Washington state's third-largest city, Tacoma (population 204,000) lies just 30 miles south of Seattle and even closer to the Northwest's largest airport, Sea-Tac. It's the sort of city that those who have never visited tend to know little about it, as it's unquestionably been overshadowed by Seattle's international prestige, but Tacoma is a lively, vibrant city with a beautiful setting on Puget Sound, an enviable cost of living (and visiting), and a wealth of superb attractions - exceptional historic theaters, the stellar Museum of Glass and LeMay car museum (among several others), vast and verdant Point Defiance Park, a growing clutch of first-rate restaurants and cool cafes, and a surprisingly sizable and visible gay scene.
Also, the city hosts a popular Tacoma Gay Pride festival each year in mid-July.
Was it a slight stretch when The Advocate magazine named Tacoma the "gayest city" in America? Probably, although the distinction certainly generated a lot of interesting buzz and conversation. But Tacoma does have plenty going for it, including a small but vibrant district of gay bars as well as eclectic restaurants, antiques shops, and performing arts venues clustered in and around downtown's hilly St. Helens District.
Gay Bars in St. Helens
You'll find two very popular gay bars in this compact neighborhood. Mix (635 St. Helens Ave., 253-383-4327) is a lovely space with a huge following in the community - popular nights include Ladies Night on Tuesdays and weekends for karaoke and dancing to DJ tunes. Friendly, unpretentious, and with a fun and welcoming staff, Mix is a pretty easy place to mix it up with locals and meet new friends.
Just around the corner, Club Silverstone (739 St. Helens Ave., 253-404-0273) opened in the late '90s and is owned by the same folks behind the Urban Onion restaurant and lounge in nearby Olympia and the popular Cuff Complex, a favorite gay bar and dance club on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Club Silverstone is fun and friendly, with a glitzy dance floor (where there's also karaoke many evenings) and a quieter lounge space.
Other draws include free pool on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. As with the Mix, the crowd here is a catch-all of LGBT folks and friends - plenty of Tacoma revelers hit both clubs on weekend evenings.
Gay-Friendly Dining, Hotels and Entertainment
In the same neighborhood, inviting and diverse spots for nibbling include B Sharp Coffee House (706 Opera Alley - Court C, 253-292-9969), which serves high-octane coffee, beer and wine, and light food (such as sandwiches and flatbread pizzas), and the outstanding Over the Moon Cafe (709 Opera Alley - Court C, 253-284-3722), which is a lovely option for lunch, dinner, or post-theater dessert, serving delicious and inventive mod American fare, such as steamed clams with white wine sauce, cioppino packed with fresh seafood.
Much like Seattle and Portland, Tacoma has a quite integrated community - at plenty of other bars, cafes, and restaurants around town, you're apt to encounter a mixed crowd, and folks won't feel out of place or unwelcome because of their sexual orientation at the vast majority of establishments around town. Downtown, within walking distance of the St. Helens District, you'll find a number of inviting options for dining and drinking.
There's gay-owned Pacific Grill (1502 Pacific Ave., 253-627-3535), a swanky, urbane spot serving terrific contemporary seafood and Northwest-inspired modern fare - it's a fun spot for lunch, dinner, and happy hour, and the bar is very much a place to see and be seen.
In the stunning, hip Hotel Murano (1320 Broadway Plaza, 253-238-8000), an art-glass-inspired boutique hotel that's part of the gay-friendly Provenance Hotels group - which also operates Hotel 1000 and Hotel Max in Seattle and the Lucia, deLuxe, and Sentinel hotels in Portland - consider stopping by the on-site restaurant BITE for cocktails or a meal. It's a sophisticated but still refreshingly casual space serving creative regional fare with a farm-to-market approach. Hotel Murano is easily downtown's trendiest and most stylish place to stay, too.
When in Tacoma, be sure to spend a little time along the waterfront area and Ruston Way - views of Commencement Bay and the surrounding peninsulas and islands in Puget Sound are stunning. A lot of the seafood restaurants along the water are ordinary at best, but Duke's Chowder House (3327 Ruston Way, 253-752-5444) - which is part of a chainlet of seafood eateries with locations as well in Seattle, Tukwila, and Kent - delivers some of the tastiest and freshest fare, plus a good beer, wine, and cocktail list. Grab a table on the deck in good weather.