Tosca Cafe (242 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133)
After a full afternoon exhibiting and helping Karl out at the Alternative Press Expo, the night finally started and both of us were in need of a cocktail. We had been informed by some friends over the day that the Tosca Cafe was one of the best new cocktail bars in North Beach, steps from our hotel, and a must go.
The Tosca Cafe has a lot of history, stretching back almost a hundred years: from dive bar to high end, yet faux-rustic Italian restaurant. In its modern version, this is the kind of place that oozes class, the kind of place people have been passing through for years, the kind of place that “seems” to have been owned by a family for generations (it hasn’t), the kind of place that ‘The Godfather’ films would place a hit at, the kind of place that says ‘You must like me!’ The kind of place that, really, should have been right up our alley.
… and yet, something bothered us about Tosca Cafe. Something seemed off during our visit there. Something that we seemed to be missing.
Did we hate it? No, not really. We’re we in a bad mood? No, just tired from working all day at the con. Still, Tosca just didn’t seem comfortable for us. More of a film set then a bar. We’ve been in a lot of places and Tosca struck us as the kind of place that we’d take our parents too in order to seem respectable, ease their worries, tell them “Yeah… we’re still doing fine”, and hopefully they would still pick up the check.
From our seats at the far end of the bar, the atmosphere of the Tosca Cafe was on the positive side: a long wood bar, reproductions of old 18th & 19th century murals high on the walls, a reddish glow in the lights, bartenders and staff smartly dressed in uniforms shaking cocktails, a vintage espresso machine near us at the end of the bar, an old jukebox at the other… with loud club music playing throughout the bar. Something was off.
The friend who was with us perused the menu for “just a bite”, his eyes lighting up as he discussed his order of Crispy Pig Tails with the bartender, while enjoying one of Tosca’s signature coffee cocktails. While acknowledging that the appetizer menu was quite nice and interesting, we were still left a bit cold as we ordered our cocktails. I went with an old favorite – ‘Old Rasputin’, an Imperial Stout from North Coast Brewing Company (hard to mess a beer up) – while Karl ordered an ‘Old Grampian’ (Bank Note and Lagvulin 16 yr old scotch, honey, orange & aromatic bitters, orange peel, hand cut cube… they have to mention that about the ice cube?) Karl commented that the cocktail was actually quite good, nice and smoky… but for a place obviously catering towards the high end, construction-quality craft cocktails, and charging a slightly eyebrow raising price… why was his drink served in a plastic cup? Karl was so surprised by this fact that he even asked me to check over it as well. Was he imagining it or having some sort of fit? Nope, not at all. Sure, it sure looked like a glass, but was actually hard plastic like you would take on a picnic. Again, something was off, leaving Karl and I less than impressed. Like a David Lynch film where everything looks nice, yet something is lurking right below the top soil. The whole place seemed like a facade.
I’ve read that Bon Appetit has listed Tosca Cafe as one of the ten best new restaurants in America for 2014 (#4), and perhaps we were just not in the right space for what they had to offer that evening. Even changing to music to something more atmospheric – yes Sinatra would be cliché (opera may be better), but they is a lot of good music that would have served the space in a better way that annoying loud dance and club-music. Karl and I left after one round, moving to our next stop.
Comstock Saloon (155 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133).
It’s been about two years since Karl and I had been back to San Francisco. In that time, the Comstock Saloon has been the one bar that several of our Denver friends (and frequent visitors to San Francisco) have mentioned to us over and over again, even telling us which bartender to talk too. It’s located at the lower end of North Beach where it meets Chinatown and the Financial District (right across from Mr. Bings… but that’s a bar for another story).
“People… wood… brass… tile… dark…” were the first things that came to mind as we walked in early in the evening, moved through the crowd, and found seats at the corner of the front bar. Old country music played on the stereo, drifting into jazz. Nice touch. Sitting at the bar and looking around, I thought it was as if a Victorian ice-cream parlor decided to serve high-end cocktails, what with the white marble counter on the tall ornate shelving behind the bar. Comstock has a similar feel as Williams & Graham back in Denver, but this place goes in a completely different direction with it all. All of the wood and tile and marble made the room feel more like a western saloon or Victorian parlor than a modern cocktail lounge.
Looking around from our stools, we realized there were monkeys everywhere. Not actual monkeys (unfortunately), but metal monkey bottle holders, monkeys on the lamps, on the book ends, monkey salt/pepper shakers, monkey figurines under glass, and so forth. So many monkeys! Since we have a penchant for a good monkey-bar (our first and favorite is Three Monkeys Cafe in Northeast Philadelphia, which we found while waiting for our train to NYC a few years back), we were completely charmed.
The bartender come over very quickly, welcomed us, and handed us the cocktail, beer, and wine list, and we had our first round very shortly after arriving – a Manhattan for Karl (which came in an etched glass goblet), and a Hoegaarden for me, which was served in a wine glass. I was delighted to be able to drink a beer in such a classy fashion.
A friend joined us as we were beginning our second round (another Hoegaarden for me and now a Sazerac for Karl, which he commented was a cocktail many places could not do correctly. Comstock made an excellent one), and we continued our evening as the bar become roomier as the patrons moved off to their next destinations. After the second round, we followed soon after.
