Sunday, February 28, 2016
Saturday, February 27, 2016
Buffa's, New Orleans
Choosing a bar to write about in New Orleans is like choosing your ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. We've been to plenty of places (and will go to more, I'm sure) that were more like Dairy Queen where your choices are chocolate or vanilla. Sometimes we've been to places where there was no choice: there was only one bar. (I guess in those cases, to follow the analogy, the Dairy Queen was out of chocolate.) Even in the French Quarter (where we're staying), there are more than a hundred bars to choose from.
To narrow things down, we decided we wouldn't go to a bar on Bourbon Street. Many of the places were so noisy with music and crowds, we knew we wouldn't be able to have conversations we could hear. The other concern was that Bourbon Street would be populated by tourists. We wanted to talk to locals.
So we got suggestions from locals about bars and looked into several. We finally decided to go to Buffa's Bar and Restaurant on the corner of Esplanade Ave. and Burgundy St. Frankly, we were convinced to stay because of the plethora of Dr. Who posters (with a Firefly and Monty Python bonus) decorating the hallway. We soon found ourselves at the bar next to a delightful couple from Manhattan (which wouldn't actually be considered a local in Louisiana, for those of you who are geographically challenged).
There were two rooms to choose from at Buffa's; the front had the the bar, and the back room with the piano and lounge singer (and another bar). We heard Alexandra Scott singing Ernie's Rubber Ducky Song, followed by a Tom Waits song (as one does). But that room had more of a restaurant feel.
So we went back to Holly the bartender in the Tom Waits t-shirt in the front bar. Holly said she moved to New Orleans from Las Vegas just prior to Katrina, and she said the hurricane grandfathered her into a local status. She had arrived six weeks before the storm and wanted to stay in the place she was living, but after a few days, she was shipped off in a bus to she didn't (initially) know where.
But Holly came back to New Orleans and loves it. She loves the food and the music and the drink. She feels she never knew what life was about before she got here. Mindy said something about the middle aged tourists on Bourbon Street acting like college students, and Holly said one of the great things about New Orleans was that the locals were often older people who could go on acting like youths.
We took awhile to decide on our drinks, and it should be noted that it's not Holly's fault that there are no cherries in Mindy's Amaretto Sour or Dean's Manhattan. We asked her to leave them off.
So we asked Holly our two questions: what makes for a great bar and what makes for a great church. Holly said that drinks are the least important element of a good bar. She looks for a place that's fun, with music and a good vibe. She has favorite bars in the neighborhood (besides Buffa's), such as Cosimo's and the Golden Lantern. Golden Lantern is a gay friendly bar, and she enjoys their burlesque drag shows. As for what makes for a good church, Holly admitted she isn't a church-goer, but the Golden Lantern on occasion does Sunday Gospel Drag Shows. She says it's fun and where, she says, "I get my Jesus on."
By now our neighboring Manhattan couple had ordered something to eat and drink, and were willing to strike up a conversation, so we asked our questions. Rose and Brian had just flown into New Orleans an hour and a half before, and this was their second bar. Brian spoke about the importance of good bartenders, which he said was someone who makes pleasant conversation. They had favorite bartenders back home ("we follow them when they change bars," Rose said). They had been quite surprised to meet one of their favorite home bartenders at the airport when they arrived in town.
Rose talked about how in NYC, a bar can be like your living room, a place where you hang out with your friends. She said that was much more common than drinking at home. She appreciates the neighborhood feel of bars back in New York.
I asked what makes for a good church. Rose said they might be looking a church, but a Catholic church. She said the teaching is important for them. Many churches in New York have priests from South and Latin America, she said, and many of them preach Liberation Theology, a form Communism. They're not okay with that.
Brian said that the church he grew up in was very formal, but the alternative was meeting in the basement with a guy strumming a guitar, and Brian thinks "that's why people drifted away".
We did meet another local at Buffa's. Hank came and ordered a drink so he could use a restroom. He was born and raised in the area, though he's worked in Biloxi and Austin. When Hank answered our good bar question with, "Good clientele," it was apparent he had been in the bar business. He said a good staff brings in a good clientele. Of course, he added, one jerk coming into a bar can spoil the atmosphere.
He said he didn't know what would make for a good church, "I believe, but I don't practice."
Before we left, we looked into the back room again; Debbie Davis was singing a tribute to Randy Newman. (Randy Newman reminds me of a something completely different. Newman sang a song, "I Love LA." But here, "LA" means Louisiana, not Los Angeles. I'm not sure I'd ever get used to that.)
Total time spent in bar: a little over an hour
Our rough count: 9 in the bar area, lots more in the back where the music was
Music: Holly's playlist in the bar (an eclectic Russion duo). Live music in the back room.
Snacks: full restaurant menu available.
Followup: Holly's our friend on facebook now!
Visitor Treatment: Everybody who came in was greeted; service was prompt, and Holly made sure we knew how to find the live music in the back.
