Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top 5 Posts of 2017 (and a big thank you)

We Walk out of 2017
I’ve often talked to bartenders and wait staff about the most effective way to say “Thank You” for good service, and the overwhelming response has always been, “With a good tip.” Sure, it’s nice for people to say a heartfelt verbal “Thank you.” A handshake or even a hug can be appreciated. But they’re working to pay the bills, and nothing says, “Job well done” like a little extra cash.

As this year comes to an end, we’d love to thank all of you who follow this blog with a lovely check or pieces of silver or even bitcoins, but that isn’t going to happen. We wish we could send a pat on the back or hearty handshake over the interwebs, but it just can’t be done.

So we hope you’ll settle for this written thank you. You walked into a bar to relax and have a good time, you weren’t expecting to have your words taken down and put out for potentially dozens of people to read. So many of you welcomed us like friends on our initial meeting. Thank you to all of you who talked to us in bars and answered our questions.

Thank you also to those of you who read this blog regularly -- or even on occasion. We started this adventure so we could understand community a little better. Part of that understanding came from those bar visits, but part of it has come from your responses to this blog.

We'd also like to remind you of your five favorite posts of the year.

We walk into a bar to see former classmates
We walk into 2017
We walk into a bar to see old friends
We walk into The Bar
We walk into a tavern

And then there's this: We walk into our favorite bar

Saturday, December 23, 2017

We Walk into Christmas Caroling

Tree of Life Cafe and Bakery, Fresno, California
We walked into Tree of Life for Beer and Carols, but, as has been stated too many times in this blog, we don’t like beer. So Mindy ordered rosé and I ordered the same, since a new bottle was being opened. And opening that bottle was a challenge. The young woman behind the counter was new to the wine bottle opening process, and her manager (one of the owners, Steve Ocheltree) gave her step by step instructions for cutting away the foil and using the bottle opener. She was successful (cork free glasses are the mark of success).

Besides the beer challenge, you might have noticed us mentioning a time or two the challenge of distinguishing “bars” from “restaurants” for our purposes. I’ll admit straight out: Tree of Life is clearly a restaurant, but “Beer and Carols Night” is such a bar type of thing to do that we wanted to check it out. If it bothers you that a bar blog is focusing on a eating place rather than a drinking place, remember it’s Christmas and be of good cheer.

Though we chose to get wine, there was a sort of/kind of beer tap set up using a cooler, which seemed to be primarily used by the people of Woven Community, the church that sponsored the event. We considered buying something from the bakery (the cookies and breads looked good, even though we'd just eaten dinner at home), but when we were told that the church had cookies and chips available on one of the tables, we decided to try those first.

We sat at a table near other carolers, and Carolyn Ocheltree, the other owner of Tree of Life soon came over to greet us. We asked if she belonged to Woven Community; she told us that she didn’t but that they were considering attending; she seemed impressed by their Beer and Carols event.

Carolyn told us that she’d grown up in the Valley as a Seventh Day Adventist. That church encourages their membership to follow a well balanced vegetarian diet -- which was not exactly the norm in the Fresno area. Her dietary background instilled a sensitivity to people with different diets, and in their restaurant and catering, they make sure they can appeal to a variety of tastes.They not only serve gluten free bakery goods and vegan entrees, they also serve bacon and cinnamon rolls. (Seventh Day Adventists also refrain from drinking alcohol, but as mentioned above, the restaurant has beer and wine are available).

Tree of Life also celebrates the San Joaquin Valley and Fresno in particular. The walls are filled with photos and paintings of local farms and mountains, along with quotes from local literary hero, William Saroyan. Carolyn talked about how they loved to have tourists from far away places like Germany stop by on the way to Yosemite. After a meal at Tree of Life, the visitors leave knowing more about the area than they would have learned over a meal at a fast food franchise.

