Saturday, January 30, 2016

We walk into a bar in Oklahoma

Ned's, Tahlequah
Ned's sign at night

Looking at online reviews of Ned's Bar (possibly named after Oklahoma Cherokee outlaw Ned Christie) in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, I came across a review from the New Zealand Herald (because, of course, New Zealand) that people feel "like an ashtray when they leave, yes this is typical of a bar BUT it is BAD in there," so we had a bit of trepidation heading out, not wanting to offend our hosts with our stinkiness upon our return, but before we entered Ned's we saw a "No Smoking" sign on the door.

Dean notices the no smoking sign on Ned's door
Shortly before leaving at the end of the evening, we went to the enclosed back patio and talked with a couple of guys who had stepped out to smoke. They both seemed to think the change in smoking policy was a great idea. It kept them from smoking as much and stinking so much when they left. The change in policy wasn't caused by a change in law or ordinances, but rather what the owners perceived as a change in attitudes. The influence of students from the local university may well have played a part in the decision.

Ned's from the street by day
That smoking thing was the one big negative we saw in the reviews. Otherwise, there was much praise for the place which was echoed when we talked to people in the bar. I myself appreciated that there were a number of pool tables, even though I didn't get a chance to play. There is a little neon on the outside of the building, but more inside, providing much of the light.

Ned's drink list
There were some drink specials listed on the wall, chiefly beers and shots. One of the bartenders, Swain, offered us a menu. Mindy choose a Tom Collins without the cherry because she remembered liking them when she was younger (she doesn't particularly like the cherry). I went with a Gilligan's Island because those scrappy castaways never gave up in spite of their many setbacks.

Mindy's Tom Collins at Ned's
We sat next to Armando, who had been chatting with Swain. He said he'd been coming to Ned's since he first came to Tahlequah back in 1995. Not surprisingly, when I asked him what made for a good bar, he said "Tradition." Armando works in hospice and has found that after a tough day, this was a soothing place to be. He likes the atmosphere and the music "when it's playing." (No music was playing just then. It did kick in later. One of the selections was "Take Me to Church" which, if you don't know, is not actually pro-church.)

Dean's Gilligan's Island at Ned's
Since he's always on call, Armando generally orders just one shot and one beer. He said he was good friends with people who came to Ned's, especially the bartenders. It was a place he felt safe, he didn't need to worry about getting shot or stabbed there.

I asked Armando what makes for a good church, and he said he looks for a small church where people are sincere about their faith.  He likes good preaching and he said he "had to feel it".  He was raised in a small, "homegrown" Baptist church. He said his faith had grown through his work in hospice, and he'd met many people of great faith. But his job did keep him from going to church many Sundays.

I asked Swain the bartender what he thought makes for a good bar and he quickly said, "Good customers. This is the only bar in town so people have to behave themselves. If they don't, they can be banned, and there's nowhere else to go."  The answer to what makes for a good church wasn't nearly as quick in coming. "Openness for sure," he said. "I kind of gave up on church years ago. I felt judged. I can be a good person and make good choices without it."

view from the door at Ned's around 8:30
When we arrived a group of three women were chatting near the middle of the bar, so we approached them and told them about our bar and church in every state project. They happily agreed to talk to us. When we asked what made for a good bar, Kathlene, Cindy and J said, in unison, "Family!"

Kathlene hadn't been much of a bar person before, and Ned's was her first bar in Tahlequah. It became her place. She said that when her daughter turned 21, she wanted to go with her mom to Ned's. 

Behind Ned's bar
J said, "When I moved back here [after 23 years away], this is where I came. Ed's son Gary was still here, and he recognized me when I came in, and it was great. It's been going on seven years back. It's a good hometown bar."

Ned's 30th anniversary shirts
As for the church question, Cindy says she wants a welcoming atmosphere. J agreed. All three women grew up attending church. Cindy said she grew up in the Methodist Church so she went to the Methodist Church in town when she moved there. The first week no one spoke to her. She went back for a few weeks but still wasn't made to feel welcome.

Pool room at Ned's
Kathlene grew up going to Indian churches as her father is full blood Cherokee. In Southern California they went to the only Indian church they could find -- in the heart of Compton. When she moved back to Tahlequah, she felt judged by church people. She was a waitress and was told by some church folks, as she served them their after-church dinner, that it was wrong for her to work on a Sunday. She believes there is a definite divide between church goers and non-church goers in town. She still attends church with family on the holidays, but quite obviously feels more comfortable in Ned's than any church in town. We understood that feeling of comfort, leaving Ned's feeling like we'd made new friends.

