Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My Top Ten Favorite Bars in the Whole Wide World

Though I don’t drink as much as I used to—and thank god for that—I do continue to appreciate a good watering hole; I think I always will. After all, over the years, I’ve been accused of being a “gregarious” person, which is mostly true. I’ll be the first to admit that being at home and watching sports games by my lonesome in my chonies can get boring after a while.

But anywho, my homeboy and top-10-list buddy, Justin “I Left My Heart in Vesuvio” Goldman and I are at it again, drawing up a list of some of our favorite shit in life. This time: bars. Cantinas. Lounges. Taverns (Moe's!) Watering holes—call them what you wish.

A few common threads presented themselves as I drew up this list. Ever since I was a young colt (FYI, I laughed as I typed that) I’ve always been drawn to bars where people can let it hang, so to say. I’ve always been fond of bars with an unpretentious crowd. I don’t like going to places simply because they’re deemed hip and popular or because they make amazing cocktails. I don’t give a shit about that. I'm far too simple and unsophisticated for that. I like my bars to be socially functional. That—to me—is their overriding purpose. And so, I prefer places where 1) I can converse with a friend or two or few without having to yell in their ears, 2) places that are physically and aesthetic relaxing. And my favorite bars are places where I created mostly good memories.

That said, a few of the bars on my list are primarily here because of pure nostalgia. I am a sentimental fucker.

And with that said, here’s my list (and here's a link to Justin's list):

King’s Inn (In Memoriam)
Fremont, CA

The King’s Inn was a fucking dive. It used to be hidden in the corner of a nondescript strip mall where Kragen and Bay Street Coffee patrons used to park. (I refuse to call Bay Street Coffee—a Fremont institution—by its new and absolutely stupid name.) An Indian grocery store now occupies the ground that used to be home to a sticky, years-old-beer-smelling carpet.

Once I reached legal drinking age, the King’s Inn was the hole where my old buddy JJ and I used to go. What I liked about it: the long shuffleboard table pinned at the back of the wall; the joint was never crowded; we usually always had the shuffleboard table to ourselves (and our various pitchers of beer); an older, scrappier crowd frequented the bar; it was an absolutely unpretentious bar; it was the kind of place where I could be as loud as I wanted and no one was going to give me shit about it.

The King’s Inn was a quintessential dive bar. Although I never saw a scuffle break out on its premises, it was a place that seemed to attract troublemakers, misfits, and people who simply couldn’t play life straight. The people who frequented the bar seemed like wild animals that needed a large, dark space teeming with booze and pool tables to graze and be themselves away from all of life’s relentless bullshit. I liked this element of danger about it. Even though I was College Boy, I felt like I fit in.

When I talk about The King’s Inn to people who knew Fremont’s old dive bars (RIP Roamer’s; RIP Shelley’s; RIP The Shoestring Saloon), I try to sum the bar up with one anecdote: the time me and JJ walked into King’s Inn, ordered our first pitcher of beer and saw the buxom, big-breasted, trashy bartender pound a shot with two dudes who seemed like they had Biker Gang written all over them. After they guffawed a bit, she leaned forward so one of the gentlemen could stuff his tip money between her tits. This seemed like a perfectly regular occurrence.

That’s when I truly fell in love with the place.

The Pig & Whistle
San Francisco, CA

If the King’s Inn was me and JJ’s place growing up, The Pig & Whistle—though we didn’t go there often—is the pub I will always associate with my sister, Mariana, and my brother-in-law, Rick. Like the King’s Inn, this bar has beaucoup nostalgic goodness propelling it onto this list. However, there are other reasons why I am listing it here.

In general, I am fond of the idea of pubs (except ones that have clearly been created for tourists in places such as Ipanema, Brussels, or Santiago). Pubs have food (oftentimes solid to good); tend to be chillaxing; tend to have nerdy-fun happenings like trivia night; tend to have jukeboxes with music I dig (i.e. music for old farts) and their staff tend to be a bit kinder than your typical bar staffs.

I haven’t been to The Pig in many, many years, but it exemplified all these aforementioned traits. In fact, the food was really good. (Their Shepherds Pie was yummers, as were their curry fries.) A solid beer selection, good jukebox, and a totally cozy environment. The Pig scores extra points since it is mentioned in a story from Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories.

When I think of my ideal English pub, I think of The Pig—and that’s why it cracked this list.