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Roosters on the Avenue, Fort Smith
"I was wondering why I felt so bad, and then someone reminded me I had got kicked in the chest. I had forgotten that had happened but when I got home I could see the footprint on my chest."
I'd asked Mark, the bouncer at Roosters, to tell me some stories, and this was one of them. He also told me about bite marks he got on his shoulder while breaking up another brawl. He told about a fellow who broke a bottle on his head, but that guy got seven days in jail and had to pay Mark's medical bills for staples and stitches. (Mark had chased him down the street, but it was a police officer that caught the guy.)
"I try to avoid physical confrontations. Usually if you can get a person off to the side you can talk to them. Let them have some dignity, but sometimes you have to bareknuckle." Pride, embarrassment and drunkenness do lead people to do really stupid things at times. Not surprisingly, Mark hates fights involving women most. You don't have the same physical tools you have dealing with a man, he said. When worse comes to worst, he grabs a woman's wrists, but he had been kicked in such situations. On occasion, he said, a big bear hug is your only option.
Officially, Roosters is a "private club". That's why we had to print and sign our names in a book and assure Mark we had ID's in our possession. (Strangely, we weren't asked to show our ID, although most entering were asked to do so. Surely age had nothing to do with it.) Because they're a club, Roosters and a few other places in town stay open (and are allowed to serve) until 5:00 am. We arrived toward the end of happy hour, which runs from 3:00 - 9:00 pm. We were told that the place really comes to life in the neighborhood of 1:00 - 3:00 am (which we weren't going to verify by experience).
The name of the place was a big draw for us. Many businesses in Fort Smith are named for elements in the novel, True Grit, or for the John Wayne film, True Grit, or for the Coen brothers' film, True Grit, since the story opens in the city. We noticed, for example, True Grit Tattoo Parlor. Rooster Cogburn is the hero of True Grit, so I believe that's the source of the bar's name. Or someone really likes chickens.
Brooke was tending bar alone when we came in. Mindy ordered her Lemon Drop (she's running out of drinks she knows the name of, and there was no printed menu) and I ordered my Root Beer Bomb.
Since the bar wasn't too busy yet, Mindy asked Brooke our two questions: "What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?"
Brooke said a good bartender was important, and that good owners were vital, too. She said the owner of Rooster "is a really good man. I love him very much. She added that good co-workers really matter, "If you don't get along, it shows".
For a church, she said it's important that the preacher isn't a hypocrite, "You don't want to hear someone preaching Sunday morning against the things you saw him doing the night before."
We asked Mark the bouncer our questions as well. He said he prefers a small bar with smiling people that make bouncers unnecessary. He appreciates a friendly staff that accepts everyone. (He had kind words to say about Brooke the bartender.) For a church, he'd like a place where you can come in your shorts and flip-flops and not be judged.
Chatting with Mark the bouncer was Mark the guest. Mark the guest lives in a small town in Oklahoma and on occasion comes to the relatively urban environs of Fort Smith. When Mark the bouncer was called away by Brooke, Mark unofficially took over his duties at the door. Two young women (Genesis and Tonya, we later learned) entered, and Mark the guest had them sign the book. He suggested they wait for Mark the bouncer to return. They waited for a bit, then headed for the bar.
Mark the guest said he likes a bar with a diversity of people from various walks of life. He's looking for interesting conversations that will take him out of his day-to-day routine. He claimed a vast experience with churches, going to all variety of churches since childhood. He appreciates good music and prefers no hymns; not stuffy but old school in worshiping God.
After Mark the bouncer returned to the door, we caught up with Genesis and Tonya at the bar. Genesis said she likes a bar with a good atmosphere, a good bartender, good music, and friends. Tonya agreed with those things and also mentioned it was important to her that the bartender paid attention to the customers.
For a church, Tonya thought it was important that people weren't hypocrites; she said too many people said they care about others but they don't.
Genesis recommended we go to the Church of Christ in town. We asked if she went there, and she said "Not anymore, except sometimes like Christmas and Easter." When we asked why not, she said she had kind of strayed. "Wow, things got a little deep here," she added.
That does happen on occasion on our bar visits. For what it's worth, though all stray away from God, God makes a habit of straying into the most unexpected places -- like Roosters in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Total time spent in bar: 1 hour 25 minutes
Our rough count: 20
Music: juke box near the entrance
Snacks: hamburgers and some other food for sale at the back bar
Visitor Treatment: sign in upon arrival, notice from bouncer to have ID available, bartender noticed and helped us right away when we got to the bar. And even though we'd forgotten to pay for Dean's Coke, Brooke and the other bartender were both really nice when Mindy ran back in to pay for it.
Distance from where we're staying: half a mile
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Saturday, February 13, 2016
We had a problem in Kansas City. Kansas City is perhaps second only to New Orleans in its fame for music bars, so we wanted to experience that scene. The problem was that we only had Thursday night free, but the bigger happenings are on the weekends. Plus many places have cover charges, and we happen to be cheap. A little internet research brought us to The Tank Room for open mic night.
