The Swiss Restaurant and Pub in Tacoma turns 21

1993-2014: The transformation of a bar into a restaurant

By Ron Swarner on April 16, 2014

There's something to be said for being the only one. The outpost, colors snapping in the immaterial breeze, bastion of cool, temple of special. The Swiss Tavern was that, once - 21 years ago, in a galaxy remarkably similar to the one we now inhabit.

For those unfamiliar with the terrain, downtown Tacoma hasn't always been the beautiful specimen it is today. There used to be buildings hanging by a nail, people sleeping on colorful plastic in the Greyhound station, tumbleweeds. There were old folks who'd lived here for 50 years who weren't going anywhere no matter what, damn it. And there sure as hell wasn't any expensive coffee or glass bridge. There were no fancy lofts, no condos, no valet parking, no Tacoma Link (dollar fee or not). There was absolutely zero downtown.

Then, landlords sold out to the agents of The Future. The museums were built. Colleges erected. Devotees flocked from the hinterlands. Rents were raised. The little people got, as usual, their customary part of the stick. Some found themselves in the "No. 1 Wired City"; others bought chain mail and moved their tribes to East Tacoma.

Through it all, the Swiss Tavern - or, to the initiated, The Swiss - stood alone.

The Early Years

Before The Swiss opened on April 28, 1993, Jack McQuade and Bob Hill worked at Engine House No. 9 in Tacoma.

"I grew up in the south end of Tacoma. When I turned 21, I ended up in Tacoma's north end because that's where the good beer was," explains McQuade. He discovered many North Tacoma bars during his 21 run.

"Most of my buddies weren't 21 yet. So my older sister took me around Tacoma - nice places and dives. She made a giant handmade birthday card with 21 silver dollars taped inside. I handed them out all night. I missed the next two days work."

He grew fond of the Engine House, and at age 25 began learning the bar business as an employee. Hill was in command behind the bar.

"Bob found The Swiss. He asked me if I wanted to join him," says McQuade. "I was living in an apartment with a bunch of guys. I wasn't married. I didn't have kids. Why not?"

Hill brought in his friend Gayl Bertagni to run the kitchen as the third partner. The fourth partner, Marty Kling, didn't work out.

>>> Jack McQuade, Wednesday, April 16 2014

The Swiss was built in 1913, known then as the Swiss Hall. Originally, the bottom floor had a tavern. The second floor was a family meeting hall for Swedish immigrant families, and the third floor was a place for new Swedish families to live. Through the years, and the rise and fall and rise of downtown Tacoma, one thing remained constant - the tavern on the first floor. McQuade, Hill and Bertagni were the second non-Swiss owners in its history.

And they had vision.

During the six-month renovation, the surrounding neighborhood was fueled by black tar heroin.

"It was a rough neighborhood," remembers McQuade. "Bob and I would wear police caps given to us by friends on the force, and walk up and down the street writing down license plate numbers. The word on the street was Bob and I were police officers moonlighting as bar owners. The police chief came in and wanted to know where we got the caps."

They kept up the self-patrols the first couple of years and later hired big guys as security, including first bartender Jeff Tacker, a six-foot-six, 21-year-old who was brought on staff after helping with the remodel.

"He was the youngest bartender in town, but he was six-six and mature for his age," says McQuade.

When the doors opened, people came. McQuade ran the day shift and bar. Hill ran the night shift and music. Bertagni built the kitchen.

"We were lucky people all over town knew us. If we were from California it probably would have failed," McQuade says. "The neighborhood was that bad."

The neighborhood slowly turned, and took another positive leap when Rock Pasta took over the neighboring space, formerly The Wedge, in 1995.

Soon popular staff members such as Alan Glen, John O'Gara, Steve Campagna, Red O'Gorman, Monkey and the owners' family members served the drinks that fueled the migration downtown that gave way to hope and killed the fight against beautifying downtown Tacoma. Thankfully. After all, where else are thirsty people to turn? To God? Or their families? Please. This bar should win a medal. It had to endure, asking people to push past the rubble and try the fish and chips. The pathos was palpable. The sandwiches rocked. I camped out many a day, like some bizarre troll of Jefferson Avenue, sloppily sucking down delicious French dip sandwiches and dancing wildly to whatever primitive rockin' blues tune happened to be coming out of the speakers.

The kitchen wasn't complete when The Swiss Pub opened 21 years ago. But once it was up and running, the first menu item was a no-brainer.

"People would hound us asking when we were opening. We would always reply, ‘two weeks,'" says McQuade, speaking for his former co-owners, Bertagni and Hill. "Two weeks, two weeks - we said it for months. When it came time to name Gayl's first sandwich out of the kitchen, ‘The Fortnight' seemed appropriate since it's the British term for ‘two weeks.'"

The turkey, bacon, sautéed mushroom, onion, and Swiss cheese sandwich spurred the other original Swiss sandwiches: Today's, Tomorrow's and the Yesterday's. All but Tomorrow's still grace the menu. For those living in the artists' lofts or inside the Heidelberg Brewery, The Swiss was their home kitchen.

After Bertagni died in a freak accident in May 2009, McQuade and Hill stayed true to her menu, since their beloved partner had created it and loyally ran the kitchen. McQuade, now the sole owner, has kept the sandwiches on the menu, with slight tweaks, in her honor, but he is slowly changing the cuisine coming out of The Swiss' kitchen.

"We're moving from a bar with food to a restaurant with a bar," says McQuade.

He hired a new chef, Scott Cleese, who has put modern twists on The Swiss' dishes as well as added new flavors, especially for daily and weekly specials.

The joint went all-ages, family friendly in 2011.

"We're a restaurant, a pub, a music venue, and an art gallery," says McQuade. "The Swiss wears a lot of different hats - at different times of day it's a different place."

He says the conversion to a more family-friendly restaurant has been an uphill battle. Many people met their spouses on the dance floor. While McQuade hopes that continues, he's equally hoping that great family memories will be born at The Swiss - such as fathers and sons bonding over the pool tables. He's happy private functions such as wedding receptions, sports banquets and retirement parties are on the rise as well.

Celebrating 21 Years

In honor of The Swiss' 21st birthday, 7 Seas Brewing in Gig Harbor reunited McQuade and a retired Bob Hill, now living on a mountain, to brew a special beer for the occasion. The two gave their input, selected the hops for 7 Seas' malt and helped brew it.

"We chose an imperial red ale because it's the new popular style. Plus, it ties in with The Swiss, the red shield," says McQuade. "And we like hoppy beers down here. So we hopped it up a bit. Plus, there are a ton of IPAs out there, so there is another reason to go with the red ale."

The Swiss Restaurant & Pub's 21st anniversary will run 11 a.m. to close Monday, April 28. Raffle prizes will be doled out on the 21st minute of every hour. Junkyard Jane will hit the stage at 8 p.m., normal starting time for bands during The Swiss' popular weekly Monday Night Blues sessions. The show and party are free.

"Junkyard Jane played The Swiss many times over the years, so it's a natural fit. Blues bands helped put us on the map. Bob did a great job with the music," adds McQuade.

The imperial red ale will go on tap when the doors open. McQuade and Hill will name the brew before the party.

21ST ANNIVERSARY PARTY, 11 a.m. to close, music at 8 p.m., Monday, April 28, The Swiss Restaurant & Pub, 1904 Jefferson Ave., Tacoma, 253.572.2821