500 Club
San Francisco, CA

Back when I lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, The 500 Club was my favorite bar. (It’s in my memoir!) I liked it because:

• it has always had an outstanding jukebox (not one of those stupid Internet ones that charge you a buck for two songs)
• was kind of divey (I still consider a true dive bar to be one where you kind of fear for your well-being when you step in.)
• the crowd was often an eclectic, unpretentious bunch (not so much anymore, I think), and
• the tatted-up bartenders gave good pours on shots.

One minute a classic Stones could be playing, the next an old school Metallica thrasher followed by James Brown or Bob Seger, and—somehow or another—it all fit the scene. The bar scores extra points for its super-cushy vinyl booths—if you’re fortunate enough to snag one.

Room 389
Oakland, CA

Since migrating across the bay to Oakland in 2011, I’ve found plenty of watering holes that I dig: The Legionnaire Saloon, Luka’s Taproom, Cato’s Ale House, Geo Kaye’s, and the Kona Club, but Room 389 is easily my favorite one. The first thing that grabs my attention is its décor; it’s a stylish, swanky place—not usually my kind of joint. If you looked at its décor alone—the walls covered in pages torn from books; the posh overhead lighting; the warm wood paneling—you’d think it was one of the trendy bars that have sprouted in downtown San Francisco and the Mission in the past ten years. For me, what makes the bar is the crowd; that’s where it undoubtedly differentiates itself from your typical hip San Francisco lounge because you will always find more than one black person or token Latino in the entire bar. The crowd’s always diverse—and everyone there seems to be fucking cool. Sure, it’s the kind of place to be seen but Room 389 has always felt like a place where young and middle-aged folks go to mingle with friends and kick back some drinks, or to watch some hoops on the TVs. Despite its sleek look, the lounge is an inviting, comfy place, especially the chillaxing chairs and sofas near the back. It has always had a humming energy to it without getting obnoxiously loud. In other words: it’s my kind of place now that I’m a grizzled thirty-year-old.

San Francisco, CA

What can I say about Vesuvio that hasn’t already been said? It’s a landmark establishment, a certifiable tourist destination in the 415. Kerouac, Neal Cassady and the Beats used to hang out here and now tourists from all corners of this world pull up a chair or sit at one of the tables to breathe in its charm (oftentimes, bless their hearts, with a paperback they just procured from City Lights). I have always loved Vesuvio because it is one of those rare places in San Francisco that feels like it has history. Because of its literary importance, Vesuvio is able to get away with party fouls such as that uneven fourth or fifth step down to the men’s bathroom. If anything, quirks like that help to give the bar its charm.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Vesuvio is a gorgeous place. It feels like a European café: its second-floor tier, the railing circling the bar below; its artwork and photographs; its highly-prized booths or tables lining the windows that look out over bustling Columbus Avenue.

Its historic significance and aesthetic pleasurefulness alone could put it on this list, but Vesuvio has a few other endearing elements for me. First, it’s a place where I’ve never had a bad time. And two, it’s a joint Justin and I used to frequent before our Sunday evening shifts at a legal translation firm. An afternoon of watching football games and bullshitting with my boy may not have been good for our renal systems or wallets but it made me feel less alone in this world, and that counts for something.

Club 93
San Francisco, CA

Life is oftentimes about timing and Club 93 found a niche in my life for a 4-5 month period of my life when I was 29. I’m glad it’s been over for some time now.

Club 93 makes its home on an unsavory part of the SOMA district. Back in 2008-2009, when I worked at a nonprofit that used to be a few blocks from this place, it was a dive. A penultimate dive bar, in my humble opinion. The bathrooms told the story: the men’s bathroom had a urinal on the far wall that was always running; the faucet teetered off to the side. They never had hand soap or paper towels. (Neither did the women’s bathroom, according to my past source; once we became regulars, we often washed and dried our hands behind the bar.) The men’s bathroom had one toilet that didn’t flush. I think they kept it so people could bump lines in the stall.

I liked how nasty the bar was. People barely came into the bar so my coworker and I often hogged the jukebox, which used to be an excellent one teeming with oldies like Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, and The Temptations. Plus, they had a shuffleboard table near the back of the bar. The bartenders gave generous pours, which scored points for me since I was a hard drinker then.

I dropped into the bar about two years ago. It had changed. It was brightly lit. Neon lights peppered the walls. An internet jukebox replaced the old one. The place was a lot cleaner. More respectable. I didn’t even bother going into the bathroom. It had all changed. It didn’t seem like a place that attracted cockroaches anymore, and this made me sad.

