By Emily Hamann
Bellingham’s nightlife is coming alive again.
Friday and Saturday nights see crowds of people eating dinner, seeing concerts, movies and getting a drink at one of the many breweries and bars.
In the past six months, almost a dozen new bars and restaurants have opened or are in the process of opening in downtown Bellingham.
Some are new additions or new locations to existing Bellingham places, like Aslan Brewing’s new taphouse, Aslan Depot, and Miller’s Back Door, a lounge that opened in the former coatroom of Rumors Cabaret. Others, like Boscoe’s and the opening-soon Saltine, quickly filled the space left by closed businesses.
Along those same lines, a business called Firefly Lounge has applied for a liquor license in the bar and restaurant that used to house The Green Frog, and Club 202 has applied for a nightclub license in the space that Glow Nightclub used to occupy, on 202 Holly St., above Bob’s Burgers.
Others, like The Orion, Black Sheep, Bellingham Cider Company and Red Rum, are brand new.
“I think it’s great,” Alice Clark, executive director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, said. “It gets people going downtown and walking around, and makes everything better.”
She said this new spate of bars and restaurants is a sign of changing customer habits.
In Bellingham, retail downtown took a major hit when Bellis Fair Mall opened in 1988.
It has been trying to come back ever since, but online shopping has only made that more difficult. As retail shops close, bars and restaurants are moving in.
At the same time people are doing more shopping online, they’re still spending money at brick and mortar locations that provide an experience.
A night out with friends is a experience you can’t get online.
Breweries like Aslan and Kulshan, which act as community gathering places and allow people to linger and chat over a pint of beer, are so busy they’ve added second taphouses, Clark said.
“It’s a really social thing that’s happening that people just aren’t getting online.”
The city and the partnership are in the process of working with a consulting company called Downtown Works, which has analyzed the makeup of a few core blocks of downtown. In those few blocks, 34 percent of the space is taken up with food and beverage.
Clark said there’s room for that to go up to 40 percent. Retail makes up 27 percent. The goal is to try to get that up to 40 percent as well.
“It just seems like there is a resurgence of new business openings,” Clark said. “Food and beverage, for sure, is leading that.”
“Overall people, I think, see that Bellingham is poised for some good growth and they want to be part of it.”
Hollie Huthman, co-owner of the music venue The Shakedown and bar and restaurant The Racket, has noticed the trend.
“Particularly recently there’s been a resurgence of people excited to come downtown,” she said. “And coming downtown to spend time not just at one spot but at multiple spots.”
A thriving downtown at night helps venues like The Shakedown, she said.
“More bars, and definitely and nice variety of bars, it helps everybody,” she said. “Its creates a reason for people to get downtown. It’s more fun.”
She remembers around 15 years ago, downtown had a lot of dive bars. The bars opening recently have offered more variety, from middle of the road bars to higher-end cocktail bars.
Since The Shakedown opened seven years ago, she has noticed a couple trends in the way people see concerts. People are more willing to pay cover charges, and higher cover charges, than they used to be. Huthman said attendance at shows is higher than it was two years ago, and once people get in the door, they’re spending more on drinks.
“I think people are willing to spend a little bit more money,” she said.
After a concert is over at The Shakedown, people are likely to grab a drink somewhere else downtown. Just a few blocks away is the new bar The Orion.
“The fact that Bellingham’s finally getting a nightlife is amazing,” Jonny McIntyre, owner of The Orion, said.
McIntyre has lived in Bellingham for nearly 20 years, and spent a lot of time in the food and beverage industry. He managed Boomer’s Drive Inn, then Cap Hansen’s, before finally opening his own bar in October.
“It felt like a natural progression,” he said.
The Orion, located at 311 East Holly St., has been the site of a few bars previously, but more recently was an aerobics studio.
“I’ve always loved this space,” McIntyre said. So when it became available, he jumped on it. He wanted to fill a niche he thought was missing in the nightlife scene — a middle ground between the cheap party bars and the upscale cocktail bars.
One room of The Orion has a single pool table, the other full of cushy booths and tables.
The walls are the dark blue of the night sky and painted with different constellations and glow-in-the-dark stars. McIntyre painted it himself.
“The vibe is low-key,” he said. “More of a cocktail bar, chill and cool.”
The menu offers some craft cocktails, but at a lower price than the other cocktail bars in town.
He’s excited about all the new bars downtown.
“I’m stoked, because it’s another place for me to go on my days off,” he said. More downtown options are good for everybody, bar owners and customers alike.
“It brings people out and it brings people around,” McIntyre said. Customers don’t usually pick just one bar and stay there all night. Instead they go from place to place. Anything that brings people downtown is a good thing.
“I feel like it’s awesome that we’re all creating new things and new spaces,” McIntyre said.
Just a block away from The Orion on State Street, Aslan Brewing Company opened its second location. Just like the first location on Forest St., the brewery renovated a historic building, the Union Depot Building. This new taproom, called Aslan Depot, is all about the beer.
“The original Aslan location has evolved in to a popular Bellingham destination, where due to the delicious food and packed lunch or dinner rushes, it became easy to overlook the beer itself,” Aslan Marketing Director Berit Dahl said, in an email.
The taproom is open until 1 a.m. Thursday-Monday, and is also home to Aslan’s expanding line of barrel-aged beers.
“The Aslan Depot is filling a void that Aslan Brewing has been seeking for some time, a 21+ beer focused taproom,” Dahl wrote.
Another bar hoping to cater to a new audience is Miller’s Back Door. It opened in the former coatroom of Rumors Cabaret at 1119 Railroad Ave. in November.
The two bars are actually all the same business, and are adjoined, but offer distinctly different experiences.
“The whole concept is higher-end. There’s actually upholstered furniture. Definitely more of a laid back vibe,” Rian Greer, who runs Miller’s Back Door, said. “Whereas Rumors is more of a nightclub, fun to dance, fun to party, but you can’t really have a conversation.”
Miller’s Back Door is named after Wayne Miller, who owned and ran Rumors for more than 30 years. He died late last year. Greer, a longtime employee, is in the process of taking over both businesses.
One of the things Greer has noticed is that people are coming to Rumors later. A decade ago, business would start picking up at around 9:30 p.m. Now, Rumors is busier more at 11 p.m. or midnight.
He thinks that’s because now people have so many more options.
They’re starting their evenings at the breweries, he said, which tend to close earlier, and making their way to Rumors at the end of the night.
He hopes to capture some of that earlier-evening business at Miller’s Back Door.
“I think that Bellingham has a very healthy brewery and bar scene,” Greer said. “I think a lot of folks had a lot of great ideas all at the same time.”