Downtown Bellingham has its share of “colorful” bars, which fortunately always live up to their reputations. And now the city center features more late-night food options than ever. If you’re up for a mini-adventure, check out a dive bar or two and follow up with some classic after-hours fare.
Bellingham’s Delightful Dive Bars
One sunny Saturday, I rounded up a few buddies to help me with my research. What better time than the middle of the day to have a true dive bar experience? And when the sun was out? That’s real dedication.
First, we asked the big question: what makes a bar a dive bar? We researchers pondered this question and decided on several criteria that must exist in order for an establishment to earn this coveted title:
- Open early, open late.
- Questionable restrooms.
- Pull tabs.
This is just our list; I’d love to know how you define “dive bar,” so feel free to weigh in! To test our theory, we visited some of Bellingham’s more colorful bars, each unique—and distinctly Bellingham.
First stop: The Waterfront Seafood & Bar. With a great location on the water, this aptly named establishment has continuously operated as a bar since 1908.
So, how does it fit our criteria?
- Open early, open late? Yes: 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., every day.
- Liquor? Of course.
- Questionable restrooms? The ladies’ room was perfectly clean, but the plant needed dusting.
- Pull tabs? As many as you want.
I talked with Waterfront owner Lynne Farmer. She’s owned the bar for 15 years, and has made it a family business, with two daughters and a son-in-law working alongside her. Many employees have been with her for a decade or longer. We definitely felt the family atmosphere.
Lynne gave me a quick history of her bar, which is the last standing building built on pilings in Old Town. Before Roeder Avenue was built, boats would dock at the lower level, and patrons would enter through a trap door. Once upstairs, they could get a drink at the bar or a quick trim at the barbershop (now the kitchen).
The clientele has changed over the years, from loggers and fishermen to Georgia Pacific employees. Now it’s a varied group, with dart and poker players, and plenty of regulars. The Waterfront offers Texas Hold‘em tournaments seven days a week, as well as dart tournaments.
The kitchen turns out a variety of seafood, breakfast specialties, sandwiches and the dive bar standard: fried appetizers, which are served with “a handful of fries.” The Waterfront is especially known for fish ‘n’ chips and clam chowder.
We ordered two appetizers (which are half price every day from 4:00 – 7:00): pepper jack macaroni bites and jalapeño poppers. They were hot, crispy, spicy and gooey—just what you want from bar food.
More info: The Waterfront Seafood & Bar, 521 W. Holly St., Bellingham, WA
Ask just about any Bellinghamster about our fair city’s dive bars, and most will say “the Ranch Room.” Located next to the historic Horseshoe Café, the Ranch Room definitely fits our criteria:
- Open early, open late? Oh yes. The café is open 24 hours a day. The lounge opens at 9:00 a.m. and closes at 2:00 a.m. Happy Hour is from opening till 6:00 p.m.
- Liquor? Of course.
- Questionable restrooms? Yes. They’ve been in service for a looong time.
- Pull tabs? Pull tabs!
The Horseshoe’s claim to fame is that it’s the oldest 24-hour-a-day restaurant west of the Mississippi. The Ranch Room is dark, funky and decorated in mid-century (not sure which) cowboy. A large mural behind the bar, a few gunslingers on the walls, and Lynard Skynard on the jukebox made for the right ambiance.
At the Ranch Room, drinks and beer are poured throughout the day, and food is available from the Horseshoe, including the “original” potato burrito. It’s a monster of a meal, filled with fried potatoes, beans and cheese. We also ordered up a slice of blueberry pie, warmed and served a la mode. It came with four forks and two huge scoops of melty French vanilla ice cream, which complemented the warm cinnamon-y blueberry filling and a darn good crust.
Together, the Horseshoe Café and Ranch Room make one quintessential Bellingham landmark. This alone makes it worth a visit. Now, depending on the time of day, some of the folks gathered outside can be off-putting, but once inside, you’ll find warm, friendly staff and good food, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
More info: Horseshoe Café, 113 E. Holly Street, Bellingham, WA
Our next stop: Cap’s Lounge (formerly known as Cap Hansen’s, and just Cap’s for short). After we settled into this dark and comfy space on Chestnut St., we were surprised to see one TV tuned to a women’s gymnastics tournament, and the other to the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. All the guys at the bar were switching their attention from one screen to the other. Not at all what we expected, but awesome nonetheless.
Cap’s décor is classic dive bar, with wood paneling, brewery art and poker-playing dogs.
But does Cap’s fit our dive bar criteria?
- Open early, open late? Well, they open at noon and close at 2:00 a.m., seven days a week. But they used to open earlier, so…okay.
- Liquor? Of course.
- Questionable restrooms? Not bad.
- Pull tabs? No. But I’m going to give them the dive bar title because they’ve been around forever, and longevity trumps pull tabs.
Cap’s has been in business since the late 1880’s. It was originally H.H. Hansen’s, a pharmacy, soda shop and bar, located in Fairhaven. After that location caught on fire, the bar moved to a spot on James Street, which also caught on fire. It’s been Cap Hansen’s (and fire-free) in its current location since around 1953.
We didn’t get to try any of their yummy-looking sandwiches, but we did eat some free popcorn, which was tasty but super salty… so we had to have another beer. Smart, Cap’s!
More info: Cap’s Lounge, 209 E. Chestnut St., Bellingham, WA
Late Night Eats in Downtown Bellingham
Where can you go when you’re out on the town and you need some fuel to keep going—or to just get you home? Historically, Bellingham hasn’t had many options, but fortunately, that’s changing.
Pel’meni Restaurant: Russian meat- or potato-filled dumplings. Hot sauce. A side of bread and sour cream. That’s it. No frills, no extras. Just stick-to-your-ribs fare at its best. Plenty of steam wafting up to the high ceilings, vinyl records and comfy seating make the ambiance just right for any time of day, but especially late at night.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. till 2:30 or 3:00 a.m., depending on the crowd.
1211 N State St., Bellingham, WA
Man Pies: Hot, fresh, hand-sized (well, man-hand-sized) pies made of a nice, flaky pastry and a variety of hearty fillings to choose from, including lamb, braised beef, classic chicken, curried veggies, and dessert pies, too. All housemade, every day.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. till 10:00 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, till 3:00 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and till 8:00 p.m. on Sunday.
1215 Railroad Ave., Bellingham, WA
Taco trucks! There are a few rolling around downtown late nights. On the corner of State and Chestnut streets, you can usually find Streetacos on one side and Diego’s Mexican Grill on the other. We sampled a variety of delicious tacos from Streetacos one Saturday night after a show at the Shakedown.
Pye Hole: Craving pizza late at night, but don’t want to enter a restaurant? Enter Pye Hole, the new street food venture at La Fiamma. A walk-up window, a variety of pies to choose from, and a paper plate to carry it away on. What more do you need? A whole pie to go? Okay!
Hours: 11:30 p.m. till the slices run out, Thurs – Sat
200 E. Chestnut St., Bellingham, WA
Casa Que Pasa: No late-night restaurant list is complete without Casa Que Pasa. The other home of the famous potato burrito, Casa offers plenty of Mexican selections to fuel your evening activities. The Cantina boasts a wide selection of tequilas, and some of the best margaritas in town. Casa nearly qualifies as a dive bar, but with rotating art exhibits, a family-friendly atmosphere out front and colorful murals, it’s a notch above.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 a.m. every day
1415 Railroad Ave., Bellingham, WA
I know this isn’t all of the area’s dive bars and late-night eats, so help me out! Where do you love to go when nothing but a dive will do? And what’s your favorite place for a midnight food run?