But wait! There’s more! Another element of Steve and Carolyn’s business is their goal to provide work for those who a recovering from addictions. More than half of their staff has gone through rehabilitation programs. Carolyn mentioned that one of the advantages of Tree of Life’s downtown location is that employees who don’t have a driver’s license or don’t have access to a car benefit from the downtown public transportation hub.

Since the carol singing hadn’t yet gotten started, we asked Carolyn the two questions we always ask at bars.When we asked her what she looked for in a good bar, the answer didn’t come quickly. “For me, it’s atmosphere and service. I’m an older white woman. So I want someplace quirky, where people will treat me nicely.” She also prefers quiet to a noisy place.

As for what makes for a good church, she said she’d like a place that is multicultural, with people with a variety of income levels and interests. She wants to be with “a loving, caring group of people.”

To us, the most impressive thing about Tree of Life was that many of the things Carolyn would like to see in a church are what she and her husband are providing through the restaurant (which was, for us on that night, also a bar).

Saturday, December 16, 2017

We Walk into a Bar Far, Far Away

Opening night of Star Wars week at HoP, Clovis, CA
House of Pendragon Brewing Company, Clovis, California
We were really hoping for Qui Gon Gin, but no. Instead, they offered Qui Gon Jinn and Juice with Pineapple, which is an IPA. As we’ve mentioned more than once, Mindy and I do not like beers or ales (or stouts, for that matter). HoP is a brewery, so beer is what they do.

On the other hand, it was the first night of Star Wars week, and we like science fiction fantasy, so it was a good night to be there. That same night was the theater debut of The Last Jedi -- but in this brewery, it was the debut for a Star Wars-themed beverage.

Outside the House of Pendragon, there was quite a collection of scum and villainy, with bad guys from a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away: Storm Troopers, a (tall) Jawa, a Tusken Raider, and a Tie Fighter Pilot. Inside, the taproom was packed, and we had some difficulty making our way to the bar.

Obviously, considering the name of the brewery, Star Wars isn’t the brewery’s usual geek theme. Usually medieval knights rather than Jedi knights provide the ambiance, but it was a reasonable transition. When we got to the bar to order, we heard that the Qui Gon Jinn had run out (more was expected in about fifteen minutes), so we ordered different IPAs, Excalibur and Lancelot.

It was a “Steal the Glass” Night, and the glasses were Star Wars themed. We paid a little extra to take them home.

While we were in line, Mindy had struck up a conversation with a man at one of the tables, and once we got our glasses, we asked if we could set them down on his table while we were sipping. John and his son, Austin, kindly gave their permission.

We asked John our two questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and “What makes for a good church?” 

John said, “I’m old, so what I think makes for a good bar is different.” (For the record, he seemed younger than us.) “I like a more relaxed and less crowded place than this.” (This was probably a busier than usual night at House of Pendragon.) “I like sports on TV, something to watch. And I like good bourbon.” (I nodded; I got that.) 

For a good church, he said he likes a preacher who interacts with the congregation.

We asked Austin whether he wanted to answer the questions and he said he’d pretty much agree with his dad’s answers.

I asked John whether he’d be going to see The Last Jedi the upcoming weekend, and he said he’d be going hunting, bow hunting. Which led to a conversation that ranged from what’s involved in getting a hunting license to the Olympic career of Geena Davis.

Mindy looked up a couple of facts ("Did Geena Davis compete as an archer in the Olympics?) on her phone, and I said, “Smartphones have really killed bar arguments.”

John said, “No they haven’t.” Which I guess proved his point.

We headed out, chatting with some of the Empire’s finest (worst?) on the way. We’ll probably visit the new adventures of Luke and Leia and the galaxy newbies soon, but for now, it was fun to experience a real life Star Wars bar scene.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

We Walk All the Way to a Bar

Pizza Pit, Fresno, CA

In seminary I had a prof who was a teetotaler; he taught that Christians shouldn’t drink alcohol. I found most of his arguments absurd (especially the suggestion that Jesus turned the water into grape juice), but his strongest argument was that drinking brought dangers in the modern world that didn’t exist centuries ago, especially drunk driving. Thousands of lives are lost every year because people drink too much and gets behind the wheel.

definitely not home for us
Drinking at home is the most obvious solution -- perhaps in bed to avoid any drunk walking accidents -- but what if you just want to go to a bar?