Ned's well-worn bar stools
Total time spent in bar: 1 hour 45 minutes (arrived at 7:30 pm on Thursday)
Our rough count: 15
 Music: jukebox
Snacks: little bags of chips for sale
Visitor Treatment: Swain the bartender was very friendly, rounding up a couple of menus for us when Mindy was uncertain about her order; once we'd started talking with people, others joined the conversation.
smokers get disco lights in Ned's back patio

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Alamo Drafthouse Has a lot of Beers (oh, and they show movies too)

When we lived in Healdsburg there was a big to-do when the local movie theater, The Raven, began to sell wine, even though it was in wine country, so it all made sense.

This week we visited one of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters in San Antonio, Texas. They offer dozens of local and imported draft and canned beers, mixed cocktails, and wine.

In the past, they've offered signature wines with movie themes such as "The Battle of the Wits" line to honor The Princess Bride in 2012 and The Silence of the Lambs Chianti and Pinot Grigio in 2013.

You can order from the bar and drink in the lobby or order from your theater seat. Quite the moviegoing experience.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

We walk into a bar in Texas

Before the trip began, when we told friends we'd be going to a church and a bar in every state, someone told us, "In Texas you'll see the same people in church Sunday morning as you saw in the bar Saturday night." Turns out that was quite the accurate prediction, since Dan and Julie Poirier, the folks we're staying with, recommended both this week's bar and this week's church and are joining us for both.

The Barber Shop got its name because that's what it was for 25 years. Before that it was a garage and gas station, but now it is a brewpub -- and quite a popular one at that. When we arrived on Thursday evening the spaces nearby were filled up ("Some of the hardest parking ever," said a local. I have seen harder, but San Francisco and Chicago are very different places.)

Mindy and I heard a great many opinions being expressed by a group of guys outside the bar, having a good time amongst themselves. When one of them walked out toward the street and a car whizzed by, they loudly let their displeasure be heard.

"Speed limit's 25 miles per hour, dude!"

"It should be ten."

"They should patrol more here on Mercer. They don't need to in other places."

The Barber Shop is a popular local hangout. The Dripping Springs Chamber of Commerce named it best business a couple of years ago; it has wonderful kitschy decorations, from the barber pole in the front to the glowing Budweiser Texas light in the back, with deer heads in between. I enjoyed watching people's struggles with the front door, which has a knob that demanded just the right amount of pressure before pushing to open. A favorite running gag for the bar is a chalkboard noting the number of people who come actually hoping to have their hair cut.

Many bars claim to be welcoming to all, but here that "all" seemed to really mean all. We saw a couple of children in the bar (which is apparently okay as far as local law was concerned) and dogs were made welcome as well.

Mixed drinks and wine weren't to be seen on the menu, but Mindy and I tried the ciders. (Mindy enjoyed my choice of Strongbow Gold Apple over her Austin Eastsider Original. Don't tell anyone, but mine came from New York.)

We did have our two questions to ask, and we figured a good place to start would be with the group of far from shy guys outside in the porch area in front of the bar. They quite amiably let us interrupt their conversation.

So we asked, "What makes for a good bar?"

One guy's answer was simple, "Cold beer."
Jackson answered, "Depends. Are you looking for a party bar or an after work bar? This is a good after work bar."

Another guy in the group, Kyle, said, "Good company. I came here because I knew I'd see people I'd want to hang out with. I didn't know the exact people that would be here, but I knew there would be people I'd like to be with."

Our second question, "What makes for a good church?" was met with a quick response as well. In fact, some of the guys started their own conversations about religious and spiritual issues.

Brian said, "I'd look for some small, out of the way church in the middle of nowhere, because they'll be a tight-knit group and that'll make you feel at home."

Jackson agreed with that and said, "I like the cowboy churches where you sing and pray and then you might get something to eat. They don't judge you like the Baptist or Catholic churches."

I talked for a little while with Kyle, who told me a bit about his religious background and upbringing, "When I was a kid I went to a lot of different places, Mormon and Catholic, because I moved and was with Child Protective Services. So one time when I was 15 I was in a group and they were going around the circle and asking who wanted to go on a mission trip, and everyone said 'Yes' but I said 'No' because I was finally with my father and mother again, and they were working things out. So I felt really alienated out. I think a church should be good people coming together who don't want to be negative."

He talked about how church shouldn't be about rules, and I agreed with him, suggesting church should be about relationships: with God through Jesus Christ and with each other.