The following night, due to the myriad of San Francisco folks who all wanted to join us for the evening (much too many to fit into a cab over to Smuggler’s Cove), we once again ended up at the Comstock Saloon, knowing we would find excellent cocktails stumbling distance to our hotel. However, this time we checked out the far roomier back room where the quality of the cocktails remained top notch. The room was much larger than the front bar, which was lovely – the same Victorian Parlor feel, booths lined the wall, with the high ceilings hung with pulley fans and a large portrait of Emperor Norton. This seemed a lot more western, almost drifting into steampunk (which seems to be one of the new design flavors of the time.) The music was old and new standards, which at first I took to be playing over the stereo. Oh no… there was a woman singing and doing her interpretations of standards as she played a slightly out of tune piano in a high alcove up above the bar. Very stripped down Post-Modern Jukebox, and very apt for the atmosphere of the bar that brought the western saloon feel full circle.
Yes, the Comstock Saloon was quickly becoming one of our new favorite bars in San Francisco.
Original Joe’s (601 Union Street, San Francisco, CA 94133).
We first discovered Original Joe’s a few years ago when we were in San Jose for one of Karl’s art openings, and had not realized it was part of a small local chain – the San Jose location (301 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95113) is a throwback to the ‘50s, with red plush bar stools, basic good Italian-American food, a great place to get a martini, and an atmosphere that seems to be waiting for ‘The Chairman of the Board’ to arrive. We immediately decided that this would be our respite from the all the mainstream chain restaurants in the convention-center area we were staying in (it had been oddly hard to find a decent bar in the area.) We found ourselves frequently sitting at the back bar and very soon became friends with the bartender for the duration of our stay. So we were hopeful about the San Francisco location – which we discovered was the reopened original ‘Original Joe’s’ (a fire burned down the original location in the Tenderloin in 2007 – due to the extensive damage to the building, they moved to North Beach and reopened in 2012).
We decided to try it, and were quickly seated, with drinks on the way – Karl had an ‘Old Fashioned’ and an Anchor Steam for me. The feel of the place was much more modern – stripped down Italian with only a few touches deeper into the dining of the usual Italian-Restaurant-Kitsch one tends to find – black and white photos of famous Italian-Americans, checkered-tile floors, red booths. The patrons in the cocktail lounge seemed to be have a rollicking good time watching the baseball playoffs and singing along with what seemed like the entire Hall & Oates oeuvre. After a leisurely dinner, we realized that while we missed the ‘50s kitsch of the San Jose location, we were more than satisfied with our dinners and drinks.
“Is it too early for tequila?”, the man with a hangdog expression and large bags under his eyes said as he sat down next to Kelly and I at the end of the bar deep inside the Denver International Airport. His worn appearance wasn’t that surprising. It was only 7am.
“Depends where you’re coming from, I guess.” The bartender replied as he threw a coaster in front of him. “But in my experience, it’s never too early. Here and Vegas are the coolest places right now.”
I was skeptical. Concourse C of D.I.A. was one of the coolest places at the moment? I sipped my coffee, stayed out of the discussion, and mentally prepared myself for the flight ahead to San Francisco and exhibiting at the Alternative Press Expo that weekend.
“I think there’s something wrong with that man.”, Kelly mentioned to me hours later over our drinks as she nodded towards the couple at the far end of the bar at Vesuvio’s (255 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133) in North Beach, San Francisco. A middle age man had been loudly pontificating on a variety of subjects that no one, except his female friend, seemed anywhere interested in. All of his proclamations seemed to be very San Francisco-centric, which was interesting coming from a man who also claimed to be from New Jersey (“… but I’ve lived here for twenty years and never looked back!”)
“How about another drink?” she asked with a pleasant smile that quickly took my eyes off the yahoo in the corner and toward something much more important.
“Berlin is what San Francisco — USED to be!” the man loudly exclaimed starting on yet another topic. I was slightly surprised by that comment since he had been slagging every city on Earth that didn’t start with ‘San F…’. Seems to be a fairly normal perspective for San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a lovely city, but the best city in America?? I can make an argument that…
“I HATE Boston accents! Those are the worst in the world. They are just awful!”
Oh… fuck you. Now it’s on. I was about to give him the standard Boston hello (“Hey buddy! Go fuck yourself! Go Sox!”), deliberately dropping all my ‘r’s and sounding as annoying Matt-Damon-Good-Will-Hunting as possible, when Kelly saw me tense up and quickly intervened.
“How about another drink?” she asked with a pleasant smile that quickly took my eyes off the yahoo in the corner and toward something much more important. She ordered another whiskey for me and an Anchor Steam for herself. While both Kelly and I normally hate overly crowded bars, they are useful for drowning all the assholes out. Unfortunately for us, this afternoon Vesuvio’s was not crowded at all.
Though it can be a bit of a tourist-y, both of us enjoy Vesuvio’s for its character, its Beat/literary history, and its location in North Beach, close some of our favorite places that we frequent during our trips to the city. Sit anywhere in Vesuvio’s two floors and your eyes can’t help but wander over all the fantastic cultural and historical debris scattered over the walls. Old framed photos, art, poems, signatures. All brilliant.
Oddly enough, the complainer at the end of the bar was not the only thing that was annoying. For early October, San Francisco was surprisingly hot, over 90 degrees during a time that we should be pleasantly sliding into autumn.