When we walked in, we realized that we'd need to be careful what we photographed. Near the entrance, there's a large book with formerly blank pages on which guests are encouraged to express themselves through words and drawings, and the walls have an interesting assortment of paintings, but not all of these artistic expressions are appropriate for a family friendly blog. (And by family friendly, we mean we hope our own family reads the site.)
We arrived at the bar a little before eight, and ordered our drinks: an Angry Orchard hard apple cider for Dean, and Mindy had Illusive Traveler's grapefruit shandy. Business was light. Noah, the bartender, told us things would be picking up shortly because the performances began at nine, and he'd just put out the signup sheet. The man who'd just signed up for spot number two on the roster was waiting to get Noah's attention, so when he'd gotten his drink, we asked him our standard bar questions: "What makes for a good church?" and "What makes for a good bar?"
Matt replied with something we've heard often, "It depends on what kind of a bar you're looking for." The two options he mentioned, though, were a good place for music or a good hangout. "A good place for music is often too loud to hang out in and have good conversations," he said. But music was the reason Matt was at The Tank Room. He said it was one of the better places in town for performers; they have a good sound person and handle the logistics of open mic night well.
Matt said a good church was "aplace where the Gospel is preached and believed." So I asked him to define the Gospel, "People are in need of a Savior, so God took the form of a man in Jesus Christ and died for our sins." From that answer I was not surprised Matt attends church (Redeemer Fellowship in Kansas City).
A little later, friends of Matt's showed up to support his act; they answered our questions as well. Colby said he had grown up in a home that was pretty legalistic, which led to rebellion and questioning. He didn't say it, but I'm guessing going to a bar wasn't an option in the worldview of his early days. What he likes in a bar is something distinctive that draws attention. He likes it when something has games -- for instance, "Bags" (beanbags). He likes a place called O'Malley's which was around during Prohibition and has stairs to an escape hatch dating back to those days.
As for a church, Colby is looking for a place that's real. "I've been too many places that don't allow everyone to admit doubts." He thinks the model of the book of Acts is important, with people breaking bread together and having conversations. (Colby was the first person we've met who's asked what we thought made for a good bar and a good church. We told him some ideas, but we're not telling you what we think until the year is up. Sorry.)
Another friend of Matt's, Scott, said that a good bar is a place "where you walk in you can be yourself. You don't have to conform to an image." And he had an interesting answer for church: "A place that preaches the truth and doesn't turn you away because of it."
The music began a few minutes after nine, and the bar was crowded. The first act was a couple of guys on guitar with a guy on a violin, opening with "My Favorite Things" (a Rogers and Hammerstein song that continues to be amazingly popular as a jazz standard). The violin solo was a standout.
Our new friend, Matt, went to the stage and did a fine job with his three songs. (A few minutes before nine, he'd picked up his guitar and said, "I guess I'd better decide what I'm going to play.") He has a nice stage presence, chatting with the audience, and we saw people nodding their heads or tapping their feet as he played. We stayed for a couple of more acts that were also enjoyable.
The Tank Room was actually our second bar for the evening, since we began the afternoon at the Westport Flea Market Bar and Grill. One of my former youth group students, Jonathan (Jon back in the day), met us there with his wife, Briana. It was a nice funky place that's been featured on the TV show, Diners and Dives.
The bar is right there in the name, but the grill is there as well, so for me the place edged a little more into restaurant side of things. Sometimes the line between a bar and a restaurant isn't that clear, because after all, Applebee's (headquartered for the moment in Kansas City) has a bar.
Still, while we ate, we asked Jon and Briana our questions.
Briana works for the local NPR stations, so it made sense that many of the things she looks for in a bar relate to the reporter's perspective. She likes low lights because it's easier to observe people. She likes a place that is divey enough to draw in mix of people. She likes it when a priest, an executive and a construction worker can all walk in the bar, "a better slice of humanity". And she wants a good beer: not too light and not too dark.
Jon likes a bar with a bit of local history. He likes those collections of photos of local teams, buildings and celebrities found on bar walls that provide a sense of the distinctive location.
For a church, Briana said she likes a place that is open and positive, accepting people whereever they are in life. She said she would like a place "based in the present day," a place that was interesting and fun, especially for kids.
Jon appreciates a church that has a sense of family, providing a good support group. He thought it can be a good thing for people coming to a new place to have the support of a church.
That sense of fellowship is a wonderful thing, whether experienced with an old friend (Thanks, Jon!) or a new friend (Thanks, Matt!).
Total time spent in bar: The Tank Room 2 hours
Westport Flea Market 3 hours
Music: The Tank Room - open mic (rock on the sound system otherwise)
Westport Flea Market - 70's and 80's classic rock (we think)