About that time, Mindy went inside to find that our friends Julie and Dan were already there. We joined them and had a good time talking. Then Julie and Mindy proved again their generous and gracious nature by letting Dan and I stay to talk while they went home to work on dinner. As Dan and I talked, I noticed the bartender doing a great job of cleaning up glasses and cans while also taking care of what was at times a long line of customers.

When she seemed to have a moment free, I introduced myself to Alisha the bartender. She seemed amused by our quest of a bar and a church in every state and cheerfully answered my questions between drink orders. In response to what makes for a good bar, she said, "A good bar should make you feel at home. I know the name of most everyone who comes in here, and I know what they drink, so I'll have it waiting for them. Oh, and beer. We have a lot of choices in good beers."

As for what makes for a good church, she said, "What would make me want to go to church? That's a hard one. Maybe if it was open minded and let you share your thoughts and feelings without being judged. I lived in Utah with the Mormons and New Mexico with the Catholics, and I've been with Baptists. If you'd convert to be like them they'd be all over that. But I wanted them just to accept me for me." I could be wrong, but I think Alisha was saying she would be interested in a church that welcomed people with the same grace and friendliness she showed people who came into the Barber Shop.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Not Quite a Blue Law...Turquoise Law? Azure Law? Cyan Law?

No one could get pass that rope. This was taken in a grocery store in Santa Fe, New Mexico where the law is different than say, Las Vegas, NV, where alcohol is sold 24/7. I'm sure we'll more severe laws as we travel from state to state.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

We walk into a bar in New Mexico

Some of the promotional material for Maria's New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe states that they wrote the book on margaritas. Since Jimmy Buffett wrote Tales from Margaritaville, I'd think he'd written be "The" book on margaritas, but there is a book called The Great Margarita Book: A Handbook of Recipes written by Al Lucero, former co-owner of Maria's (with a forward by Robert Redford),  so the bar certainly has expertise in the field.

To be ready to try the margaritas at Maria's bar, we ate dinner in the restaurant first. This blog isn't about food, so this is not the place to say that the Santa Fe cuisine was delicious, and my chalupas were very good but I was still jealous of Mindy's blue corn tortilla enchilada, but neither entree could compare to the sumptuous little pillow sopapaipillas. No time for that, we're moving on to the bar.

The bar had only about eight seats, with two single stools unoccupied. Before we could make a request, the bartender kindly asked a couple to move down so we would have seats together. Also without out our asking, he set two glasses of water in front of us (which were appreciated), along with drink menus.

Over one hundred different margaritas are listed, so we felt rather like the proverbial person from the developing world encountering an American supermarket for the first time: abundant option paralysis ensued
But Mindy went with the Margarita Seca because it was described as being very dry (she thought she might like a dry margarita more than a sweet one), but after considering several other interesting options, I went with the Grand Gold because I've seen too many economic infomercials.

We were seated next to a woman who was obviously something of a regular. I say this because someone on the staff came to greet her, not at all because she looked like someone who hung out at the bar. We introduced ourselves and found that Deanna does often frequent Maria's, but she  usually comes with her husband, who was currently out of town on a business trip. She said she wouldn't usually seat alone at a bar (that's not what nice Southern girls like herself were raised to do), but she did know the staff at the restaurant, so she felt comfortable ordering dinner in the spot.

Deanna used to work as a hospice nurse, but now she works with indigents, street people, and other at-risk folks in Santa Fe, trying to provide them with health care. I asked her how big a problem alcohol and drugs were for her clients and, not surprisingly, she said both were a part of most if not all of her clients' lives, although more of a root problem for most of them. Many street people use drugs, she said, to deal with their lives -- heroin to calm things down and meth to pep things up. She said she's come to respect her clients for carrying on with their incredibly difficult lives.

We asked Deanna our standard questions, "What makes for a good bar? What makes for a good church?" She said she and her husband were creatures of habit, which led to them to return to Maria's, a place they felt comfortable. Along with that, they have strong drinks at an economical price.

As for what made for a good church, Deanna modified our question to fit her Southern Baptist/Jewish background: "What makes for a good church or temple?" As an introvert, the answer for her was the smaller and more informal the better. She would look for a place where friendships would be built that helped everyone reach their full potential.

Deanna also told us not to worry about quoting her precisely. I think it was shortly after that she said, "You are the two most delightful people I've ever encountered and your blog sounds simply riveting."