“How are you enjoying the heat?” a big bearded man with a Spanish-accent seated on our other side asked Kelly before continuing. “I enjoy these Indian Summers, but they are coming later and later to the city. Everyone complains about the heat, and yet no one jumps for joy when it rains. I think you should just enjoy all of life and not worry about it.”
What a perfectly San Francisco-ish comment.
And it was still early, so we consulted our San Francisco booze map (yes, we have a booze map. No digital here. Going old school.)
The Alternative Press Expo did not start till the following morning, so we had all day to wander the city. And it was still early, so we consulted our San Francisco booze map (yes, we have a booze map. No digital here. Going old school.) However, neither of us knew the BART or the bus system very well. From North Beach, we decided to head out towards Toronado, a bar that we haven’t visited in quite some time. We walked through Chinatown, took the BART part of the way, and then walked the rest of the way… which was a bit of a mistake considering the heat and the cruel sun beating down on us. Plus San Francisco has a strange Escher-like way of placing large hills for pedestrians to scale no matter which direction you are walking in. The only thing that kept us trudging through the sweaty heat was the promise of beer at the end of it, when we finally staggered into into Toronado (547 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117) on the Lower Haight. Even in the early afternoon, the bar was crowded since the Giants/Nationals playoff game had just started. We got a pair of beers (a Peak ‘Organic Citrus Saison’ for Kelly and a Rodenbach ‘Grand Cru’ for myself) and found seats by the front window, away from the baseball-enthralled crowd.
The easiest way to describe Toronado is ‘a dive Belgian beer bar’. That’s not an elegant description, but it works. Old beer taps, band stickers, and other bumper stickers cover the walls seeming to keep all the paint up. The restrooms are a riot of graffiti. A massive draught beer menu listing 30 to 40 selections (divided by brewery) hangs from the ceiling at the far end of the place. Even without the playoff game, Toronado is generally always crowded. It’s one of those weird bars that I frequently find myself in (be it Boston, Denver, Philly, etc), that I always catch myself doing a double take, thinking I recognize an old friend among the crowd of patrons. The Toronado has that sort comfortable feeling that you are home and among friends.
…And the beer list is good, real good, and the bartenders know it. So along with navigating the ever-present crowds, you need to always know exactly what you want when bellying up to the bar. If you don’t, you may never get served. Yes, this can be a bit difficult with a Belgian beer bar (so many names… so many styles… would you even like a sour beer… what is an Allagash… ) but the bartender doesn’t have time for any sort of guessing games. Stand out, order your drink, don’t look back, don’t blink, and then get the hell out of the way.
“The punk rockers at Molotov are fucking broken!” is what Kelly and I thought we heard the woman say. A sweaty drunk woman stormed into the bar, cursed to herself, as she brought in a fan from the outside and plugged it in right in front of us. “Sorry, I’m PMSing. Hope the fan doesn’t bother you, but it’s fucking hot.”
“Not at all,” Kelly replied, always polite as her parents have raised her well. “We can use the breeze as well.”
The woman introduced herself as Madison, gesturing towards all the men sitting around the bar, backs to us as they gazed up towards the TVs. “I’m just trying to make everyone happy and trying not to get yelled at by these fucks ‘cause I’ll cry.” Madison was pretty brilliant. Kelly swore later that Madison may have been the best ‘I’m being drunk at you’ people she’s ever met.
I worked my way up to the bar and got us another round (same for Kelly and a Monk’s Flemish for myself) since neither of us wanted to wander out into the heat and march back to North Beach just quite yet. It was so hot that the bartender motioned to several people to keep the main half door of the bar fully open to let in a breeze. Several regulars were mystified. “That never happens.”
A bit later, halfway through our second beer, Steve the bartender walked and sat down next to us. He was on his break and we were in the quietest corner, away from the playoff game. After chatting and mentioning that we were visiting from Colorado, Steve looked a bit wistful. “Yeah, I’ve been bartending here for a long time. I remember a time that people use to tip me in weed, but those days are gone.”
“Yeah, we normally enjoy coming to San Francisco, but why is it so damn hot in October?”
“Yeah, this is odd,” Steve nodded, “Quite hot. No wind. I’ve been here long enough to know that this is earthquake weather.”
… what? Earthquake weather? Kelly and I just looked at him.
“But, I wouldn’t worry about it. Hardly ever happens.”
After finishing our drinks and saying goodbye to Steve, Kelly and I headed back into the heat. We were able to catch a bus that dropped us much closer to North Beach and crashed at our hotel (Hotel Boheme, 444 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133) for a while, before heading back out to meet with some new folks. We were meeting them at Spec’s (or Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, 12 Williams Place, San Francisco, CA 94133) about some possible comic work.
Spec’s is one of our favorite places in San Francisco – it’s dark and cool (which we desperately needed after the heat of the day.) The clientele is generally older, scruffier and more bohemian than other places in the area, and the walls are covered with random weird oddities and artifacts. Part bar, part museum, part artistic community, part your crazy bohemian uncle’s back room. This is a beer and shot bar that I find hard to picture in any other city than San Francisco. It’s Vesuvio’s younger brother (or sister) that never got as famous, yet far more authentic. This is the ‘deep cut.’ … And, you have to be in the know to find the place – it’s quietly marked door in an alcove right off Columbus can easily be missed next to the more garish signs and doorways of the rest of the North Beach area. And they pour a nice Guinness.
