Seattle's Oldest Cafe Turning 100

In a city where antiseptic new skyscrapers rise almost daily on the rubble of a colorful past, The Merchants Cafe - oldest restaurant in Seattle and possibly on the West Coast - will become 100 years old Thursday.

The event will not go unnoticed.

Gov. Booth Gardner is issuing a ``Merchants Cafe Day'' proclamation to honor the old brick structure at 109 Yesler Way.

Either Mayor Norm Rice or an aide will cut the birthday cake at noon Thursday, and partying will continue through Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Among those expected to attend the party is Elizabeth Blackler, daughter of John Schreiner, who ran the cafe from 1923 to 1965. Schreiner succeeded his uncle, F.X. Schreiner, who bought the building in 1900.

Schreiner's descendants have owned the building ever since.

The cafe's present proprietor, Gary Smalling, took over in 1985.

Last refurbished in 1972 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cafe retains much of its pioneer flavor.

``Merchants Cafe'' is spelled out in the white-and-green-tiled entryway, circa 1890.

``Havana Cigars . . . Lovera'' - in stained glass over the entrance - is a reminder of the cigar shop once housed there.

Inside are the original Merchants Cafe safe and a gold scale, reminders of a time when Klondike miners brought in gold dust and received cash at the 80-foot bar that came around The Horn in the 1860s.

An ornately patterned tin ceiling, brass cash registers, dark-wood booths and an assortment of pioneer photographs complete the main-floor decor.

There clings to the exposed-brick walls downstairs a hint of bootlegging, illegal gambling and ladies of the night.

Merchants Cafe brochures heighten the aura of naughtiness-past by proclaiming, ``Only a mere shell of its former decadence, The Merchants now welcomes women and children.''

Staples of the menu, offered seven days a week, are fettuccine, peanut chicken, seafood sautes, New York steaks, cheesecake and Manila-clam appetizers.

Prices, though moderate, are a far cry from the Great Depression when patrons were offered free sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs with their nickel beer.

For those who revere Seattle's past, The Merchants Cafe stands on hallowed ground.

In the early 1850s, pioneer Doc Maynard - the soul of generosity - handed over to Henry Yesler, for his steam sawmill, the land upon which the cafe rests.

Yesler, less generous, sold the site to Charles Terry in 1857. By 1864, a two-story clapboard structure had been built on what then was Mill Street (later changed to Yesler Way).

On the top floor, photographer E.M. Sammis took the only known photograph of Doc Maynard and his friend, Chief Sealth, who gave Seattle its name.

The bottom floor housed, at various times, a grocery store, a saloon and a barbershop.

At the time of the Great Fire (June 6, 1889), the building was owned by John Hall Sanderson. Two weeks after the embers cooled, Sanderson announced plans for a new building, to be built of ``brick, terra cotta stone and iron decorations,'' and cost a then-whopping $15,000.

An 1892 city directory lists ``The Merchants Exchange Saloon, 109 Yesler Ave., Charles Osner, proprietor.'' The basement saw service over the years as a German restaurant, a Spanish restaurant, a cardroom and a speak-easy.

Osner sold the building in 1898 to F.X. Schreiner, who became moderately wealthy in the Klondike. Schreiner used the cafe as a ``bank'' on weekends, paying miners in cash for their gold and going to the bank on Mondays.

Two signs attest to how the cafe did business during Prohibition (``Merchants Cafe - Cigars-Soft Drinks'') and after repeal of the Volstead Act (``Merchants Cafe - Beer and Restaurant'').

In 1940, the Yesler Way cable line was removed. Fifty years later, the Pioneer Place station for the Metro tunnel is just a couple of blocks from the cafe.

Over the years, the restaurant has been a favorite with politicians, lawyers and judges, public employees and tourists attracted by the sign ``Seattle's Oldest Restaurant.''