It was time to ask our bartender, Misrahim, our questions. Not surprisingly, he noted the importance of the bartender, who he said should be someone who makes good drinks and is considerate of his customers. He said he didn't go to church, but he thought it was important that a priest not be boring and able to keep the congregation's attention.

At the other side of the bar was a group of friends obviously enjoying each other's company. We decided to crash their party and even we, the old people with the annoying questions, couldn't dampen their spirits. They happily responded to our questions.

We asked what makes a good bar, Ryan answered quickly and methodically listing four things that mattered to him, which he reordered as he spoke: 1) service 2) people 3) product and 4) price.

Danielle was looking for a place where friends could get together and relax. Jules looks for a place with a great staff that could become friends. She looks for to build a community, a little family, a home away from home. Kara said that Maria's was one of her favorite bars, and it has "Cheers Syndrome" (a good thing).

Elizabeth summed up her answers to both our questions in two phrases: Bar - Loving Drink and Church - Loving Heart.

And a good church? Ryan said he'd loved church as a kid. Growing up in a Methodist church, he'd liked the singing and the music and remembers zero judgment from the people there. (He seemed to be the only one in the group with only pristine memories of the church.) Kara said she was looking for a sense of community and provision of support. Jules, a Catholic, remembered a priest a church her childhood that set an example she'll never forget. He was a humble man whose homilies were brief and moving. She said the worship service should be about Jesus, not the preacher. She said that she's had a hard time finding such a priest and church since then but she very much appreciated the last Christmas Eve service at the Basilica in Santa Fe. The Archbishop spoke and he followed that example of humility.

Danielle said she hated church as a kid. She was kicked out of Sunday School when she was five years old, apparently for asking questions and expressing doubt. She's now an agnostic, but thinks a church should give room to ask questions about values and morals. For now, she looks to nature as her higher power.

Something churches and bars have in common: both on occasion kick out five year olds. But in the case of bars, that's a good thing.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

We walk into a bar in Arizona

The Shelter - Tucson, AZ

Let's deal with the sad news first. I was told there would be pinball. When USA Today recommended this place, they said there would be pinball. There were Yelp reviews that mentioned pinball. But there were no pinball machines in the bar. I asked Stephen, a patron who's been coming to the place for over a decade, and he assured me there used to be pinball machines, "The old kind where the number turned over, not electronic scorekeeping," but we didn't see any.

But there were games to play. You could play pool, and there were some video games that you'd find in many bars. More importantly, the kitsch was there. The bar takes the Sixties theme and runs with it, with many pictures of Kennedy and a lava lamp behind the bar. Sadly, no one was wearing go-go boots.

The bar has been around as long as Mindy and I have been; built in 1961. A legend goes around that it actually was a fallout shelter, but no. It has always been a bar.

Inside and out, it has a bizarre round structure. When we came in during happy hour on Friday afternoon, Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same" was playing loudly. Though I'd read that the place uses DJs on occasion, it was pretty early in the afternoon, and the bartender seemed to be the DJ.

The place was dark, so there was effort involved in reading the menu (glassess on? glasses off?), but there was enough light for some of the velvet paintings to glow a bit. One portrait of JFK had a toothy smile that actually lit up. Little naked lady statues are also scattered about the place along with posters celebrating bands and B movies of the past.

After ordering our drinks (I had one of this month's specials, a Sailor Jerry with Coke. Mindy had Julie's -- maybe Judy's? The bar was pretty dark -- Coffee), we moved down the bar so we could chat with other customers.

We asked a couple of high school English teachers, Stephen and Tawnee, our first standard question, "What makes for a good bar?" Stephen said he liked the dark atmosphere of the place and that the staff was awesome. The bartenders were personable, and he felt they were obviously treated well by the management because they stuck around for a long time. (Paris, who was tending bar that day, has been at The Shelter for sixteen years.) Stephen said the drinks weren't all that good, but he liked the music they played.

When I asked what would make for a good church, Stephen described a local spot of natural beauty which was as close as he'd come to church, but he said Tawnee, who hadn't said anything so far, would have an answer for that question. We asked if she was a churchgoer and she said, "Yes."

Initially, her answer to the question was one word, "Depth." She said that until recently her church had a pastor with great knowledge; he had a doctorate, and his sermons were a real education. She thought her parents were bored on occasion, but she really appreciated the teaching. But, she said, the church leadership had fired him, and she missed him. She didn't always agree with what he said, but she always left feeling she'd learned something.

We turned to Paris the bartender, who was getting busier as happy hour progressed. As he prepared drinks, we asked our questions. He said qualities that made for a good bar were good service, good drinks and a clean environment. We asked the church question, but he wouldn't answer it. He said talking about things like that made customers uncomfortable.