Just as I was ordering our first round, Jami and Randy walked in. As we had never met before, they told us that they were just across the street at Vesuvio, saw Kelly and I walking down the street through the window. “That has to be them. Such a hip cool couple. If they turn into Specs, that has to be them!” This nice comment was followed by a couple drinks as we discussed the project. After a little while, Jami and Randy asked if we’d like to see the Beat Museum around the corner. They wanted to talk to their friend, Jerry, who just happened to be the curator.
So, off to the Beat Museum (540 Broadway St, San Francisco, CA 94133). Jerry gave all of us a private tour, pointing out and telling interesting bits about some of the items. Kelly had that bright glow in her eyes. She was enraptured.
All of us, including Jerry, then walked up the street for drinks and dinner at Naked Lunch (504 Broadway St, San Francisco, CA 94133). Nice place. Great mural. We talked about the Beats, some of their history, watched people pass down Broadway, and had a couple drinks (‘Old Fashioned’ and a ‘Jerry B’: bacon bourbon with cinnamon sweet tea. However… couldn’t really taste the bacon… or the bourbon).
Afterwards, Jerry headed back to the museum while the rest of us wandered, looking for a quiet place for a nightcap. Randy pointed out various places, sites, and cool hidden corners as we walked through North Beach. It was a Friday night and the whole area was jumping. People crowded the streets, heading to bars, clubs, restaurants, or cafes. I loved it as it seemed a beautiful mix of old neighborhood with new life, though I could have done without some of the excited screeching.
We settled on an Irish pub called Maggie McGarry’s (1353 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133) simply because it didn’t seem very crowded and Jami wanted to check out the mural in the back room, said to be full of some of the North Beach locals to see if she recognized any. Though there were few people in the bar, the stereo was still turned up quite loud with an 80’s New Wave mix that a few young women at the end of the bar shouted along with desperate to be heard over the music.
We ordered a couple Guinnesses and went to check out the mural. Sure, there seemed to be a couple of locals painted in, but most of the mural was of musicians (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Miles Davis, Bono… ) none of whom I think were ever North Beach regulars. The best/worst thing I saw as we left was a small printed out sign tacked to the wall: “For your safety – Please do not stand on tables or chairs.” That left me thinking… “So, this is the kind of bar that you have to warn the clientele about that? Those kind of people are your regulars?”….
We quickly finished our pints and left. Back at Hotel Boheme… a bottle of sherry was placed out in the hotel’s common area for guests to enjoy in the evening. Classy.
Time for another ‘Tru-ish’ tale of Denizens, Bars, Characters of the ‘Longest Wickedest Street in America’ and Other Low Places. Time for a new 30 MILES OF CRAZY! (#73)
This week: The Law of the Land… or ‘DISCO TONY’S HO– USE. DISCO TONY’S RULES.’
So… Three… Two… One… Musical Accompaniment!…. and GO!
SHARE AND ENJOY!
“I think we should drink through Union Station today,” Kelly mentioned to me that morning over toast.
I nodded in agreement. It was an excellent idea since the historic Denver station and landmark had recently reopened. Union Station has been serving the city since 1881. Of course, it’s also been on the decline for many years as newer and faster methods of transportation became more readily available. With the renovation of the Lower Downtown area over the last 20 years (and the current weed boom also certainly helps), though, Union Station has gotten a facelift and a new lease as it recently reopened as a hotel, a few restaurants and bars, a small shopping area, and the continuation of Amtrak train service (if you still find yourself interested in that).
Of course, Kelly and I were more interested in the beer and cocktail service. So off we went…
First Stop: Kitchen Next Door (1701 Wynkoop St, Denver, CO 80202)
Our first stop was a seat at the bar of the ‘Kitchen Next Door’, an overly cute name for the restaurant at the western end of the Union Station complex. Just at a glance, the place seemed to be part diner, part high end restaurant. There was a small patio outside and long community tables inside for sharing. A blackboard on the far wall proclaimed the establishment a ‘community pub!’, so, instead of happy hour, there was ‘community hour’. Nice touch, I guess. Kelly was more impressed with the old Union Station Restaurant neon sign that was lit up behind the bar, giving the place a nice touch of historic class.
It was still early, so we ordered a couple beers and lunch. As it was right in front of us, my eyes were drawn to the series of blank taps along the bar. Obviously for beer, but how did the bartender know which was which?
“Oh, it’s pretty easy,” the bartender mentioned to me. “The last couple on the far left are our beers, then the ones on the right are for wine and cocktails.”
“Wait… you have cocktails on tap?” I asked, slightly surprised, feeling a worrisome itching of trepidation starting down the back of my neck.
“Sure. All the house cocktails are pre-mixed to save time. We have a Margarita, a Moscow Mule, A Manhattan, and a Negroni. All on tap.”
Kelly blinked at me, and I then made a mental note to avoid the house cocktails in the future. Sure, it may save time, but where was the love and care? The craftsmanship? Such is the easy way of the world. Kelly and I finished our lunch and ordered another beer.
Second Stop: The Terminal Bar (1701 Wynkoop St, Denver, CO 80202)
Our next stop was the Terminal Bar in the main hall of the renovated Union Station. One of the glorious things about being a bar in a train station is that you are almost like a hotel bar: the clientele is transitory and always different, and quickly moving through. You sit down, have a drink, meet people, swap stories, and then move on, rarely meeting again.