There are many simple solutions to this challenge, designating an alcohol free driver being one of the many. Another is walking to the bar instead of driving -- though not everyone has a bar within walking distance of home.

Fortunately, we do. We walked to the bar at the Pizza Pit.

Our son, Bret, came with us -- which turned out to be quite appropriate. Our neighborhood bar is inside a family restaurant. The sign on the door makes it clear: “Welcome to the Pizza Pit! This is a family restaurant . We ask that you be respectful of others. No foul language, please. We’ll give you ONE warning. The second warning and we will shut the TVs off. Please don’t ruin it for everyone. Thank you for your business.” So we went as a family. And we watched our language.

Bret put some money in the jukebox and we listened to Florence and the Machine. We sat at the bar where Josh quickly took our order. We’d had pizza at the place shortly after moving to Fresno, but since we’d already had dinner at home that night, we just had some Cheetos to go with our drinks.

Pizza Pit, Fresno, California
Mindy and Bret had Redd’s Apple Ale, and I had some fairly local hard root beer. It was a slow night, and we talked with Josh about why that might be. It was cold; perhaps people were staying in. Perhaps people were doing their Christmas shopping.

Josh said he  works only occasionally at this Pizza Pit. Usually he works at the other location in the Tower District. In addition to tending bar, he’s an artist and has displayed his work at the other Pizza Pit location, which participates in the downtown ArtHop.

Joey, one of the owners, came in. He told us that Pizza Pit has been around for twenty years, but the current family ownership has been running the place for the last seven years.

We asked Joey if he’d answer our questions about what makes for a good bar and what makes for a good church and he said, “Good people”.

Josh said, “I was going to say the same thing.”  

Joey said the Pizza Pit was a neighborhood place, and neighbors made the place. He made sure we knew that they’re primarily a pizza place that happens to have a bar so people can have a beer with their pizza if they want. But the place is kid friendly, with video and prize-dispensing games. Joey said they often have events for Little League Teams and birthday parties.  

As for what makes for a good church, Joey said he’s not religious. He said he’s known a lot of hypocritical people in church. “If you’re in a religion, you have to be loyal to it, not two faced.”

We enjoyed our drinks and then walked home. No drunk driving risk at all after we each had our one drink. So even the best argument that seminary teacher offered doesn’t hold water (let alone hard cider), and in the world of Uber and robot cars, even less so.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

We Walk into a Bar That Isn't There

Taps and Tacos, Fresno, California
Shortly after we moved to Fresno we noticed a place called “Taps and Tacos.” We saw a “Now Open” sign and thought, “We really need to go there.” After all, it combined the point of this blog with Mexican food, so that would be a very happy thing. The place was on Shaw Avenue, a street we drive on quite frequently, so we either thought or said, “We really should go there and write about it,” at least once a week.

So last Tuesday, we finally said, “Let’s go to Taps and Tacos tonight.” We asked our son to go along. We checked the menu online, and it looked like it had things we’d all enjoy. The website said they had happy hour until 6:00, and Facebook had something about taco Tuesday, so we headed over around 5:00. .

As we approached the place, it looked dark. The sign wasn’t lit up. We considered these things clues and wondered if it was closed for the evening. We pulled into the parking lot, got out of the van, and headed for the door. A sign in the window thanked the guests for their patronage and said the place was closed as of a week before we got there. We were never going to be those guests.

Back home, Mindy checked some reviews including some complaints about the service. She even saw a review where (apparently) a bartender who got negative comments argued with the reviewer. There were a number of four and five star reviews. We might have had a great experience or a lousy one, but we will never know.

