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Is McMenamins Elk Temple in Tacoma Worth Visiting?

I left work on Friday, June 14th, with a bit of anxiety.  I was attending the Mudhoney show at McMenamins Elk Temple in Tacoma and was going to explore the building a bit, providing my thoughts in this very article. Finding a parking spot is one of the things I worry about when attending a new venue, and the feeling of dread was strong with me as I drove to T-town. I needn’t have worried so.  I instantly found street parking and was walking towards the gloriously restored building a little before 6:00 PM.

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McMenamin’s Elk Temple, Tacoma WA | Photo by Jason Adolf for the Auburn Examiner

McMenamins Elk Temple in Tacoma

I thought a bit about the history of the building as I approached the crowded terrace. Built just over a century ago and designed by famed architect Édouard Frère Champney, it was the social center of Tacoma for years. Those days were long gone when I moved to the Puget Sound region from the ‘Philly’ burbs in the early ‘00’s. The building had been sitting vacant for two decades and had become a destination for graffiti artists, shady characters, and photographers hoping for the perfect shot on the still glorious Spanish Steps. Purchased in 2017 by the McMenamins group and restored throughout 2018 at the cost of $34 million, the location has quickly become the go-to spot for hipsters, couples on dates, and those attending concerts.

McMenamins Spanish Bar

I made my way to the Spanish Bar, the bar just outside of the concert hall. Surprisingly, I found a table almost immediately and settled in to get a pre-show cocktail and a bite to eat. I settled on a gin concoction called the Lavender Lady – lavender is my favorite – and an uppity sounding cold cut sandwich called an SB Aquatine Bocadillo.

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McMenamins Spanish Bar, Tacoma WA | Photo by Jason Adolf for the Auburn Examiner

The drink was $10 and absolutely fantastic.  The gin and lavender were a perfect combination, imbued with peppercorns. I found out they were peppercorns after I bit into one thinking it was a berry of some sort. I made a big mistake. My sandwich started off with a pepper aftertaste, but quickly settled into a light but filling meal that was notable for its use of feta and aioli sauce. At $14.50, it was what I expected to pay.

I’d give the Spanish Bar the highest marks possible.  Excellent service matched with a unique cocktail and a perfect sandwich. The ambiance is on point for a way to relax with a drink or for a date night.  That each booth has its own small lamp adds to the intimate feel of the bar.

Mudhoney at McMenamins Spanish Ballroom

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McMenamins Spanish Ballroom, Tacoma WA | Photo by Jason Adolf for the Auburn Examiner

The doors to the Spanish Ballroom opened at 7:00 PM and I staked out a spot near the front of the stage after a brief walk around the room. I was already impressed.  This is a concert hall that is sure to attract national and international acts – a huge win for the city of Tacoma.

There is a bar near the back of the room that serves up just about anything you can think of.  I opted to skip a drink for two reasons – the bathrooms are nowhere near the stage, and I didn’t want to lose my spot (I had more investigating to do after the show).

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McMenamins Spanish Ballroom, Tacoma WA | Photo by Jason Adolf for the Auburn Examiner

Mudhoney came on stage after two decent opening acts. Now, my history with Mudhoney is extensive, and they’ve never failed to leave me falling in love with music all over again. 2018 was a busy year for the band, releasing the fiery album Digital Garbage along with the thought-provoking video for the single ‘Kill Yourself Live‘ (look for me in the video playing a Pharisee).

From the start, the band seemed on fire, and I knew I’d be in for a great night. The new songs mixed in well with the grunge classics. Somehow, after playing the song for 30 years, ‘Touch Me, I’m Sick‘ still sounds fresh and exciting. The crowd was really into the performance and the band fed off that energy. Political, energetic, angry, funny – the show hit all the right marks for me.

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Mudhoney at McMenamins Spanish Ballroom, Tacoma WA June 2019 | Photo by Jason Adolf for the Auburn Examiner

The Vault

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McMenamins The Vault, Tacoma WA | Photo by Jason Adolf for the Auburn Examiner

Once the encore was over, I set out to find the hidden bar.   The current trend is to have speakeasy-style bars that call to mind The Roaring ’20’s (1920’s that is). Some of these bars are hidden, some of them not at all.  But they all evoke a sense of an era long gone. Of course, the hipster in me loves this trend. The passageway to the bar is relatively easy to find, though I won’t tell you how to find it (finding it yourself will be far more fun!)

Once you are in the hallway, you’ll notice lights leading the way to the bar. The walls are decorated with graffiti.  McMenamins invited graffiti artists back to help decorate this hallway. It makes for a unique perspective.  The ceiling is low, reminding me of the half floor in the film Being John Malkovich. After a brief walk, you are at a door announcing your arrival at The Vault.

The room is somewhat small, as any secret bar should be. It was after midnight and yet I was still worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a spot to sit. I ordered my go-to drink – a gin & tonic with Hendricks gin – and scoped out the room. It was $10 for the drink, very reasonable. My drink was made very quickly and mixed to perfection. A chair opened, and I sat down to reflect on the evening for roughly 20 minutes.

I liked the whole idea of the secret bar, and the room itself is very nice. At this point, the venue is so popular that people will help you find the bar if you are looking for it. I have mixed feelings about that, but there is no doubt that if you go to The Vault late at night or perhaps on a weekday, you can find some solace and some thinking time. I’d recommend it.

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McMenamins The Vault, Tacoma WA | Photo by Jason Adolf for the Auburn Examiner

I left McMenamins feeling like it was a successful night and thoroughly enjoyed everything I had experienced. On the way to my car, I noticed Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner loading things into his car and ended up talking to him a bit into wee hours of the morning. But that is a story to be told at another time. McMenamins Elk Temple lives up to the hype and is worth checking out.

One Comment

  1. Scott Scott June 24, 2019

    Nice review of the place and the band. Jason is a little like a modern Forest Gump… always ending up at the right place at the right time to interact with some amazing people. It’s a gift to all of us that he is so good at writing about his experiences so we get a feeling for what it’s like to be him for a moment. Fun stuff!

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