Cactus Bar
Haad Rin Beach on Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

I almost feel embarrassed to put this beachside bar on my list since Koh Pha Ngan is basically a playground for foreigners, but I had a damn good time partying on Haad Rin Beach when I was 29. (And I managed this while I had lymphoma, though I didn’t know it then; this is still a strange thing for my mind to reconcile.) One night, I returned to my bungalow barefoot as the morning sun rose above the lush hills teeming with palm trees. An early night for me on that island was turning in at 4 a.m.. It is what it was.

And what was it? Well, for one, the bartender had the most outstanding ability to use a beer bottle to pop open another one, sending the bottle cap flying over your head and off into the sand. Other than the toy buckets of whiskey and Red Bull that they served (an extremely dangerous combination, might I add), the alcohol selection was forgettable. Tourists, obviously, did not frequent the beachside bar for their selection. Instead, we came for the never-ending pulsing electronic dance music. We came for the games, like attempting to kick a soccer ball through holes on a large wooden panel to win drinks, or jumping over a HUGE rope alit in flames (!!!), or limboing beneath a rope of fire when you’re too drunk to distinguish women from ladyboys. (At least I had this problem.) It was a crazy, crazy, crazy-fun time. I will never party like that again—and thank god for that.

The Roundup Saloon
Lafayette, CA

I don’t miss being a graduate student at Saint Mary’s but I do miss going to the Roundup with my classmates. While we were students at our word-wizard camp, the saloon was our post-reading default hangout. To our fortune, Wednesday was also karaoke night at the bar—and their music selection was surprisingly decent. Without fail, karaoke night was always a good time.

I also dig the Roundup because it attracts an unusual crowd during the week. (I have no idea about weekends.) On any night you could see young suits playing pool, wannabe-rebel rich kids sitting in the corners, probably already daydreaming of getting the fuck out of that Stepford town, and middle-aged rundown has-beens slouching over the bar. It was a tolerant joint. Although it loses points for not having any beer on tap (at least back in 2010) and for mediocre to crappy bartenders (the ones I saw seemed to disdain tending at a blue-collar bar in Lafayette), the Roundup gets bonus points in my book for: the slightly gross bathroom; the arcade games in the corner; and for being a few blocks away from Taco Bell, which is glorious when you’re hungry and copping a buzz. But let’s be verdadero: sweet nostalgia got this otherwise forgettable bar on my list.

San Francisco, CA

Since I left the Mission for good three and a half years ago, the city continues to change. All of my recent visits to el barrio Mission—I shit you not—inevitably has a moment when I discover that a long-time restaurant, café, bar, or store is no longer in business. (Two months ago it was Café Que Tal. Last week it was Café Petra on Guerrero Street, and I also saw Esta Noche’s interior being gutted and remade to become whatever hipster-gentrification-monstrosity it will become.) I am grateful this quiet bar has survived neighborhood—so far.

Dalva has beaucoup nostalgic power fueling it onto this list. My good friend, Tagi and I made this our place when she worked in the Mission (and I will never be able to disassociate my friend from that bar). I just had a heart-to-heart at Dalva with my sister to add another fabric of memory. There are also some not-so-great moments that happened at Dalva for me; I went to the bar right after my first CT scan in June 2008, ten months before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. I remember drinking a pint of beer and walking to the bathroom to puke and spit out the acidic contrast liquid they had pumped into my veins to facilitate the procedure. I remember leaning over the men’s toilet and thinking, ha, now isn’t this symbolic?

Over the years, Dalva hasn’t changed much. The bar is still a dimly lit place. Their counter is still lined with warm red candlelights that are magically conducive for conversations that nourish the spirit. They still play bizarre films on the screen hanging high up on the back wall. Dalva’s never been a trendy place. Never been a place that gets too loud. The happy hour is generous as always and it continues to be a respite from the people inhabiting the neighborhood.

Alley Cantina
Taos, New Mexico

Back in the winter of 2011 I spent five weeks in Taos, New Mexico. In a town with a population less than 6,000, there aren’t many bars to choose from but the historic Alley Cantina was my go-to. Being a sucker for places that have been around a long time, I dug the 400-year-old cantina for that reason; it feels like a place that generations of Taosenos have frequented. It’s modest, welcoming and deceptively large. Though I rarely ate there the food’s decent, and the bar staff were always kind. The cantina was also a nightlife locus with live music on many nights. Although I often sought trouble and women at the bar during my nights in town, I found neither, which was probably for the best. Ever since I left Taos (a.k.a. God’s Country) I sometimes long to leave the urban jungle life behind for a simpler, more quiet existence in the mountain town. I will probably always wish I can grow old in a small town like Taos, at a place like Alley Cantina.

No comments:

Post a Comment