Stop One: McGlinchey’s (259 S 15th St, Philadelphia, PA 19102)
“Wait a minute…’ Amity asked quite shocked as we entered the bar from out of the rainy afternoon and she quickly reached for her pack of cigarettes and a lighter.. ‘You can SMOKE in here?’
‘Yes…’ Kelly grinned as she ordered from the bartender the first of many Yuenglings that she had over our four days in the City of Brotherly Love. ‘Yes, you can.’ … and that was our welcome back to one of our favorite dive bars in Philadelphia: McGlinchey’s.
Apart from an occasional cigar every now and then, I’m not really a smoker anymore. Do I miss smoking in bars? Not really. It’s kinda nice coming home from bars and not smelling like an industrial chimney. However, from what I heard about Philadelphia’s smoking laws, they seem a bit more civilized. From what I understand (and I may be wrong), if the bar doesn’t really serve food, it’s up to them if they want to allow smoking or not. That’s it. As far as I know, McGlinchey’s is the only bar in the city that still allows smoking (They do serve 75 cent hot dogs… but I don’t know if that really can be classified as food).
Hell, I used to have college classes back among the tables and booths here years ago (yes, one of my ‘professors’ held some of his classes at this bar. Ah… Temple University Center City Campus art classes).
This bar never changes. It was one of the first bars I was dragged into back in college when I finally turned 21. Maybe a little less smoke, but the place still pretty much looks exactly the same, Hell, I used to have college classes back among the tables and booths here years ago (yes, one of my ‘professors’ held some of his classes at this bar. Ah… Temple University Center City Campus art classes). The same colored glass windows, the faded mural on the one wall opposite the line of mirrors on the far wall, the same Nirvana CD still on the jukebox, the same Pac-man tabletop machine in the corner, the same utterly brilliant dimpled British pub Imperial pint mugs, the same graffiti on the restroom walls…
The partial Drunkard crew that came out to Philly (Nick is one of the hosts of the Modern Drunkard Podcast, while I draw things for the magazine) had all taken the train down from New York City that morning after two nights crawling around in that city. Our first stop, of course, had been the Mutter Museum ( K and I had asked our friends that morning what they wanted to see in Philly first. ‘Dead things!’ was the overwhelming answer. If you are going to start drinking soon, you may as well start with a good creepy medical oddity scare… Look, a wall full of skulls and fetuses in jars… I need a drink. ) The heavy rainfall over the city was also another good incentive to get indoors with a stiff cocktails.
The building McGlinchey’s is located in has been around since about 1922. Mr. McGlinchey’s (a later owner of the property) started a restaurant (McGlinchey’s Restaurant) on the second floor, above some shops, around 1940. Ten years later, the shops were gone, the restaurant was gone, but the bar was firmly in place on the first floor with the landlord living the floors above it, which had been converted into apartments. Mr. McGlinchey’s decedents still own the building and manage the bar to this day.
“I grew up in the city, “ I replied as I sipped my whiskey. “Someone is always trying to put something in you, whether it is drugs, booze, or…. other things.”
‘Did I ever tell you about the time years ago when some old man tried to pick me up as I sat here at the bar?’ I mentioned to Kelly as I gestured with my drink towards one of the barstools at the corner. ‘He kinda looked like Santa Claus as well, which itself made its own level of creepy and scaring memories. I’d been sitting there quietly with a drink, waiting for a friend before we headed out to a show at the Tower Theatre out on 69th street. I think the old creep was disappointed that I actually left with a lady.’
“I can just picture young innocent Karl at the bar, drinking his beer, while some old lech comes on to him,” Kelly laughed. “Did you wonder what was going on? Did your eyes get all big when you finally realized what he actually wanted?”
“I grew up in the city, “ I replied as I sipped my whiskey. “Someone is always trying to put something in you, whether it is drugs, booze, or…. other things.”
Amity (who had never been out to the East Coast before) was confused as she looked at her pint. ‘I don’t understand. You tell me I’m drinking Yuengling, but you ordered ‘a lager’ or a ‘porter’ from the bartender.
Both Eric and I shrugged, as we were both originally from the area. ‘It’s just that way.’
‘Isn’t it brilliant!’ Kelly smiled. ‘I thought it was odd as well the first time I came here. This area is the only area where you can order by style and still get a brilliant beer. Imagine if you walked into a bar in Denver and ordered just an ‘I.P.A.’. They’d think you were mad.’
‘Try to order some green chili here…’ I replied. ‘… and then you’ll see mad confusion.’
