Saturday, September 16, 2017

We Walk into a Tea House for Cocktails

Little Leaf Bar, Fresno, California
We didn’t choose to drink the Japanese Whisky for $4,600, but it was nice to know it’s there as an option. There were many options available at Little Leaf Tea Bar that aren’t available at other bars, like tea in drinks. Mindy’s Last Date included a green tea, like almost every cocktail  on the menu -- even my Long Island Little Leaf Tea Special had tea in it..

The bar is next door to Little Leaf Tea House, and you could distinguish the two parts of the restaurant most easily by looking in through the windows after dark. The Tea House is brightly lit, while the bar portion goes more for atmosphere. When we entered and asked about sitting at the bar, we saw that there weren’t two seats together, but people quickly moved to make room for us. Jazz was playing overhead, occasionally Dixieland jazz.

The Oakland A’s were on both TVs, which made me happy. I overheard a couple of women talking about the game. One woman was saying the A’s were one of her favorite teams. The other woman said, “You don’t care that much, so you might as well be a Giant’s fan.” The game was in Boston and went into a rain delay, which allowed me to concentrate on the menu.

It had a good variety of salads and sliders and entrees, but we had already eaten dinner. They don’t serve any desserts, so we were looking at appetizers. I saw edamame, takoyaki, arancini, and other words I didn’t understand, but I ordered kimchi french fries from the happy hour menu, and we agreed they tasted very good -- and so did our cocktails.

George, the owner of the place, was behind the bar, and he took our order. He told us he’s  owned the place for four years. “It’s not very corporate. It’s laid back,” he said. “It’s really just for the neighborhood.”  Almost everyone who came in the door greeted him by name, but in between customers, I was able to ask him our standard two questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and “What makes for a good church?”

He said a good bar depends on the clientele -- two people sitting next to each other at the bar might be looking for different things. “It is what it is.” He said they hold to certain standards, represented by the sign above the bottles: “Don’t blend, don’t muddle, don’t garnish, don’t ask.”  

More people were coming in, so he answered our church question quickly, “Simple answer - church is in your heart, it’s not where you go.”

Brandy (“spelled like the alcohol”) was sitting at the far end of the bar. She’d been there with a friend who’d left, and she agreed to answer our questions as well. As for what makes a good bar, she said, “I’m different from most people, I like a place that’s casual and laid back.” She explained that much of the time, she likes to be left to herself.

I apologized for ruining that, but she laughingly explained she liked both being with people and by herself. “This place is the hidden gem of Fresno. Most people don’t know the place exists.” She spoke highly of George and of the food.

I asked her the church question, and she said that would be hard. I told her that many atheists have answered the question and she said, “That’s where I am.” But she went on to say churches should be “welcoming and open minded”.

Earlier this week, Mindy had been driving home and noticed a tea house and thought, “Too bad we don’t visit places like that. It looks interesting.” We were happy to discover that Little Leaf Tea didn’t make us choose between a tea house and a bar.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

We Walk into the 19th Hole

Fig Garden Golf Club, Fresno, California
None of the golf courses I ever go to seem to have bars. Sure, they have snack bars, but not the kind of bar we’ve been writing about for the past year or so. This is probably due to the fact I only go miniature golfing, not real golfing. At miniature golf courses you get watery soda and lemonade (and sometimes really bad pizza), not pinot grigio or whiskey cocktails.

But throughout our lives we’ve heard about the famed “19th Hole,” so we decided to check out a grown up golf course -- turns out they had a grown up bar!

We had to do a little research to find it, though. Mindy made some phone calls, and we learned that some Fresno golf courses have nothing, and some have what sounded to us rather like those miniature golf snack bars with the addition of beer. But Fig Garden had a real bar, so that’s where we headed.

As we got close to the golf course, we drove through a very nice, mansion-friendly neighborhood on what had turned out to be a gorgeous day (which for Fresno between April and November seems to mean the temperature’s under the century mark). We saw a K-9 car parked near the entrance, which made me wonder if they'd brought a dog to sniff out gophers. Soon we discovered the police were there for another reason, the Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Memorial Golf Tournament. “Kiki” was an undercover narcotics agent who was killed in the line of duty over thirty years ago. The proceeds of the annual tournament go to families of officers who sacrifice their lives in service of the public.

