the original pressed tin ceiling. The rosewood bar has its own history the original dating back to the 1880s when it made its own personal journey on a schooner round Cape Horn.
The lower level of most of the buildings in Pioneer Square which visitors visit on the Underground Tour are shadows of their former selves not used anymore. Not so at Merchant’s Cafe where the underground bar is fully functional. Now tucked away under the sidewalk, the bar provides that perfect time-forgotten ambiance.
Like many of the old buildings in Pioneer Square, Merchant’s Cafe is said to be haunted and is one of the stops on the Spooked in Seattle Ghost Tour. Some of the reported activity includes the moving of objects, slamming doors, restroom faucets turing on and off on their own and even the sighting of a full apparition of a female. Merchant’s Cafe has even been featured in an episode of the Travel Channel show “Dead Files”.