Stop Two: Dirty Frank’s (347 S 13th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107)
After our second round, we left McGlinchy’s and headed back out into the rain towards our next location a couple blocks away: the venerable Dirty Frank’s.
It was a couple months ago back in Denver that Nick asked me about a bar in Philly that he’d been to, but utterly forgotten the name of the place. When he’d last been in the city, years before, he took a tour of some of the bars as he was writing a travel article for Modern Drunkard Magazine. Nick knew that I lived in Philly for a some time, he asked me about this ‘… utterly brilliant bar, somewhere in the city. I don’t think it had a sign. There was a coffeehouse across the street, but the bar itself had a horseshoe shaped bar…’
I had frowned and started to rack my brain for bars after such a vague description. I mean, I’ve been to a lot of the bars in the city and had no clue how many had a horseshoe shaped bar? No sign? I came up with nothing at the time, but Kelly chimed in ‘Dirty Frank’s’ without even putting down her beer. She has always been the sharper one of the pair of us.
‘Yes!’ Nick said excitedly. ‘That’s the place! I drank there and did a poetry reading at the cafe across the street in-between rounds. If I ever wind up in Philly with you, we need to stop there!’
… and here we were in front of the brilliant wrap around mural of all the famous Franks (Sinatra, Zappa, Roosevelt, Perdue, Frankenstien…), and with no sign. The mural is the only sort of pseudo-advertisement for the bar that this is Dirty Franks.
Update: The bar just added Pope Francis to the mural. Pope Frank will be in the city next month.
For Nick, it had been about twelve years since he’d been back. He nodded, ‘It’s exactly the same.’
Kelly grinned like she was coming home. ‘I want to move this bar to Denver. Then I would never leave it.’
Like most brilliant old historic bars (a bar has been in some form at the corner of 13th and Pine since 1933), there is historic debris and art covering the walls. Everywhere you look about the place, there was something to catch your eye. In addition, there it a rotating art gallery on the far back wall. The crowd is an eclectic mix of old neighborhood, young hipsters, art students from the University of the Arts, lawyers, and homeless people.
‘I hope you also remember…’ , I said to Nick. ‘… that this place is cash only.’ I point up towards the hanging ‘Dirty Frank’s’ t-shirt for sale. ‘It says it on their shirts, so it must be true.’
‘Christ.’ Nick replied as he moved back towards the door. ‘I’ll be right back. Need to find an ATM.’
Kelly grinned like she was coming home. This was another place where we came by frequently (I even based a 30 MILES OF CRAZY! strip here.) ‘I want to move this bar to Denver. Then I would never leave it.’
Like many other legendary bars, there are many stories that surround Dirty Frank’s (some hearsay, some fact.) Past owners have tried to change the name, but the neighborhood moniker has always won out to the point where newer owners stopped fighting it many years ago. Of course, Frank’s is also becoming a nationally known bar. Just the other day, here in Denver, one of the former writers for Modern Drunkard asked me, ‘I’m heading to Philly next month. Where should I stop for a drink, other than Dirty Franks? That’s a given.’
After a couple whiskey and Yuenglings at Dirty Franks and a long walk down into South Philly for cheesesteaks (N & A demanded the full Philly experience, so a hike down to Pat’s we went), we wound up at another my old stomping grounds where I spent way too much time: South Street. I didn’t help that I worked several jobs along the strip as well as lived above one of the shops for several years. The street has changed drastically over the 16 years since I’ve last lived here. The neighborhood had improved, since some places used to be real shit holes. New murals and modern apartment buildings replaced most of the old broken down neighborhood. Still, there are way too many empty storefronts.
‘I wonder if Harry’s Occult shop is still down the street,’ I said. ‘There used to be a mummified monkey in the window back when I lived down here.’
‘Do you need some sort of candle?’ Kelly asked.
‘No, but some mummy dust and prayer beads may come in useful.’
Update: Apparently, Harry’s Occult Shop has closed.
You can never go home again. Coming back to my long ago stomping grounds always comes with a tinge of nostalgia, but gone are all the small local shops and the art collectives. In came gentrification, Starbucks, Dominos, and the chain stores. The list of closed shops reads like the lists of the dead: Zipperhead, Skinz, Blacks, Trash & Vaudeville, Spaceboy, Inferno, Book Trader, Veem, Record Exchange, Philadelphia Pizza Company, Phila-deli, Dobbs…
You have to look around to still see the little bits of the old spark that South Street used to have: Isaiah Zagars’ Magic Garden and mosaic storefront artwork… Repo Records, Eyes Gallery, Mineralistic, Wooden Shoe, The Bean, Lorenzo’s (one of the best slices of pizza that I’ve ever had), Manny Browns, South Street Diner, A Garland of Letters (if you like that sort of thing…)
Sure, the old comic book store that I used to work at was still there, though they moved a store or two down as well as utterly changed their name. It was still there.
