In our feeble attempt to feel young and single (it's a fleeting thought), went to The Bal-Mar Lounge this past weekend. A stone's throw from Thaiku just off Market, where all the bustle is in Ballard, it's in an excellent location.
Admittedly we started early, but it wasn’t very crowded, even later in the night. The girlfriend I went with had her boyfriend’s birthday party there earlier this year on a Friday, and she said it was much more packed and meat-market-like then. (They have a “game room” upstairs with its own bar, the back space accommodating private parties up to 30.)
The lounge has a decidedly relaxed feel with airy space surrounded by exposed brick walls. It has all the elements of a modern cocktail bar: low connected seating (black leather), nice wide-plank hardwood floor, industrial unfinished metal used as architectural elements. Reminded me of cocktail bars that popped up in other cities, like Tokyo or New York a while back. I don’t mean to be cynical, but it almost feels like they’re trying too hard to be hip/urban and loft-y, from the unfinished wooden doors in the bathroom to the rugged-looking metal rail of the staircase.
We tried some small plates from the happy hour menu earlier in the night, which are definitely more decent values. Steamed clams with white wine were not memorable, but the pieces of oven-grilled bread that accompanied them had a good smoky flavor. We also had spicy BBQ meatballs made with “Kobe” beef - although there are many different grades of Kobe, mincing Kobe into meatballs or hamburger is not something a chef with some dignity would want to admit. Aside from insulting the ingredient, the meatballs had a nice, substantial, if not predictable, flavor. Crispy-fried potstickers with soy-chili dipping sauce are fine in flavor, but definitely a bar food (potstickers are much better pan-fried and then flash-steamed or plain steamed). They also had a special, little Bruschetta topped with Dungeness crab and artisan cheese – they were uniformly drenched with olive oil, the fragrance of too much oil overpowering flavors of the toppings and little pieces of bread soggy. Overall the food didn’t go up to the standards of a restaurant/lounge, but definitely made good, interesting attempts for bar food. (= Good for little bites, but wouldn’t substitute for a good meal at a restaurant. But I'm picky.)
They have many interesting original cocktails ranging $7-9, classic cocktails, bourbons, scotch, brandies and a decent selection of wine. A beer selection is not too big. They did make good martinis, which were what we were going for, so we were mostly happy. The service is attentive; they're definitely eager to fill you up on the drinks. The music selection is nice as well.
We left as we were literally cornered in by a large bachelorette party group (it started with a woman waiting for the rest of the party in a skimpy black dress, reading “How to Reach Better Orgasms” book). The rest of the crowd was varied - some couples, some professionals in their 30’s, etc. In a nutshell, I imagine this is the gist of what people would be thinking:
20’s – “Dude, this place is really cool and mature-seeming, compared to the dives I used to frequent where I had my PBR’s. And they have interesting food to brag about, like fries with banana ketchup.”
30’s – “This place has a nice vibe and it’s a good hangout/hook-up potential.”
40’s – “We feel young and hip coming to a cool neighborhood lounge like this!”
50’s – I don’t know if they get people in their 50’s.
And I’ll say good-bye to you with that.