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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

February 26, 2012 at 7:00 AM

In Passing: Seeking cowboys and politicos at the Spar Cafe in Olympia

Olympia's The Spar bar

The Spar Cafe has been an Olympia landmark for over 70 years. Behind the long bar is a stockpile of cigars, paintings and wooden sculptures. (Photo by Ilona Idlis/UW Election Eye)

OLYMPIA — Walking into The Spar Café, which sits seven blocks from the State Capitol and is renowned among locals, is a bit like stepping into an Old Western movie.

The bar stretches deep into the restaurant, curving to reveal billiards tables and a jukebox at the back. Wood panels sequester the booths and a latticework of curved iron bars arches over the tables. Glass and metal finials decorate the structure. The high ceilings drip with potted plants and amber chandeliers.  Paintings of Americana and sepia photographs populate every wall.

One expects to see a cowboy swagger past.

Instead, when I arrived on Presidents’ Day earlier this week, The Spar was bustling with a breakfast rush. Almost every booth had an occupant and the old-timey clock above the entrance was shy of 11.  Waiters and bartenders burst from the kitchen with heaping plates of omelets and hash browns.

I thought surely I’d find the place abuzz with grizzled lawmakers discussing the Republican presidential contest, the new borders of the 10th congressional district, or the looming gubernatorial campaign. After all, only a few blocks away “Occupiers” were rehearsing a Die-in/Sing-in at Sylvester Park and the Capitol was engulfed by activists.

But no. Almost none of The Spar’s customers sported the tell-tale garb of a politico. No power pant suits, pinstripes, or lapel flag pins to be seen. Most appeared to be locals of various stripes, enjoying a hearty meal on a quiet holiday.

"In Passing" posts capture shorter snapshots of places and people we encounter on the road. (Photos courtesy of Alex Stonehill, A.V. Crofts and Flickr Creative Commons/UW Election Eye)

Founded in 1935, The Spar began by catering to the everyman, providing the loggers and the longshoremen a place to smoke, drink and gamble after a long day at the ports. While the workers reveled at the bar, politicians were rumored to strike deals in the restaurant’s smoking room.

Nowadays, The Spar is a much more family affair. There’s no gambling or smoking — that I saw at least — and any humidors and secret meeting rooms have been replaced with welcoming tables and chairs. Even the restaurant’s family ownership has changed hands to McMenamins’ chain of pubs and breweries.

Despite the changing times, The Spar has maintained facets of its frontier atmosphere. The saloon-esque back bar is still stocked with boxes of fat cigars and a wooden Indian perches atop the shelves.  Any lucky wanderer can enjoy a locally brewed beer, like the light and fruity Ruby, as early as 7 A.M.

He — or the many shes who come through the doors these days — can even have a signature milkshake flavored with the artisan ale.

Comments | Topics: Cultural sights, Olympia, State Capitol


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