I did a little research as well. I’d heard it said the ninety percent of restaurants fail in the first year, but apparently that’s not true. One article mentioned a 55 to 60 percent failure rate in the hospitality industry,* which is better than what I was thinking, but still, failure is more likely than success.  Even some places we visited in the last two years are gone -- One of our favorites, the great Donny Dirk’s Zombie Den in Minneapolis, is no more.

So we wish we’d made it to Taps and Tacos. We might have had great food and drinks and met some great people. It might have led to an incredible post.

I do have some doubt that a post from us would have saved the bar. We will never know.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

We Walk into a Bar the Night before Thanksgiving

Yukon’s Tavern and Grill, Fresno, California
Bars the night before Thanksgiving are a thing.

When I worked in the hospitality industry, I heard bartenders speak with dread about college students coming home with cheesy fake IDs and meeting friends at hometown bars for shots and energy drink cocktails. The night before Thanksgiving is also when people head to bars a s a place of retreat when they've already had a few hours with their families and need some time away to prepare themselves for the long day to come. .

Some bars just take the opportunity for a party. While searching for our bar of the week, Mindy found that Yukon’s Tavern & Grill in Fresno was having a Pre Thanksgiving Bash at 9:00 pm, with a DJ and cornhole. (May I again express my displeasure with the term “Cornhole?” “Bean bag game” works just fine, thank you very much.) We arrived before the DJ, because we wanted to talk to people, but the beanbag game was already set up outside.

The bartender said they didn’t have hard cider (which seemed like the Thanksgiving thing to us), so Mindy ordered a cranberry and vodka and I asked for a rum and Coke. When the bartender started writing the night’s specials on a chalkboard, we saw something better yet: 50-cent chicken wings.

While we waited for our wings, we started talking to John, who was sitting next to me at the bar. He was fruitlessly cheering on his Los Angeles Lakers, who were losing to the Sacramento Kings. He said he’d never been much of a basketball fan until Kobe and Shaq came to the Lakers. His dad got excited about the team, and he did as well.

He was willing to answer our two questions: “What makes for a good bar?” and “What would make for a good church?”

John was excited to answer the first question. “I ask myself that question a lot. I’ve wanted to have my own bar since I was ten years old.There aren’t many kids who want to run a bar at ten! This may sound strange, but a good bar should have a family type of environment. No matter what, everyone should always be welcome. Whether it’s the first time they come or the hundredth. Like here.”  John knows the owners of Yukon's and has been impressed with the friendliness of the bar.

As for what makes for a good church, John said he grew up in the Roman Catholic Church which had a “quiet, disciplined environment.” He said there were good things about those rules and somberness, but when he was older, he went to the Salvation Army services and really enjoyed it. He said good music and testimonies makes for a good church.

Alyssa the bartender agreed to take a moment for our questions, too. She said a good bar needed, “Good marketing and promotionals.”

Mindy acknowledged it was the Facebook information that had brought us there, and Alyssa said about the owner, “He’s really popular with people; people come to see him. He’s a good person.” She said bartenders were important, too. I’m a social butterfly. People follow me from place to place. This isn’t my part of town, but I’ve made friends in this community.” She said it was important to have “good vibes” and a “good aura” in the bar. She noted, “If you’re going to get intoxicated, you want to be around people you’re comfortable with.”

As for what makes for a good church, she said that there “good vibes” are important there as well. “My whole life, I’ve wanted to be places that are welcoming and friendly. I don’t want negative energy. I want to be comfortable. My biggest thing about church is I wasn’t comfortable in the Roman Catholic Church. I couldn’t ask questions. When I was older a friend invited me to the Presbyterian Church downtown. They were more casual.” She liked that.

On the way out, we took some tosses at the bean bags. John was smoking nearby, and he and a couple guys leaving the bar cheered us on. I got one beanbag in, and I told one of the men who had just gotten in his truck. He handed me a Tootsie Pop as a prize.

It’s one of the lesser things in my life that I’m thankful for, but it’s still a thing.