Now, I have been told many times by Denver locals (often with a wistful gleam in their eyes) of the great old Terminal Bar that had been about a block away from the station, which had once served the railroad workers back when Lower Downtown was a much different and sketchier place. That location is now a sushi/oyster restaurant, which only serves as an example on how much the area has changed. It was only fitting, however, that (with the new revamped Union Station) the main bar in the complex would take the old Terminal Bar name.
Although I never knew the old Terminal Bar, I can safely say that this new bar is nothing like the old one. The place is pretty classy, with dark wood, tile, and an overwhelming ‘railroad’ theme (for obvious reasons). I’m sure that some of the old workers, derelicts, and passersby from the old Terminal Bar would not even be able to afford a drink in this place. The décor did cause Kelly and me a few raised eyebrows – we’re not slaves to the past and are always in the mood for a good cocktail lounge – it was just slightly head-scratching that they took that name.
Of course, we didn’t do that (what’s the point of going to a bar if you aren’t going to drink in the bar?)…
Once inside, there was a small television at either end of the bar, which was nice and discreet since nothing ruins a bar faster than people gaping at the images on the TV and ignoring each other. However, both tvs that afternoon were turned to NASCAR (so knock a couple points off for that.) The one other thing that caught our eye was how the Terminal Bar used their old ticket window. The main area of the bar is not that large, so you are welcome to take your drinks and enjoy them in the main hall of the station. So, the old ticket window is used pretty much as a ‘To Go’ window. Customers line up, order their drinks, and move on through the station after receiving them.
Of course, we didn’t do that (what’s the point of going to a bar if you aren’t going to drink in the bar?) and were able to find a couple seats at the far end of the bar. Flipping through the menu, there were lists of beers, beer cocktails, low alcohol cocktails, and your standard cocktail fare. There were up to five people working behind the bar, all seemed franticly busy… busier than it seemed necessary for a half empty bar with plenty of room at the tables. It was slightly difficult to get anyone’s attention to place our first round of drinks. Kelly got a Telluride ‘Face Down Brown’ while I went for their ‘Timeless’ Old Fashioned (as I have always said that an Old Fashioned is an excellent test of the quality of a bar). This house version of the cocktail was done pretty well, but I was confused on what made it ‘Timeless’ compared to the original cocktail. It seemed in the end that the bartender simply didn’t muddle anything and added a lemon instead of an orange.
After a little while (and on our second round as I downshifted to Crazy Mountain ‘Horseshoes & Handgrenades’, an American ESB – I’ll admit that I was at first curious about the name, but it was a very good pint), the bar slowly filled up with a lot of people in Rockies jerseys. Must have been game day. The place was also filling up with several wedding and birthday parties and started feeling uncomfortably crowded. So after finishing up our second round, we decided to move on. We had planned on hitting the Cooper Lounge next, but were told that it did not open for another hour or two, so we left Union Station for the moment and find our next destination out in Lower Downtown.
After visiting it… it’s more like PeeWee’s Playhouse… with booze.
Third Stop: Squeaky Bean (1500 Wynkoop St #101, Denver, CO 80202)
When I first heard about Squeaky Bean some time ago, I had thought it was some sort of new coffeehouse. After visiting it… it’s more like PeeWee’s Playhouse… with booze. I don’t mean that as any sort of slight, since the cocktails have always been excellent (and have them listed as one of the top cocktail lounges in the city). It’s more about the pop culture references around the lounge (there were small Farah Fawcett and Robin Williams shrines at either end of the bar) and in some of the house cocktail names (which change regularly).
Most times we’ve tried to visit Squeaky Bean in the past, the place was always way too crowded. However, as it was still quite early (and the bar had recently opened for the day), we were able to easily get in and find a pair of seats at the bar. Kelly went for a Bull & Bush ‘Allgood Amber’, while I had one of their house cocktails: A Tombstone (Old Grandad bourbon 114, Lime, Angostura bitters, & ginger beer.) Looking around, aside from the open kitchen, what caught my eye were the two huge flatscreen tvs hanging on either side of the bar. Sure they were turned to sports (aren’t they all?), but were gratefully muted and oddly in black and white, so neither were too distracting which allowed us to enjoy the music over the stereo (a fantastic mix of Bowie and Velvet Underground).
Kelly was busy talking to the bartenders about the film ‘Romancing the Stone’ as I looked over the current house cocktail menu. My PeeWee’s Playhouse analogy was even more apt as there were six drinks named after aspects of the show on the menu, among other pop-culture references. A friend of ours ordered the ‘Tom Servo’, which was made with some dry ice that left the glass smoking. It was a tequila drink that was made so cold, it left all the ingredients gelatinized, almost like a booze gelato. For my second drink, I went with the ‘Nanu Nanu Fizz’: a very good gin drink with lemon, sugar, egg whites, and soda that tasted pretty much like a dessert cocktail. Kellyy also felt that a snack was in order, and opted for the Charcuterie Board – an ever-changing combination of local cheeses and meats, served with warm slices of chewy rich bread, housemade mustards and jams, and small perfect pickles. A good choice, and one we will go back for.
After our second round, we left the Squeaky Bean and crawled back to Union Station to visit the elusive Cooper Lounge.
