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At Vito’s, celebrating ten years of a restored First Hill classic

When Lundgren and Scott took over Vito’s in 2010, they found a treasure trove of old menus and photographs in the basement. Here’s a scene from a night at Vito’s. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Scott)

On September 18, First Hill’s iconic nightclub and Italian restaurant Vito’s quietly passed its 10 year anniversary under owners Greg Lundgren and Jeff Scott. A celebratory event wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, and Lundgren and Scott were admittedly busy preparing to reopen for reduced dine-in seating on September 30.

“The world’s been so crazy that we never even made an announcement about [the anniversary], which we probably should have. We’ve been so busy trying to keep the lights on,” Lundgren said.

As Lundgren prepares to officially open his latest creation on First Hill with new arts venue the Museum of Museums, it’s time to celebrate a decade of Vito’s.

The last six months of pandemic restrictions have been challenging for the lounge on 9th and Madison, a destination steeped in history and notoriety whose mirrored walls, red leather booths, and (pre-COVID) live music are meant to be experienced in-person. When Lundgren and Scott took on the ambitious task of restoring Vito’s ten years ago, the vision was to resurrect what Vito and Jimmie Santoro started in 1953: a neighborhood lounge where people enjoyed Italian food, cocktails, and live entertainment. Lundgren remembers his father would stop at the lounge when he was working downtown. In the grunge years Scott would hang out with friends at Vito’s after shows, ordering their stiff drinks. Spurred by the success of The Hideout, a speakeasy-style bar a few blocks away they established five years prior, Lundgren and Scott felt inspired to tackle the project of restoring Vito’s in 2010.


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“I think I just walked by [Vito’s] 100 times and i was like, ‘I wish somebody would restore this club. It has such a rich political history.’ Two years went by before I engaged with [the owner of the building]. Maybe a theme in my life is you wish that somebody else would do it, and when they don’t do it you kind of take it upon yourself to take care of it,” Lundgren said.

At the time Lundgren and Scott approached the building owner with their idea, Vito’s had never recovered from a 2008 shooting inside the lounge. The venue had fallen out of the neighborhood’s good graces, but then again Vito’s had always been notorious. Lawyers, doctors, priests, celebrities, a high-profile politician or two, and off-duty cops would rub elbows with one another at the horseshoe-shaped bar. Acts too salacious to retell occurred in the back room, known at one time as the Vagabond Room. Now it’s the Cougar Room, with a taxidermied big cat keeping watch.

Vito Santoro himself (right) created a neighborhood meeting place where lawyers, off-duty cops, and a high-profile politician or two could mingle, and who-knows-what would happen in the back room. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Scott)

Vito’s legendary mob-like vibe was based in fact. “The history of that restaurant is so intertwined with the history of Seattle, and not all of the bright side of Seattle, kind of the dark underbelly of Seattle. There’s really a lot of stuff that happened, stories that we had heard through the grapevine as we started to get involved that were pretty crazy,” Scott said.

Santoro sold the lounge to his bar manager in the early 1990s before he died in 1994. The establishment changed hands several times before its last incarnation as a hip hop club before the 2008 shooting.

Although Lundgren and Scott infused their own passion into restoring Vito’s, complete with the installation of a grand piano true to the original design, the neighborhood didn’t immediately celebrate their efforts. Some critics decried the venue as a crime-ridden lost cause, while others dismissed it as a hipster project.

“I think the reality was we had a lot of work to do to change people’s attitudes about what Vito’s was, especially after multiple shootings and the violence that was kind of centered around Vito’s in the early 2000s. That was a bigger obstacle to get over than we had anticipated,” Lundgren said.

When Lundgren and Scott took ownership of Vito’s, the lounge had fallen into disrepair. They painstakingly restored the booths, bar and kitchen, and brought in a grand piano. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Scott)

It took about five years before they hit their stride, boosted by Chef Michael Crossley establishing an accomplished Italian menu, and bar manager Jana Howard at the helm of what Scott calls “one of the top ten cocktail programs in the country.” Vito’s began featuring live music, jazz, funk, blues, R&B, or lounge acts five nights a week. Lundgren and Scott carefully tended to Vito’s authentic reincarnation, and won back the confidence of the neighborhood. COVID-19 was a devastating setback. “[Vito’s] was just cruisin’ and then the pandemic hits and everything just comes to a screeching halt,” Scott said.

While Vito’s never closed and has continued to offer takeout food and cocktails for the last six months, Scott says that profits are 10 or 15% of what they were in 2019.

Vito’s back room, formerly the Vagabond Room and now Cougar Room, photographed here in 2019, was a place where after-hours deals were made and who-knows-what else transpired. In fact, it’s probably best we don’t know. (Photo by Eleanor Petry)

A neighborhood lounge and live music venue are hardly transferable to a takeout experience, but Lundgren and Scott are committed to pushing through. They reopened on the last day of September for reduced in-person dining, and are planning a “Costumes-Only” Halloween party instead of their usual Costume Crawl. “Patrons can drop off their costume as long as it’s free-standing or able to sit in a chair,” Lundgren explained. “Then our reduced audience, our reduced dining patrons, will vote on the costume they like. We’ll populate the restaurant with costumes, without the people in them. It should be a lot of fun and get pretty weird.”

As Vito’s starts a new chapter of reopening for dine-in during a pandemic, the goal is to get back to the hard-won success it enjoyed pre-COVID.

“We want to get back to having 150 people on a Friday night listening to music, eating Italian food and having good cocktails,” Scott said. “That’s the future of Vito’s. That’s the goal.”

Vito’s is located at 927 9th Ave. You can learn more at vitosseattle.com.


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