Courtney, our bartender, told us fewer regulars come to the bar when there’s a tournament because they can’t get tee times. She said it’s usually regulars who populate the bar stools.

Judy, one of those regulars, said she didn’t golf anymore, but her husband does, so she comes to the bar at the club to see her friends. She said this place is her “Cheers.” “It’s like back in the day when they had coffee klatches,” she said. “We know almost everybody.”

Judy has been coming to this bar for eight or nine years, and Courtney has been been working there for six or seven years. Courtney had worked in other bars, so I asked her how a golf course bar is different. She mentioned that they -- obviously -- aren’t open until 2:00 am. During the summer, the bar is open into the early evening, but during the winter (when business tends to be slow), the bar closes at sunset. And, unlike some neighborhood bars, the regulars are well behaved, not rowdies. “This place is pretty much Mayberry except when there are huge tournaments.”

We asked Courtney our usual two questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and “What makes for a good church?” She said that in a bar, the important thing is the people, “Nice people who like to talk to people.”  She and Judy agreed that in this bar, even strangers were welcomed into conversation. (We certainly were.) As for what makes for a good church, Courtney said, “Same thing, a welcoming place that’s comfortable enough that you can relax and want to go back.”

I should note there is another way that this golf course bar is different than almost every other bar I’ve been in: they have to-go cups. Especially when I worked in hotels with bars, staff had to keep an eye out for people trying to take their drinks out the door. Here they have plastic lidded cups that people can use to take their adult beverages out on the course or to the outdoor tables set up for the tournaments.

As we were leaving, Courtney said, “Dean, don’t forget your phone!” I had left it on the table next to the bar where we’d sat while waiting for space to open up at the bar, so I appreciated the reminder. But what really impressed me was that Courtney used my name. As much as people have referred to the Cheers theme song at bars, Courtney’s one of the few bartenders who used my name on our first visit.

My enjoyment of full-sized (not miniature) golf will probably continue to be limited to Caddyshack, but it is good know that I don’t have to play eighteen holes in order to enjoy the 19th. And the bar --  and the regulars -- at the Fig Garden is very enjoyable indeed.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

We Walk into an Airport Bar

Fresno/Yosemite International Airport, Fresno, CA
Hometeam Sports Bar and Grill, Fresno, California
Mindy did some traveling last week, and that reminded us of a type of bars we hadn't yet visited or written about: those found at airports. (She also found an airport church, which she’ll write about on Wednesday.) This week, in honor of that travel, we decided to write about an airport bar, because they’re different from neighborhood bars. In fact, that’s what Ursula the bartender said when we visited the bar at the Fresno/Yosemite Airport, “This is a different kind of place, a different kind of bar.”

It was our second attempt to visit the bar -- the first time we tried to go, on a Thursday evening at 7:00 pm (usually bar prime time), it was closed. The other Fresno Airport bar was doing a booming business, as far as we know, but that is the bar is past the TSA checkpoint, and we didn’t have plane tickets..

bar at the gates, Fresno airport, California
So we went back home and tried the airport bar again a little before three on Friday afternoon. We weren’t the only customers at the time. A man with a backpack and tattoos asked for Sailor Jerry, which Ursula told him wasn’t available, so he went with a another nautical spiced rum option, Captain Morgan. He drank his drink and departed. I couldn’t help wondering taking a drink was intended to make getting on a flight a little easier.

We ordered our drinks and were reminded of one reasons we’d avoided airport bars in the past when we got the bill. An Angry Orchard cider was $8.00, and a single shot screwdriver was $8.50. These are not bargains, but that’s the reality of airports. The food and drink charges are comparable only to what you find in amusement parks, and the management and ownership of an airport bar makes sure that the pour is not overly generous.

Other people came into the bar and stuck around for awhile. A woman came in and asked for a Dr Pepper, but Ursula told her the soft drink choices were Coke, Diet Coke, and Sprite.  Ursula added, “It’s expensive.” The woman got a Coke and told Ursula that more friends would be joining her. Before long, five friends were gathered around a table. One of the women asked Ursula to change one of the TVs to ESPN 1, but Ursula said she hadn’t learned how to work the various remotes, but she’d ask the manager to change it when he came in. (He arrived about ten minutes later and changed the channel on that particular screen.)

