First Hill restaurant and bar Vito’s has a colorful — and nefarious — past. Established by brothers Vito and Jimmie Santoro in 1953, the bar gained notoriety in the 1960s and 1970s as a smoke-filled, dimly lit lounge with ties to Seattle’s underworld. Vito’s had a legacy of bringing together disparate parts of society, like off-duty cops, politicians, Husky football fans, Catholic priests, and, depending on who you ask, some murky connections to organized crime. If the walls of the backroom (formerly the Vagabond Room, now the Cougar Room, complete with a taxidermied wildcat) could talk, there’s no telling what backroom deals and scandalous acts might come to light. For Vito’s lead chef Michael Crossley, shadows of the lounge’s past are palpable.
Crossley came on board soon after he learned owners Greg Lundgren and Jeff Scott were reviving the lounge in 2010. Inspired by the success of their other First Hill bar The Hideout, Lundgren and Scott were eager to take on the project of restoring Vito’s to a sense of its original, albeit tamer, glory, including the mirrored walls and installment of a grand piano.
In 1994, the Santoros sold Vito’s to their bar manager, six years before Vito himself died. The lounge changed hands a few times, eventually becoming a club before a 2008 shooting caused the location to permanently shutter. Crossley was hired on for a kitchen position, but at the beginning, he lent a hand in Lundgren and Scott’s restoration work. “We kept joking not to dig too deep into certain crevices lest we find some human remains,” Crossley said.
It was only a few weeks after Vito’s grand reopening in September 2010 that Crossley and other staff started noticing flickering lights, and opening and closing doors. The latter was more disturbing since the vintage doors were notably heavy. “They would open and close on us. Never moving when we could see it,” he said.
Crossley would sometimes feel a chill that sent his hair on end, at times accompanied by an inexplicable noise or knock at another part of the restaurant. Vito’s ghosts became a source of speculation and even a joke among staff who were simply too busy to pay it much notice. Sous chef Peaches regularly saw spirits, Crossley affirmed. Other staff members were less affected. “Honestly in 10-plus years working at Vito’s, I have never been spooked there by anything non-alive,” said Vito’s manager Jana Howard.
One busy Saturday night, Crossley managed to step away from the kitchen for a break in the back alley. “I heard heavy footfalls coming down the back stairs, and I cracked the door to see who it was. I saw a pair of pressed slacks and Italian-style loafers coming down the steps,” Crossley remembered.
Expecting a member of the kitchen staff to join him for a break outside, he let the door close. The steps stopped suddenly and no one was there. When he rejoined the kitchen, Crossley found that no one had left their stations, and “no one was wearing loafers like that.”
During another inexplicable experience with the opening and closing doors, instead of ignoring it, the chef finally spoke up and acknowledged the spirit for the first time. That seemed to put a stop to the encounters — at least until the pandemic.
For much of 2020, Vito’s was open for takeout only. The kitchen helped keep the lounge going, but the primary draw of Vito’s is its entertainment and lively local crowd. Crossley soon discovered a less-alive crowd also enjoyed the club.
One late evening last year, Crossley made the trip back to Vito’s to pick up something he had forgotten to take after his shift. Not bothering to turn on the lights, he made his way through the restaurant with his phone flashlight. “The energy in the room was palpable,” he remembered. “It just felt spooky.”
On his way out, “My flashlight hit the mirrors on the wall and I saw outlines of people sitting at the bar,” he said. “I took one quick glance over to the bar, and while the stools were empty, in the reflection of the mirrors every single stool was full of people … I had just crashed their ghost party. I don’t think I even exhaled until I was safely in my apartment.”
Given the lounge’s history, it seems fitting that any ghost at Vito’s would be game for a good party. “My personal belief is that they approve of what we are doing there,” Lundgren said. “So far, we seem to have made peace with them.”