It’s been a devastating week for Seattle institutions. First, the 130-year old local pharmacy chain Bartell Drugs was sold to Rite Aid, then, a demolition permit was issued for the downtown location of Elephant Car Wash, whose classic pink sign is said to be one of the most photographed landmarks in Seattle. The good news is that it looks like the sign will be moved to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) — but losing its neon presence on Battery Street in South Lake Union is still disappointing for locals.
Seattle’s restaurant scene can help carry on the elephant’s retro legacy, particularly because a couple of spots already have similar roots: the original marquees for Dick’s Drive-In and Ivar’s Acres of Clams were created by the same designer, Beatrice Haverfield, more than sixty years ago.
But those are just a couple of the restaurants that hopefully will endure with distinctive signage intact. The following 10 signs are a few favorites, but we also want to hear from you in considering a more comprehensive list for the future: Which local restaurant and bar signs do you love the most? Send us an email.
One of the most iconic restaurants in Seattle, this business has been in the International Distruct for 85 years (the late Bruce Lee was a fan of its beef oyster sauce). Its well-known “chop suey” sign remains a beacon in the neighborhood, although the current version is actually a replica of the original.
In 1954, when restaurateur Dick Spady decided to open a fast-food joint in Wallingford, he employed the services of Campbell Neon. The aforementioned Haverfield was the lead designer at that company, and it was her elegant, cursive handwriting that gave the Dick’s logo its distinctive look.
What started as a coffee shop became a powerhouse pastry chain after founders Mark and Michael Klebeck brought in doughnut-making equipment to complement their mid-century architectural. That carried over to the sign, which was salvaged from a closed Chinese restaurant called “Topspot” — the “s” fell off in transit, and a name was born.
Everywhere you look in Pike Place, there’s a famous sign (not to mention possibly the most iconic one of all in Seattle). But the Athenian restaurant inside the main arcade — which serves great oysters — stands out for its bright colors, simplicity, and warmth. Also, gotta love that the word “seafood” is more prominent than the restaurant’s name.
The “Original” Starbucks
Yes, this is mainly a Pike Place tourist trap (and not even technically the first location of the worldwide coffee giant), but the original brown and white logo from the 70s remains front and center. It’s a reminder that even a global conglomerate had indie beginnings — its naked mermaid became more demur in future iterations.
Ivar’s Acres of Clams
The Pier 54 seafood mainstay will be temporarily closed until the spring, but the signage remains an integral part of the waterfront (and the same branding can be found at the various fish bar offshoots in the greater Seattle area). Like Dick’s, the cursive style comes from Seattle’s “Queen of Neon,” Haverfield.
Like Ivar’s, this is another longtime waterfront classic that’s been around for decades, with humble beginnings as a bait shop, then a cafe, before gradually turning into its current incarnation as a rustic, Ballard seafood restaurant. Original owner Ray Lichtenberger built the famous neon sign on the dock that overlooks Shilshole Bay.
Merchant’s Cafe and Saloon
This Pioneer Square institution which opened in 1890 and is believed to be Seattle’s oldest standing restaurant and bar. Last year, the building was sold to a local private real estate firm called Unico, but so far the old marquee adorned with lights hasn’t been touched, and the restaurant is still open.
The Blue Moon Tavern
This historic U District dive has been a popular haunt for the college crowd (as well as legendary writers like Theodore Roethke) for more than 80 years, marked by a distinctive sign right out of the 30s. The future of the tavern is in doubt, since it’s currently closed during the pandemic, recently launching a fundraising campaign.
This was the restaurant that skyrocketed Tom Douglas into becoming one of Seattle’s first celebrity chefs, and its playful chef sign has been overlooking the corner of 4th Avenue and Virginia Street in Belltown since it opened in 1989. The restaurant is temporarily closed, but Douglas has been keeping some items going at the new Serious TakeOut in Ballard.