A DIFFERENT KIND OF DINER
C. Preston Smith met his wife Franceswhen they were both “working stiffs” at Seattle’s old Mannings Cafe on 4th Avenue. Preston was a coffee boy and Frances worked in the bakery. Preston worked his way into becoming a manager and in 1929 they both quit their jobs to start The 5 Point Café in Belltown. A year later they opened The Mecca Café on Lower Queen Anne.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, and Franklin Roosevelt said it was “…ok to drink beer”, both locations opened two of the first legal bars in Seattle, and business started booming. But surviving during the Depression Era wasn’t a “bowl of cherries.” Preston remembered the price of doing business. Like when the local policeman came by and asked for a little kickback. “The sergeant on the beat always wanted a $20 dollar bill when he shook hands with me.”
Life got tougher in late 1933 when the Washington State liquor Board took away the Mecca’s lucrative beer license for nine months. Caught between jealous cafe owners from local eating establishments and corrupt politicians, The Mecca bar was declared off-limits to the public because Preston made the unpardonable mistake having “a drunk on the premises.” One member of the State Liquor Board offered to “fix-up” his Mecca alcohol license for a thousand dollars, but Mr. Smith refused. “I would not pay off…I was rigid on that one.” Several local restaurants were closed down at that time and during the public hearing to re-open The Mecca, the battle got nasty. Mr. Smith recalled that one local owner was slinging more than hash. “The local Joe down the street claimed my wife was under the tables giving sex to the customers.”
The Mecca Cafe won the war with the State Liquor Board and the bar re-opened to a throng of wild and cheering patrons.
During World War II Preston and Frances again got caught up in the meat grinder of human history. Preston recalled the struggle of staying open during those difficult times. “We were rationed on coffee…We were rationed on sugar…” During all those hard times the young men and women who worked for Preston and Frances stayed loyal for a long, long time. “Some employees stayed on for twenty years.” And he never let his people go hungry.
Preston’s son Dick Smith took over the family business in 1975. Dick kept Preston’s tradition of large portions for good prices going, but also made The Mecca and The 5 Point legendary by pulling off all sorts of stunts.
Dick helped lead the successful political opposition to the Seattle Commons. He famously installed a periscope in the 5 Point’s men’s room with a clear view of the Space Needle, which is now in almost every guidebook on Seattle. He rigged up a rooftop faucet to water the sidewalk and discourage the transients who loitered in front of the 5 Point.
In 1972, Dick made the paper when, frustrated with trees in Tilikum Place park in front of the 5 Point blocking the sign, he cut them all down. He admitted it to the city, and paid the $100 fine.
In the late 70’s Dick argued with the City about the number of children living in the Denny Regrade – Dick knew the real number as he grew up there, the City council underestimated it, ignoring poorer children – so Dick spent $3,000 of his own money and late at night he and some friends built an illegal children’s park on a vacant lot at 3rd & Bell, now a dog park. He also caused controversy by hiring young waitresses to wear bikinis and roller skates and plug expiring parking meters in the neighborhood, leaving a flyer on the windows letting them know they were saved a parking ticket by The 5 Point and The Mecca.
During Seattle’s “Grunge” era in the 1990’s, The 5 Point and Mecca became notorious joints many of the more famous and plenty of less famous musicians hung out in.
After Dick died in 2001, The 5 Point building was sold to John Chigaras who then financed the sale of the cafe to a couple of his friends. The 5 Point fell on hard times as the couple disliked the dive bar vibe and the customers, eventually almost going out of business before being purchased (and saved) by David Meinert in 2009. Meanwhile The Mecca stayed in the Smith family with Dick’s wife Darlene, eventually becoming owned and operated by Darlene’s daughter in law Karon Hanke, who kept it alive and thriving.
In the most recent decade The 5 Point has again faced controversy when we were the first business to ban Google Glasses, resulting in tens of thousands of news stories around the world. When musician Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine showed up and refused to wait in line for 10 minutes, instead demanding access to the private room in back (the bathroom??), The 5 Point made the news again for the ensuing social media fight between Morello and the 5 Point’s owner, resulting in the viral reader board message “Eggs Against the Machine”.
In September of 2019, The Mecca and 5 Point were reunited by David Meinert, and continue to reflect a vision very similar to Dick & Preston Smith’s. Michele Young, who helped manage both The Mecca and 5 Point for Dick and Darlene, and who has been managing The 5 Point for the last decade, will now also again manage The Mecca. And Jorge Sosa, who has been the kitchen manager at the 5 Point for several years (formerly a manager at Lost Lake Café, 13 Coins and many others), will now oversee the Mecca kitchen as well. Several other long-term employees have been working for the restaurants for over 20 years. All employees will now have access to health insurance, paid vacation and retirement benefits. And the kitchens will again work together, taking advantage of the larger kitchen in the Mecca that Dick built out to handle prep for both locations.
The 5 Point and Mecca are the longest run family eateries in Seattle and two of the oldest bars still in existence in Belltown and Queen Anne. We’re known as two of the world’s best dive bars and diners, dimly-lit working class dives that serve hearty, inexpensive, unpretentious food with a usually crowded cocktail lounge serving up stiff drinks and raucous conversation. The chicken fried steak still weighs in at 11 ounces (“the biggest in Seattle”), and breakfast is always available. The Mecca is home to a world renowned drink-coaster art gallery, and the 5 Point has it’s notorious moose head and periscope.
And yes, we still cheat tourists and drunks.