Fourth Stop: The Cooper Lounge (1701 Wynkoop St, Denver, CO 80202)
We had never been to the Cooper, but had been told that it was a ‘must visit’ on the second floor of Union Station. Kelly and I wandered the hall, knowing it was upstairs and wondering how the hell we got there. The elevators would not work unless you had a hotel key, while all the stairwells were roped off. After several minutes of confused gazing around the hall, we asked the concierge (located at a small table in the back left of the hall by the Amtrak ticket window) about how the hell we find the Cooper Lounge.
“Oh.” the concierge replied smiling. “You have to talk to me. I have to check if there is room in the lounge first, then I’ll let you up.” Ah… the concierge is the door man. She looked over her map of the lounge, filled with wipe away blue marker notes, and let us know that while the bar was currently full; we could easily have couch seating instead. After agreeing, the concierge called up to the lounge, let them know we would be coming up in a moment, and directed us past the roped off stairwell and up into the bar.
At first, this seemed a hell of a lot of hoops to jump through just to get a cocktail at what seemed like a hidden bar. The Cooper Lounge was actually situated right above the Terminal Bar, allowing an incredible view down over the entire hall. The Lounge was hidden in plain sight as not many people wandering through the station, busy about their daily lives, ever think about looking up to see who is looking down upon them.
Light jazz played over the speakers. A gentleman with a wheeled oyster cart stood under one of the great windows that streamed light through the lounge, working at shucking through a large pile of bivalves. The waitress handed us iPad menus as we sit down, commenting that oysters would be available if we’d like some. Kelly and I both scrolled through the digital menu. I was quickly impressed with their whiskey and scotch collection: single malt, blended, American, Irish, Japanese, and the list just went on. Kelly settled on a Guinness while I went with the Coloradier (Breckenridge Bourbon, bitters, sweet vermouth, and an orange twist) that I had seen earlier on the Terminal Bar menu below. Both bars share a lot of the same menu as well as staff, though the cocktail seemed slightly more expensive here. However that seemed only natural as you are paying for the incredible view.
That seemed pretty incredible … but hey… science!
Our cocktails arrived soon after upon silver trays with a small dish of nuts and pecans. Yep, this was pretty classy, alright, and that left us thinking that this place was going to give the close by Cruise Room a run for the money. We looked over the hall at the insanely high vaulted ceilings, wondering if anyone was currently looking down upon us. The acoustics were amazing – we could easily have a conversation without the intense noise that you would have expected from such a vaulted ceiling in such a big space. A friend mentioned that it was due to some weird new material the architects placed under the plaster. That seemed pretty incredible … but hey… science!
Fifth Stop: Green Russell/Russell Smokehouse (1422 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80202)
After a fantastic time at the Cooper Lounge, we left Union Station and started back up the 16th Mall towards Capitol Hill. After some discussion, we decided to stop for a cocktail at the Green Russell first. The bar was one of the first speakeasies (i.e.: hidden) bars that popped up in Denver as the craze took off several years ago. Back then, the Green Russell was a decent bar with great cocktails. However, they played up the speakeasy theme to an almost Disney level of kitsch. Still, always a nice time going there until the last few times we’ve visited. The classy (though faux) atmosphere had given way to patrons in muscle shirts and Broncos jerseys. There is nothing to remove you from a nice time out on the town then a meathead in a cap and Rockies jersey yelling about how his team is doing. That exemplified our last several visits to the Green Russell: a once classy bar that had fallen victim to the club-going LoDo crowd.
But on this day, we were willing to give them another chance. However this turned out was not the time for that since, as we walked up to the host stand, we were told that there was no room at that bar. The host pleasantly commented that there was plenty of room at the Russell Smokehouse in the room next door. Now, the Smokehouse was pretty much opened to serve the clientele over spill from the Green Russell. They share the same menu, but as the Russell tries to be classy, the Smokehouse tries to be down home neighborhood bbq place… with expensive cocktails. It’s a conflict that I have always tried to resolve in my head with little success.
Kelly and I sat down, ordered a beer and an Old Fashioned. Once finished, we left. Looking back at my notes on this experience, the only thing I wrote about the Russell Smokehouse that evening was ‘meh.’
“Remember that bad Swayze film ‘Roadhouse’?” Kelly said to me. “I think we just walked into it.”
Sixth Stop: Dolce Vida (1201 Cherokee St, Denver, CO 80204)
When Kelly and I decide to spend a day on the town, that is exactly what we do. Russell Smokehouse had left a bad taste in our mouths that we didn’t want to end the day with. So, after a shuttle ride up the 16th Street Mall, we walked over to our sixth stop for the day: Dolce Vida. Now, this is a bar that neither of us have ever been to, and as a neighborhood sports bar (leaning more on ‘sports’), it is not normally a place we would even walk into. However, our buddy bartends there on Saturday nights, we had promised to come visit him in the past, and it seemed like an excellent time to finally take him up on it.
“Remember that bad Swayze film ‘Roadhouse’?” Kelly said to me. “I think we just walked into it.”
“Seems like an odd mix with a name like ‘Dolce Vida’.” I replied. “I was kind of expecting a neighborhood Italian bar.”
That is exactly what it wasn’t. Dolce Vida is a neighborhood sports bar that is a block or two away from the city jail and a large collection of bail bond businesses as well. While not exactly crowded on a Saturday night, there was a mixture of old neighborhood guys huddled over their beers at the bar and a chorus of young women out on the town, laughing a bit too loudly over their margaritas. The whole place is very industrial looking: steel and wood. Large wooden beer barrels are scattered all over the area for some obscure reason. TVs and neon beer lights were placed all over the walls and hanging from ceilings that sharpened the need for a cocktail just to dull the overwhelming visual information we were getting.