Oh… and NewMarket is still a big empty lot next to Headhouse Square. I think it’s been that way for about 20 years now.
Stop Three: Tattooed Mom (530 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19147)
So, once we were back on South Street, we had to visit another of my old haunts: Tattooed Mom.
‘Well… it’s certainly been awhile since you’ve been here.’ The waitress said to me as she took our orders. I was surprised. Sure, I certainly recognized her, but was way more surprised that she recognized me. It’s been about 16 years and two cities (has it really been that long… yes, it has) since I was a regular at Moms. That is the sign of a GREAT waitress.
It was all like coming home, which is always a bit bittersweet. Tattooed Mom was Mom’s second bar, after Sugar Mom’s (located in the basement of an old sugar refinery) opened in Old City in the early 90’s. That bar quickly grew popular, so Mom opened Tattooed Mom down here on South Street as a quieter place (which it never was) for her friends. Unfortunately, Sugar Mom’s closed back in 2013. I’d like to say that Tattooed Mom has never changed, but it has. Aside from the waitress, I didn’t recognize any of the faces among the crowd around the bar. There have been too many years between us. Brubaker and Red have passed and gone. Kim, Heather, Marion, Jane Brain, Liz, Brett, and all the others were nowhere to be found. Sure, all the art peering from the back alley windows, along with the toys high on the walls, and a pretty much unchanged menu; but the haze of cigarette smoke was gone, replaced with brightly pastel colored walls. There was a weird uncomfortable vibe about the place that I couldn’t just put my finger on. Maybe it was just too early in the evening. I took a moment to walk up to the pool room and the second bar upstairs. That was far more unchanged. Still looked as if a graffiti bomb went off in the place and didn’t spare the wreckage of furniture. It was all a weird homecoming.
I was surprised. Sure, I certainly recognized her, but was way more surprised that she recognized me. It’s been about 16 years and two cities since I was a regular at Moms.
“Wait a moment… you have Narragansett beer here?’ I asked, quite surprised, as I saw a few people sipping from the tall white cans (Hi Neighbor!) I was wracking my brain trying to remember the waitress’ name. I think it was Nancy… maybe Sara.
She looked at me confused. ‘Of course, we do.’
‘How long has that been down here? I didn’t know that you could get it outside of New England,’ I asked as I quickly ordered a tall one.
‘Oh… about two years.’ That was surprising… as surprising as finding Yuengling in Boston when we were back last August. When was the last time I was in Philly? Quickly doing math in my head. Has it been longer than that? Did I somehow miss it last time I was here? Did both beers have some sort of a regional beer exchange plan?
‘Get what you want,’ Kelly added. ‘I’m sticking with Yuengling.’
A young guy stood at the bar and asked ‘Can I get two Jaeger Bombs?’ The bartender was rightly unimpressed with the order. Obviously the man had never been in the bar before.
‘Sorry. We don’t have any energy drinks here.’
‘Umm… okay,’ the man said as he mentally shifted gears to come up with another drink order. ‘Can we get two shots of tequila instead?’
‘That…’, Nick commented as we overheard the exchange, ‘ is the recipe for a bad night waiting to happen.’
After about an hour, and several beers, none of us were feeling up for more Tattooed Moms. There was just that weird feeling in the air. I was so distracted by it that I didn’t even get any photos of our night there. We finished our drinks and decided to head back to Dirty Frank’s. I took one last look at the bright carnival of Mom’s and walked away.
‘Wait… , Tony said as he turned halfway towards us on a dark early morning as we drove up I70 to the comically far away Denver International Airport. ‘Once you get out to New York, you’re all planning to head up to Green Point, Brooklyn tonight? And you are also staying in Manhattan?”
Our driver (and bartender at one of our more frequent local bar stops) pauses for dramatic affect.
‘Green Point? Manhattan? Does everything you do have to do with cocktails?’
‘Apparently so.’, Kelly grinned. ‘Though we didn’t plan it. It just always seems to work out that way.’