Paris did seem concerned about his customers. He greeted several customers by name as they came in (a bit of a Cheers touch there), and earlier, before the bar got busy, hugged a customer who seemed a little down.

As we were leaving a customers were flowing in. This monument to the past still seems to have a future.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

We walk into a bar in Nevada

Aureole in Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

There are times when we feel like we don't have a choice about the place we go, and that's a good thing.

Fourteen years ago, I began working at the Hotel Healdsburg, where one of the owners of the hotel and its restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen, is Chef Charlie Palmer. He was a good boss and is a good guy, so I wanted a chance to go to one of his many other properties.

We might have gone to Aureole at Mandalay Bay even if it weren't for Charlie, because of a cool feature in the restaurant, the four story wine tower. I'd seen it on television back in the days when our daughters were hooked on the Travel Channel. (That wine tower, like allof America's prominent landmarks, has been replicated with Legos.) 

After asking several people in Mandalay Bay for directions (and with detours in The Four Seasons), mangling the pronunciation of the name of the restaurant, we made our way to the reception desk at Aureole. The hostess directed us down the staircase to the Lounge, which is on the other side of the wine tower from the restaurant proper.

A few people were seated at the bar, but we found seats together at the end closest to the restaurant. The bartender handed us a tablet with the drinks menu and showed us how to swipe the screen to turn the pages. (We heard another guest request a paper menu, which was supplied).

Flipping through the by-the-glass wine list, we were glad to see Sonoma County represented along with European vineyards,but we thought it would be more fun to start the year with cocktails. The description of the Chocolate Martini sounded delicious, and since we'd already eaten dinner, it seemed like a suitable dessert. Mindy went with the Raspberry Lemon Drop. Both were delicious. 

Two men were working the bar, Sal and Dave. Sal took our order and mixed our drinks. He's been tending bar for 35 years, and has been at Aureole since its opening seventeen years ago. He was the first person we asked the two questions that will be our standards for this blog and for Dean and Mindy go to church: "What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?"

Sal quickly answered what made for a good bar. "Good bartenders. The ingredients for drinks are pretty much the same everywhere. The bartender makes the difference."

His answer about a good church fit with his first answer. "The pastor."

I asked Sal if the restaurant had changed over the years. He responded that when the place opened seventeen years ago, they were extremely busy six nights a week, but now, since many other restaurants have opened in the area, business has slowed some, though still doing well.

The bar of Aureole serves primarily as a source for serving the diners and secondarily serving bar patrons. Two people can usually serve the needs of the restaurant and the bar, but at peak times, a third helps them out.

I asked Sal for favorite stories from his years of tending bar. He recalled an incident from his first year there:  a man planned to propose to his girlfriend and asked Sal to find him roses. It was after 11:00 pm when Sal was frantically searching the hotel for roses. The man paid generously for the roses, and at midnight, the man got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend. The woman said yes, taking the roses. It was a beautiful moment.

Unfortunately, at that same moment another woman wearing a short skirt walked by. The man's eye followed her. The new fiancee couldn't help noticing, and she showed her outrage with words and by beating the man with the roses. Soon rose petals and awkward feelings spread throughout the restaurant.

Dave, the other bartender, has been at Aureole for the last four years, and has been tending bar for seventeen years. He began at a small, family, Italian restaurant and later went to Applebee's.

He didn't speak badly of the chain, saying they make a good, consistent product. They don't give room for self-expression, though.

I asked Dave what he looked for in a good bar. He said it depends on what you're looking for, what kind of environment you're in the mood for. Sometimes, he said, you'd like to be someplace quiet with well-crafted drink. Sometimes you're in a party mood and want a festive atmosphere.
He was ready to recommend a number of other local bars that would match a variety of moods.

When I asked what would make for a good church, Dave said he couldn't answer that since he was Jewish, and I asked what would make for a good temple. He said it should be a simple place: people, chairs and a suitable place for the Torah.

Aureole provided good drinks, conversation, and company to start a new year and, we hope, will be the first of at least 49 pleasant bar experiences.

Dean's drink: Chocolate Martini
Mindy's drink: Raspberry Lemon Drop
Visitor Treatment: Bartenders were attentive and friendly (the bar itself wasn't busy while we were there, but Sal and Dave took care of drink orders for the restaurant as well).
Miles from last bar visited: 0
Total 2016 miles driven: 28
Miles from start: 646