Bridger (our buddy and bartender) set us up for drinks. Kelly wandered out onto the back patio to smoke and poke at one of the huge bricked Jenga sets that sat on one of the upturned barrels. It had been years (and while the bar was not so busy), so Bridger and I started playing a couple games of Joust on the video machine in one of the corners of the bar. Happy to say that I’m still not very good at the game.
After a couple more rounds and a full day, Kelly and I were ready for the long walk home.
“Have you been to Backbar yet?” Adam at The Boston Shaker asked Kelly and I as he wrapped up our new cocktail glasses and bottle of bitters (Bittermens Boston Bittahs). The Boston Shaker (66 Holland St.) has become a ‘must stop’ in Davis Square, Somerville for us at every trip back. It’s pretty much a booze supply store. No, not a liquor store, but for everything else: glassware, muddlers, a staggering amount of different bitters, recipe books, booze history books, and all things needed to make your craft cocktail excellent.
“No,” Kelly replied. “Where is it?”
“Up in Union Square in Somerville. Try to make it there. Also, Brick & Motar in Central Square.”
“We’re supposed to hit Wink and Nod tonight. Know anything about that?”
Adam frowned. “Not really. That place is really new. In the South End, right?”
I nodded, gathered up our purchases, and told Adam that I would send him the latest copy of Modern Drunkard Magazine. Kelly and I headed out for our last full day in Boston and towards Harvard Square. After some brief stops for shopping (Harvard Book Store, Oona’s Vintage Clothing…), we walked through the door to basement bar of Shay’s (58 JFK St.)
Shay’s is another ‘coming home’ bar for me (yes, I know I have quite a few of them in Boston.) I used to sit at the corner of the well worn wood bar, drinking a Bass, reading Bukowski, and watching the Sox play on a Saturday afternoon. Nothing has changed in the 10 or so years that I’ve been coming here. It’s still a good beer bar (with some wines), low basement ceiling, red brick walls, several beer mirrors (the Yuengling one is new), and a TV in the far corner. This was a quiet pub atmosphere that makes you want to just spend your days sitting at the bar, looking through the basement window, and watching the feet of the students and tourists pass through Harvard Square.
It was a Monday afternoon, so not many people were in the bar. Just us, the bartender David, and a young woman at the far end who we quickly surmised was David’s girlfriend. After getting our drinks (a Yuengling and a Narragansett), David went quickly back to his lady friend. He seemed like a nice guy, but had horrible bar eyes. It took us a while to get our second round as he seemed loathed to be away from his friend.
After a bit, and a few more shopping stops down Mass Ave, Kelly and I wandered into the Central Square. Kelly loves this area because, while most of the rest of Boston & Cambridge are filled with students and university areas (Harvard on one side, MIT on another, Tufts is further up, BU is right across the Charles…), Central Square is a cross roads that reminds her of the grittiness of Colfax Avenue in Denver. Homeless, streetwalkers, and random screaming events all happen here. It’s no wonder that years ago, while wandering around the city on her own and through here, she was approached by a pimp kindly asking if she was looking for work.
Of course, while in the area, we had to hit the Cantab Lounge in Central Square (738 Massachusetts Ave.) Now, if any of my friends back in Denver ever came out to Boston with me (and getting them to do so would be like pulling teeth), THIS is the bar I would first take them. In the middle of the gentrifying Central Square, this is one of the last remnants of the old neighborhood. The Cantab is a straight cash only, beer and shot bar; and a live venue featuring jazz, blues, comedians and open mic nights. Years ago, I brought Kelly here to see the amazing Little Joe Cook on one of the many nights he performed each week. Sadly, Little Joe had recently passed away (age 91) and this was the first time we had been back.
The Cantab was dark, with the ever present Budweiser glass lampshades and Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. A few old men were huddled over their bottles of beer at the bar. Several times, various passersby stopped to peer through the window into the bar to see what was going on. Several of the old regulars sat in easy chairs in the back of the bar watching game shows (Family Feud) on the few TVs about the place. I recognized one of the gentlemen in the back as someone I got into drunken discussion about Manny Ramirez and the Red Sox years ago. He was someone that had been very proud of that his ‘Yankee Haters’ ball cap was sometime confused as a real Yankees cap.
“Karl! I just met the Poet Laureate of the Cantab! Right out front! And he recited a poem about me!”
“This place always reminds me of the South.” Kelly said, “… which is odd, I suppose… It’s the smell of the bar, I think. The old lingering smoke, the humidity, the coolness of the air, and the fact that there are game shows on all theTV. It reminds me of my Southern grandmother’s friends watching the same thing with their drinks and smokes.” She then excused herself to step outside for a smoke.
A few moments later, Kelly came in delighted! “Karl! I just met the Poet Laureate of the Cantab! Right out front! And he recited a poem about me!” She had stepped outside for a smoke and ended up chatting with some of the regulars, one of whom was a retired fireman (“He taught me the fireman’s handshake”) and the other, a slight man with ragged gray hair under a baseball cap was the Poet Laureate of the Cantab (he was also, apparently, a pool shark, and bowling master, and his poems have been in Harvard). Kelly got all of this information from the retired fireman, as the poet himself was quite shy.
