Saturday, November 18, 2017

We Walk into a Restaurant (and Walk out of a Bar)

Lucy's Lounge, Tower District, Fresno, California
Lucy’s Lounge, Fresno, California
Before we began our 2016 adventure of visiting a bar and church in every state, Mindy’s dad asked why we couldn’t instead talk to people at a restaurant in every state. (Mindy’s family tradition is strongly anti-alcohol, so his concerns were understandable.)

We explained that one of our chief goals in visiting bars (and churches, for that matter), was to talk to people. Bars are set up for conversation, restaurants are generally not.

Ever since we first walked into a bar, we’ve wanted to make sure we distinguished restaurants from bars. In some states and counties, laws stipulate that an establishment must make a certain percentage of its income from food in order to sell alcohol. When we were in those communities, it was sometimes tough to find a "real" bar, and part of the challenge was that some people don’t care for bars that don’t serve food. Good food has often been part of what people say makes for a good bar.

Some bars find serving food to be a challenge -- a kitchen requires a big investment in facilities and staff. Some bars we’ve walked into get around that by selling bags of potato chips and other snacks; other bars provide space for a food truck or allow people to bring food from a neighborhood restaurant.

Bobby Salazar, founder of a Mexican food chain in and around Fresno, found a different solution when he opened Lucy’s Lounge (named for his wife) this year. He joined forces with another local institution, Mama Mia Pizzeria, to open a kind of conjoined restaurant-bar combo. From the outside, they’re clearly two different places: Lucy’s Lounge (a bar and live jazz venue) and Mama Mia (an eat-in, delivery, or pick up pizza joint). Inside, there’s no real wall between the two.

You order Italian food from the pizza parlor side and alcoholic drinks from the bar side, but there are tables and chairs on both sides. (You can order cans of soda in Mama Mia’s, too)  We ordered a pizza at the Mama Mia counter and found a table in Lucy’s Lounge because the bar was pretty busy, and we had company that night. Our son, Bret, had joined us.

Mama Mia is bright, with functional decor. Lucy’s is dark, with jazz albums on the walls and jazz music playing. A couple of the large screens showed the Cleveland Cavaliers beating the Charlotte Hornets; others played The Happy Hour, a Bay Area sports talk show.

It also happened to be happy hour in the bar.

We ordered a couple of “Lucy’s Fall Drinks,” cocktails with an autumnal theme. Since Thanksgiving is coming (and they didn’t have any hard cider), I ordered an Apple Cider Martini, while Mindy kept up the fall theme with a Pumpkin Martini. Our glasses had cinnamon sugar rims, and Mindy’s drink had whipped cream on top. Both were tasty, and they seemed to be generous pours.

Happily, the drinks and pizza arrived at the same time. Bret isn’t a fan of martinis, so he had Dr Pepper from Mama Mia. (Dr Pepper is always a good option in my book.)

The people at the bar and the tables nearby seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. Three men arrived and greeted each other with kisses; two women pored over a map at another table. Other couples sat at the bar and at other tables. Interrupting those conversations to ask our questions seemed like a bad idea.

Mindy looked onto the cozy patio that runs along the front of the building. Nobody was sitting there, but a few glasses at a corner table were a reminder of the conversations that had taken place there earlier in the day.

Before we left, Mindy decided she ought to leave our card with the bartender. The woman who’d served us had clocked out, and when she offered the card to the new bartender, she said, “I know you!”

Mindy hadn’t been paying much attention, but the bartender was Sarah, who’d been tending bar at PressBox when we’d visited in June (we had a sports bar theme that month as an excuse to watch the Golden State Warriors playoff games). Mindy was delighted to get to see her again, and as we walked headed for the door, Sarah told us to come back soon.

We were happy to have eaten well and drunken well (“dranken well”, “drinked well”... Sometimes English is just too much for me). But we enjoyed our time at Lucy’s (and Mama Mia), even if we didn’t chat much with strangers (i.e. friends we haven’t met).

Saturday, November 11, 2017

We Walk into a Bar near Sunset

Elbow Room, Fresno, California
“I’m going to order you the steak bites,” Rechell the bartender said to the three men at the bar to our right. They had ordered drinks, but she wanted to make sure they didn’t miss the food samplers that came free with happy hour drinks. Elbow Room Bar and Grill was founded in 1955, and it’s often received local awards. The interior has a warm feel, with dining, bar, and banquet areas.

But since it was a pleasant autumn afternoon in Fresno, it was nice to sit in the patio’s bar area. It was also nice to be there at 4:00 pm instead of after 9:00 pm, when smoking is apparently permitted in the covered patio. Still, the big stone fireplace is probably a cozy spot on a cool evening.

When we first sat down, we didn’t see a bartender, but a couple of guys at the bar had drinks. We figured we had nothing better to do, so we just waited and idly watched the NCAA game on one screen and NHL on the other. A waitress came by, brought menus, answered our questions, and took our orders.

Unlike some other guys who came later, WE knew that food samples came with our drinks -- that’s one of the reasons we came during happy hour. I got an Angry Orchard (which frankly, I might be overdoing as my go-to) and Mindy said she was in the mood for cranberry and vodka (she’d decided before we left home, mostly because she’s been embarrassed by her own indecisiveness far too many times). Since both of us had drinks from the happy hour menu, we didn’t just get the ginger steak bites, but also classic deviled eggs as well.  

After we’d been there about fifteen minutes, Rechell arrived for her shift, and she did her prep work while also taking orders from people at the bar and servers who were covering the patio tables. She greeted guests she knew as they walked by while she stocked the liquor, filled up the olives, cleaned the sink, and washed glasses.

In spite of being busy, she also cheerfully took time to answer our usual two questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and “Whether you go or not, what makes for a good church?”

She said that a good bar had “good drinks and actually the people. Number one is the people. Oh my gosh, there are so many things. You have to be comfortable. Good service. It’s nice to be treated well.”

I asked what she thought was the best thing about Elbow Room, and she said, “It’s the customers. The people make this place. The clientele here is amazing. There’s such a variety, but everybody just gets along. Doctors, lawyers, ranchers, and construction workers.”

She was busy, but she had time to answer our other question, too. She said a good church had, “Good people, definitely, and, of course, the preacher.”

People did seem to be enjoying themselves, many meeting friends or colleagues, some already enjoying the long holiday weekend. We were happy with the hour we spent there.