… and we were off, still in search of that elusive ‘Best Cocktail in the World.’ Several hours and after a long flight later, Kelly and I landed back in New York City. It’s been a couple years since our last visit and both of us were happy that this was a true vacation. Sure, we had a commitment to see family while out here, but this was not one of the all-too-common business trips that we normally find ourselves on.
‘Green Point? Manhattan? Does everything you do have to do with cocktails?’
Growing up in Philadelphia, as well as living in Boston, my relationship with NYC was always kind of weird. The city had always been more of a brief stopping off point for me as I traveled up and down the coast, never spending that much time there (a few hours here, a night there…). That all changed over the last eight or so years, when I was finally able to bring Kelly out to see the city for herself. She was so enamored with the frenzy of the city and the people she’s met on the East Coast, that I was able to finally relax and slowly grew to appreciate the specific kind of madness that is NYC as I saw it suddenly fresh through her eyes. Finding some great bars (PJ Clarke’s, Pegu Club, Fanelli’s Cafe, etc.) certainly helped as well. NYC has now become a regular stopping off point for both of us whenever we have to make our way back (and always reluctantly for me) to the city of my birth.
Another bonus was that we were not alone on this particular trip. Our friends, Nick (one of the hosts of the Modern Drunkard Podcast) and Amity came out from Denver with us for quick vacation and see some of the places we always find ourselves talking about. Luckily, they are also very much like Kelly and I in our ways of travel. When on vacation, other people generally see the historic sites, go to a show, do a tour in a ridiculous aquatic bus, and such. Not us (at least, not generally). Sure, we wander about the neighborhoods, but Kelly and I pretty much visit the bars. We have always felt that you get a better view of a city and the people through the local drinking establishments.
We were also meeting up with another buddy of ours from Denver, who happened to be visiting New York at the same time as we were. There were so many of our normal Denver social group along for this East Coast trip that Nick was referring to the whole event as ‘Boozeapalooza 2015’ – a bunch of cocktail enthusiasts who train at altitude (at 5280 feet) drinking at sea-level. Epic.
Day One. First Stop: B Side (204 Avenue B, New York, NY 10009)
Our buddy, Eric, had already been in the city for over a week (another East Coaster, who was also out visiting family) and it was late afternoon when we slid into B Side outside Tompkins Square to meet him. After a much too early flight and several hours in a flying coffin, we were all ready for a drink. While Eric was quite familiar with this bar, this was the first visit for all of the rest of us. B Side was just what all of us needed: dark enough to keep out the glaring light of regular society, and good drinks for NY-cheap prices.
“… and apparently David Cross used to tap dance in the back,” Eric commented as he motioned towards the dark back end of the bar. Kelly and I started to relax, reacquainting ourselves once again with the thick soupy air of the East Coast. After we started our second round (another whiskey for me and a Bell’s Porter for K), we started looking around more at the bar we found ourselves in. It’s the kind of bar that seems to be slowly disappearing – a bare bones, neighborhood, no-frills beer-and-a-shot bar where the bartender has much better things to do than listening to you gripe about your problems.
It’s the kind of bar that seems to be slowly disappearing – a bare bones, neighborhood, no-frills beer-and-a-shot bar where the bartender has much better things to do than listening to you gripe about your problems.
“Did you see the sign?” I nudged Kelly. “A CPR Kit is located behind the bar.’’
Kelly nodded and took another sip. “Wonder how much they need it? I bet they serve a lot of PBR.”
Day One. Second Stop: Ramona (113 Franklin St, Brooklyn, NY 11222)
After our second round at the B Side, Eric suggested that we move out towards Brooklyn, out around his old stomping grounds. After a quick ride on the subway (and a much longer walk through Brooklyn) we arrived at Ramona in Green Point. None of us were actually familiar with this bar, as it was kind of new. However several weeks before, when we were planning our trip, this was one of the bars that was suggested to us by local friends as a ‘must visit’ while in the area. It was easy to see why: a dim modern lounge with some vintage designs and craft cocktails. It was early in the evening when we arrived and still not very crowded, so quite easy to get a drink (an Old Fashioned for me and a Victoria for Kelly.) I found their version of the cocktail a bit too sweet, but apparently not off putting since I quickly ordered another.
Day One. Third Stop: Krolewskie Jadlo (694 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222)
“How the hell do you pronounce that?”, Nick asked me as all of us walked up Manhattan Avenue.
“I’m not going to even try.”