As she was telling me all about her conversation, the Poet himself walked over and handed us a note. It seems that we inspired him to write a poem about us, wishing us well. Kelly, of course, was utterly delighted and thanked him profusely.
The two of you
It was my pleasure to meet
As a couple
You seem to get along real sweet
Do not argue or fight
Dance/drink and a night that together
That turns out dynamite
Our buddy Chris P joined us right after we got our second round of Yuenglings. Chris, while shipping strange and unusual things and body parts around the world for Harvard, is also our favorite bartender back at Shays. We caught up, discussed the convention, and all the places we’ve hit so far on this trip.
“Have you been to Backbar yet?” Chris asked. Christ… we are going to have to make it to this bar. But not on this trip…
After another hour or so, Kelly and I had to move on as we had dinner plans with more old friends (whom I’ve known since way back in Philadelphia) in the South End at Five Horses Tavern (535 Columbus Ave.)
This was a second trip to this restaurant, and it was just as lovely as our previous time, although much less crowded (probably cause it was early on a Monday night.) I enjoyed their Red Sangria as Kelly sipped on her Raspberry White while we perused the menu.
“The old Indian words out here are fantastic. I love the word ‘Woonsocket’! It sounds all medical and creepy”, Kelly says to me. “Oh dear lord, you came down with a case of Woonsocket!”
We eventually decided on some pork belly tacos, a couple of fish tacos, and the pork belly mac & cheese. I ended up with all the mac & cheese once Kelly discovered that it was made with blue cheese – a particular non-favorite of her (it makes her angry.) So, she ordered another fish taco instead.
We finished dinner, said our good-bye’s (after a quick stop back to the Piano Craft Guild where I once had a loft), and made our way to our friend’s house in the South End.
“Are you ready for Wink & Nod?”, Chris B asked as he handed me a glass of Green Spot whiskey at his place in Worcester Square.
“Sure. Is it far?”
Chris shrugged. “Not really. A good twenty minute walk. How has the rest of your trip been?”
“Pretty good.” I said taking another sip of the whiskey. “It was pretty cool that Kelly and I have been recognized by staff at three different bars over the weekend.”
“I can see why.” Claire, Chris’ wife mentioned. “You two stand out and are memorable. However, in New York, there’s couples like you on every corner.”
Dammit… New York…
Our walk through the South End was for the most part uneventful, till we encountered the massive film trucks and lighting rigs about Tremont Street near the Cyclorama. Something was going on and we found our later, it was the filming of ‘Ted 2’ (there’s another one coming out? Apparently). We passed by and walked over to the darkened entry and doorman of Wink & Nod (3 Appleton St.)
Wink & Nod is a recent downstairs cocktail lounge that several of my friends have been clamoring about. Just walking in, I could see why. Not only the door man, but the dim light, dark wood, vintage travel posters, and leather booths in a sunken bar area had me thinking that I walked into some 60’s Rat Pack film. It was easy to imagine Frank Sinatra holding court in one of the dark corner booths.
Chris and Claire had brought us to Wink & Nod, not only knowing we’d appreciate the atmosphere and cocktails, but also because it was ‘Tiki Monday’: service night at the bar. Kelly went straight for (and stuck with) the Clementine Clown Shoes Ale (which caused her to smile and repeat ‘Clown shoes!’ periodically) while I perused the special tiki drink list. I quickly noticed that all the tiki drinks on the limited menu were gin based… Nolet’s gin. Must have been a sponsor.
So, I started with ‘The Jerk’ (Nolet’s dry gin, cardamaro, fresh oj, fresh lemon juice, house falermum, coconut creme, old monk float) which also came in a faux-coconut mug. Pretty tasty, but didn’t rock my world. The second round was a ‘Forse Armate’ (gin, liquore strega, lemon juice, house orgeat), which I found good, but very ‘Gimlet-y.’ For the last round I went with the utterly ridiculously named ‘Anna Banana Fe Fi Fo Fanana Anna’ (gin, gifford’s banana, fresh pineapple, jerry thomas’ decanter bitters), which was likely my favorite of the lot.. and not just because it came in an excellent tiki mug. After that, it was getting late and time for the long walk back to the hotel.
We said our goodbyes (for now) to Boston the next morning. Kelly and I did a quick walk up Comm Ave to once again look at the trees and statues, had a drink and snack at Bukowski’s, took a cab out to Logan Airport, and had once last Yuengling at the Vineyard Grille in Terminal E (1 Harborside Dr.)
We did have a layover in Kansas City, MO on our way back to Denver. The only reason I mention it was that we also experience THE WORST AIRPORT BAR EVER. The airport itself was no great experience either, but then again… what airport is? The problem was that from our gate we could see a bunch of bars and restaurants, but all of them were on the other side of the security wall. You could not get to them without leaving and having to pass through security all over again. No thanks. We spied signs saying that the ’Stella Artois Brewpub’ was just down the hall, but when we found it… it was just a pop up bar in the back corner against a wall. Sure we could get a beer or cocktail, but that’s about it. Like drinking at a bus depot while waiting for your boarding number to be called. Both Kelly and I were startled by the complete lack of options at the airport. This led to further annoyance when, after we ordered the first round, the bartender asked if we would like another since “the final flight from this gate is heading out. I’m closing up in about 15 minutes.”
We ordered another round and grimly waited for our flight to be called.