Northwest Portrait: Capitol Gains
Nightspot owner Linda Derschang reigns as Capitol Hill's foremost trendsetter
Published in Seattle magazine, January 1999
Linda Derschang doesn't own all of Pine Street between Broadway and Bellevue--it just seems that way. She does reign as the entrepreneurial queen of Capitol Hill, with three thriving but diverse night spots: Linda's Tavern, The Capitol Club, and the Baltic Room, all within a stone's throw of each other on Pine.
Still, Derschang and her business partners, between them, do own a sizable chunk of Seattle real estate: the co-owner of the Baltic Room is Wade Weigel, who also owns Rudy's Barber Shops, Bimbo's, the Cha Cha Lounge, and the newly opened Ace Hotel; and Linda's partners in her eponymously named tavern are Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, two men who started a little company known as Sub-Pop records.
The diversity of Derschang's clubs can be traced to the woman herself: A former rock musician who now has season tickets to the opera and her taste runs from things retro--antiques, old movies and pulp writer Jim Thompson--to cutting edge--she sports silver nail polish and stockpiles fashion magazines.
Derschang virtually defines "people person." She instantly wins people with her gregarious charm, the same strike-up-a-conversation skills that have served her well in a face-to-face business, she's reticent on topics such as her age, and she doesn't play the diva. Most patrons have no idea that this stylish, slender blonde they might spot at or behind the bar is an owner.
From her well-timed move to Seattle, to the elegant clubs which debuted just as Seattleites were rediscovering swing and sophistication, Derschang's been one step ahead of the crowd. She's always followed her finely honed instincts, reasoning that if something appealed to her, it would appeal to others, and she's been right.
She named her first foray into retail "Fashion Disaster" -- a punk rock clothing store in Denver -- but the shop was a success from day one. "Within a week of opening that store I just knew that running a small business is was what I wanted to do," she says.
Derschang went from fine arts student and waitress to bassist in a series of short-lived punk bands before a bandmate suggested they open a store. The two women pooled their money and Fashion Disaster was born, as was Derschang the entrepreneur. "We had no idea what we were doing but I just loved it," Derschang says with a laugh. A little ahead of her time, Linda also opened an espresso bar next to the store which did "just OK."
In 1987, while visiting Seattle, Derschang spotted a vacant apartment and found a retail space for rent on Broadway. "It was just meant to be. It fell so easily into place that I thought, I'm supposed to move here and do this." She sold her holdings in Denver, moved here and opened Basic, another clothing store, on Broadway.
"I thought Seattle was beautiful, but at that time all that ... stuff that happened wasn't going on," she says, referring to the music splash largely centered around the record company owned by town men who would become her business partners. "I'd go on these buying trips to New York and they'd say 'You moved from Denver to Seattle?' People just assumed that you'd move to New York, LA, San Francisco, or whatever."
After seven years of running Basic, Derschang was ready for a change. Through her store she'd become friends with Pavitt and Poneman. "Jonathan [Poneman] suggested opening a bar in the neighborhood and I just loved the idea. I was kind of done with retail and so I closed my store and we opened Linda's in February 1994. It was needed in the neighborhood."
"I just always admired her business acumen from when she owned Basic," says Poneman. "She's somebody who I respected intellectually and who I thought had great ideas -- some of which I'd been having, but she wasn't as organizationally challenged as I am. She's really good at implementing ideas."
Linda's quickly became the new spot on Capitol Hill for musicians and for anyone who could appreciate touches like the vintage jukebox which still plays 45s, not CDs. Pavitt found the jukebox and used to personally maintain it. Lately, the Linda's staff pitches in, even buying the 45s.
The distinctive Western flavor of Linda's Tavern, was inspired by the bars Derschang remembered from the Colorado mountains. Her goal, besides evoking a certain northwestern ambiance, was to make the bar comfortable to both the guy wanting to drink longnecks and to non-"guys." Derschang says, "You know how some bars have that 'guy' feeling that you wouldn't want to walk in alone as a woman? It was always important to me that Linda's didn't feel like that."
People have suggested that Derschang open another Linda's in New York or Los Angeles but she's declined. "I like the idea of small business. Turning Linda's into a chain is not appealing at all. I like the range from Linda's to the Capitol Club to the Baltic Room, they're all so different."
Derschang proudly recalls that someone once described Linda's as a "really elegant dive," but her next two ventures are all elegance. "Some nights I'd want to go to a cocktail bar in that neighborhood," she recalls, but no cocktail bars existed on Pike or Pine.
After looking for a space for about a year, Derschang and partners Poneman and John Bigley (former lead singer of pre-grunge band The U-Men) decided on a former Middle Eastern restaurant and turned it into the Capitol Club. It was in the neighborhood and best of all, boasted an upstairs balcony with a view of downtown, a place to discreetly see and be seen. On temperate evenings, of which Seattle does have a few, patrosn sit outside, enjoying gin and tonics and soaking up the not-quite-downtown setting.
To serve liquor in Washington state, one must also serve food. "We thought, if we're opening a restaurant, let's have a restaurant," Derschang says. The menu and decor remain Middle Eastern with emphasis on Moroccan, Turkish, Spanish and Greek cuisine. Newly recruited chef Michael Felsenstein, formerly of Wolfgang Puck and B. Figueroa, offers presentations such as pan-seared Chilean sea bass with mussels, harissa, white wine-tamarine sauce and a potato purée. The Capitol Club definitely rates as a romantic dinner spot but many neighborhood patrons have also adopted it as their regular, all-occasion restaurant.
The year 1997 was a busy one for Derschang. After opening the Capitol Club in January, she unexpectedly found herself opening bar number three in November of the same year. While the previous nightspots were strategically planned, the Baltic Room "just sort of happened." When a new space became available -- the short-lived disco Kid Mohair -- Derschang and partner Weigel jumped at the chance. They both loved the existing '30s-style interior with chandeliers, cherrywood and velvet drapes. The Baltic Room is a swank, intimate bar with an unspoken dress code, regular piano and jazz, and such tony occasional events as opera recitals.
"I had always wanted to work with Linda," says Weigel, who knew Derschang from operating Rudy's across the street from Linda's. "I think she's just brilliant at what she does."
Like Linda's and the Capitol Club, the Baltic Room has also become so popular that you can barely get in on weekends. Although it serves only beer and wine, it's about as far as you can travel on the drinking spectrum from Linda's with its "Tools, Radio, Tackle" neon sign and pool table. If the proper drink at Linda's is a pitcher of pale ale, at the Baltic Room it's merlot or champagne.
Diverse as they are, Derschang's clubs are close enough to one another that she can tour all three a few times a week. "I check in, see who's around. It's really nice to walk in to see people you know and say hello. It's like hosting a party, which I love. I don't get to do it often at home but with the clubs it's like I'm hosting three parties."
A recurring theme with Derschang is instinct; whether it's picking up and moving to another state or opening a new business, she seems fearlessly spontaneous. They may sound a little haphazard, but a lot of thought, and number-crunching goes into her financial decisions. "When I was younger doing these businesses, I didn't do it for the money, I did it because I loved what I was doing." Now that she's older and supporting a nine-year-old daughter, Derschang says her decisions are based more on financial feasibility. "However that's not the main issue," she says. "We all have to work, and we have to find a way to enjoy it. To some people having a job they love is very, very important."
Derschang's obviously one of those people, and she's thriving. "I feel like I've been really lucky with these businesses. I've really enjoyed them. People like them." Her plate is full right nowand she doesn't anticipate launching any new ventures, but she admits, "You just never know what's going to happen. I always try to be open to what might happen, to take some chances."