After several rounds at two different bars, all of us were suddenly thinking about dinner. The consensus was to hit something local, and since we were in a Polish neighborhood, Polish food was a forgone conclusion. Chan (a friend and fellow cartoonist who also joined us) suggested Krolewskie Jadlo, a place around the corner that she’s always wanted to try. The flanking suits of armor outside the doors sold the place to the rest of us. It was a long meal of blood sausage, wild boar, goat cheese pierogi, venison meatballs, and several polish beers. The dinner was firmly in Kelly’s top 10 best meals – heavy and rich and utterly delicious. She was convinced that she wanted to eat the goat-cheese pierogis forever and always.
“This is the place,” Eric said. “Like all the best neighborhood coffee-shops or bars, your local becomes your living room.”
Day One. Fourth Stop: Boulevard Tavern (579 Meeker Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222)
Luckily, our next stop was quite a walk from the restaurant, so we were able to work off a lot of our meal before arriving at our next destination of the evening: Boulevard Tavern.
“This is the place,” Eric said. “Like all the best neighborhood coffee-shops or bars, your local becomes your living room. The place you spend way too many nights in. This bar has been around for about a hundred years. From what I understand, the original Boulevard closed down years ago after some people died here. Then, I think it became a place called ‘J.D.s’, until the new owners came in, renovated, and found the old Boulevard sign. This was my local for years while I lived in the neighborhood.” … and it was a great place. Once inside, Eric instantly started talking to the bartender. Looking around, it was a very comfortable neighborhood bar, pool table in the back, where you could see the history surrounding you. Just walking in had most of us lamenting the closing of Gabors here in Denver (long story), where bars seem to have a shelf life of only a handful of years before turning into drug stores or crummy pizza places. This bar, with its exposed brick walls, long bar, and small walled courtyard in the back (where you could smoke, and where Eric told us they used to have weekly afternoons grilling and hanging out) made all of us wish for just such a place in our neighborhood. We took our place at the bar, ordered some Yuenglings, and settled in for the night.
Update: Like so many other old bars in rapidly changing neighborhoods, we just heard that it looks like the Boulevard Tavern is closing.
Several hours later, K and I wandered out to participate in a new sport: finding a cab back to our hotel (in East Village). It took some time, but we were eventually successful, finding a cab driver with GPS who, after asking us the best way back to our hotel (“ummm…maybe via the Williamsburg Bridge? I think that’s the one near our hotel?”) drove us straight back to the hotel in record time.
Day Two. First Stop: Old Town Bar (45 E 18th St, New York, NY 10003)
The next afternoon, after some wandering through the East Village and Union Square, we all met up for lunch (and a couple Guinness) at Old Town Bar, a couple blocks outside Union Square. This place was more familiar territory for K and I, as we had discovered the bar years ago and have made it a stop on most of our visits in the city. It’s another historic bar that has been here for decades (since 1892), watching the neighborhood change. A dim interior, even in the middle of the day; a beautiful old marble and mahogany bar (55 ft long); 16 ft high tin ceilings – it is a bar and diner all in one. One of those places that isn’t easy to find out in Denver. How historic was this place? A poster of 100th anniversary gala for their urinals (their urinals…. and that was back in 2010) was hanging on the wall. The service was slow, but the chili and clam chowder were warm and filling, and the Guinness poured correctly. And watching the dishes go up and down in the old dumb waiter was mesmerizing.
How historic was this place? A poster of 100th anniversary gala for their urinals (their urinals…. and that was back in 2010) was hanging on the wall.
Day Two. Second Stop: White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson St, New York, NY 10014)
After lunch we started simply walking through the West Village just to see where the day was going to take us. And after a bit, we ended up in the White Horse for several more rounds of Guinness.
Now, when hearing that we are heading out to NYC, most of the Drunkards I know (other than asking about McSorley’s) always comment, “You will be hitting the White Horse, of course.” Well… yes. We have to visit and pay respect to the ghost of Dylan Thomas and his local bar. Once inside the White Horse, his presence is hard to miss. His picture, his painted face, his words: all over the place.
We settled at a table by the window (way too many of us to set up at the bar), had a couple pints of Guinness, had some more friends join us, and watched Hudson Street pass by for a couple hours.
Day Two. Third Stop: Paulaner Brew Pub (265 Bowery, New York, NY 10002)
It was several hours later and a slow crawl back across the city. At K’s and my suggestion, we tried to stop for a drink at another one of our favorite stops: Fanelli’s Cafe (94 Prince St, New York, NY 10012.) However, our timing was quite off and the bar (small to begin with) had already filled up in the early evening with no room for any of us. So, we quickly scrambled for a back-up plan. Kerry, an old friend of mine from Boston, lived in the neighborhood and suggested that all of us meet up at the Paulaner Brew Pub on Bowery. Not a first choice for any of us, but after a day of walking (with an ever growing crowd of friends joining us who were all getting quite hungry), we were just looking for a place that all of us could fit. The Paulaner just fell into place. The best thing we can say was that the beer was decent and non-offensive, though the service was spotty. The space was in the vein of many of the newer brewpubs that have been opening up recently – minimalist warm wood and steel, with lots of industrial architectural findings. It’s a looks that is interesting, but has been done to death. Still, lots of big tall beers to drink.
Day Two. Fourth Stop: The Double Down Saloon (14 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009)
After some thankfully needed food, Nick’s was the loudest voice saying (since it was not that far away) that we had to walk over and visit the Double Down Saloon, off Houston. This was a much needed stop, especially since they were an advertiser in the Modern Drunkard and Nick wanted to drop off some of our most recent issue. I cannot travel anywhere with Nick without him mentioning this bar in some way, normally with a weird creepy wistful look in his eyes. His ever present goal was to visit all the Double Downs in the nation… which isn’t that hard of an accomplishment since there are only two (with the original in Las Vegas and already checked several times off his personal bucket list.)
It had also been several years since K and I have been back to Double Down in NYC. While we always enjoyed the bar (and their pint-sized whiskeys), it’s always been a place that you have to watch yourself (from their pint-sized whiskeys). Add in their ‘Assjuice’ shots (a drink consisting of all the remnants of liquor bottles, regardless of type, mixed into one bottle) along with their stiff pours, a night can quickly run out of control, which in certain circles is just the way that it should be. We were members of just that certain circle.
His ever present goal was to visit all the Double Downs in the nation… which isn’t that hard of an accomplishment since there are only two.
The Double Down was dark with a red light overcast, loud punk rock, graffitied walls, with the vague smell of puke, stale beer, and late nights that brought with it too many memories of college and the several blank years afterwards. All of us had our drinks and spread out through the bar knowing that we were not going to be leaving anytime soon. I tried to have conversations with people around me, but was constantly getting momentarily distracted by the flashes of porn playing over the high mounted TVs in the corner. Midgets were doing rude things to various women, played on a loop.
After an hour or so, another buddy (and Denver cartoonist) walked into the bar. Is there anyone left in Denver that I didn’t know? He was happy to see us, and after getting his drink, asked “Wait… you’re on vacation out here and you’ve just been hitting bars all day?”
“Pretty much. We are professionals.”
“Oh, honey, we’ve been training at altitude,” Kelly added, as she got up to go have a smoke, “… like Olympic athletes.”
The Double Down slowly filled up around us as the regular Friday night crowd came in. Our group expanded as well, as more and more people that Eric or I knew joined us. One of his friends started yelling at me in over the crowd and the music. It was the only way to be heard. Hearing her thick Jersey accent was more of a homecoming than I could ever expect.
“You never met a Jersey girl, have you?”
“What the hell are you talking about? I grew up in Philly. I’ve met plenty of Jersey girls. Too many to count.”
“Well…,” she replied in that particular attitude that comes from Jersey (I think they hand them out along with a birth certificate, a backward baseball cap, and your choice of a Giants or Eagles jersey) “… you never met one like me.”
“I think I may need a new liver,” I said after my third shot of ‘Assjuice’. No, it did not go down well.
Nick nodded as things were slowly going wobbly. “I made one with charcoal, surgical tubing, and a bicycle pump if you want to give it a try.”
It was getting late and K and I slowly realized that it was time to go. Those flashing flags started popping up behind the eyeballs once again. Once outside, a pair of young men approached us.
“Excuse me… do you know where we can find club where men dance?”, one of them asked us in a sort of comically ridiculous German accent that sounded like a bad Schwarzenegger impression done by someone who actually never seen one of his films before, but has seen ‘Hans and Franz.’
“No, not really,” Kelly commented slightly confused.
“Well, do you know where two young men can go to have sex with sheep?” The one not speaking made a rude gesture, and they both tried to stifle their giggling.
Kelly rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, darling… if you’re trying to shock us, you’ve got to try harder than that. And really, you’d have more luck looking for some sheep if you drove to Wyoming.”
She started laughing as we walked away from the pair. Another typical night at the Double Down.
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.
“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.