Ursula told us she’s been working at this bar for fifteen years, but she has more experience than just that. She started in the service industry when she was 17, and is now the inverse age of 71 (she doesn’t look it). She has worked as a server, but prefers to be a bartender, and that’s what she’s done most of her career. She even owned a bar in the mountains for a number of years.

Like any good bartender, she tells good stories, like the one about customers at the bar she owned hiding a motorcycle in the ladies’ room. She even has stories about the airport bar, but we’re keeping those on the down low.

We were able to ask Ursula our two traditional questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and whether you go or not, “What makes for a good church?”

She said a good bar should be a friendly place where people will say “Hi, there!” when you come in. She said when she was a bar owner, customers never left the bar as a stranger. She said it’s important for a bartender to after customers rather than being off reading a newspaper. Good ownership is important as well, she said. Owners need to maintain control in a bar. She noted that in the airport, with police right there to act as security, things don’t get too out of hand. And, she said, it’s important that the bar have good drinks.

Then we asked what made for a good church. “To be honest,” she said, “I haven’t gone to church for ten years.The minister they had at my church then, she was great.” When that minister passed away, Ursula wasn’t thrilled with her replacement. Previously, she told us, the church really cared for people. “If you needed a turkey at Thanksgiving or a Christmas tree, they took care of that. They shouldn’t just feed the head, but they should feed the heart. Not someone droning on about the devil and sin. I don’t want to tithe to negative stuff. I want to tithe to something positive.”

Ursula comes from Germany, and she noted the difference in institutions in the two countries. In Germany, the pastors drink, they’ll go to a pub with people, which is less common in the States. And she said in Germany, bars have Gemütlichkeit which she said is a word without an English equivalent, but means there is friendliness, warmth, and heart. She told us that a good bar should have that quality.

The nature of airport bars makes them different from a neighborhood bar. A bar in an airport, even a relatively small one like Fresno/Yosemite, isn’t going to get the same kind of regulars, build the same kind of community, as the average neighborhood bar. But when we left, we could see a group of friends chatting happily together. And Ursula certainly made us feel at home.

Ursula said she’ll keep working, “I’ll continue to have fun as long as I can do it.” We hope that proves to be a very long time.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Bars We'd Gladly Walk Into (if they weren't fictional)

You may have observed there was no new post last week, and (upon careful reading of this post) will notice we didn’t visit a new bar this week. We have a couple of reasons. For one thing, Mindy is visiting her dad in Indiana this week. Also, we’re doing some concentrated work on our book about last year’s trip (we might really get it finished some day). So we decided to do something different this week.

It’s a list!
These are bars we’d like to visit if, like Mia Farrow in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, we could jump into the movie screen. And you get a list of ten bars, because that’s a proper number for a list.

10) Bob’s Country Bunker from The Blues Brothers (1980): the owners and patrons of this bar seem less like good ol’ boys and more like surly rednecks, so this is at the bottom of our list. But on the positive side, you might get to see Jake and Elwood and the band perform. And how much fun would it be to throw bottles at that chicken wire barrier?

9) The Winchester from Shaun of the Dead (2004): We went to a zombie shelter bar last year (which we’re sad to learn has since closed). But fortunately, shelter from the zombie storm will live on in this cinematic bar. Shaun and his friend, Ed, rarely leave their house, preferring to sit on their couch playing video games. When they do leave, they go to the Winchester -- so it must have something going for it.

8) Rick's Café Américain from Casablanca (1942): I would go just to hear Sam play. I wouldn’t want him to play “As Time Goes By” very often, since it seems to make Rick cranky, but even that would be fun. I wouldn’t gamble in the back room because the games are fixed. Rick’s would really be a great place (if it wasn’t for the Nazis and World War and such).

7) Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977): It’s dangerous. You never know when you might slip on some bloody arm left on the floor. If you’re like people watching, you might like the creature watching available at this bar even better. And the band is happening.

6) Club Obi Wan from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): You might notice a connection between the previous bar and this one. That’s right, at both bars, English is not the primary language. Both also have great entertainment. The floorshow at this nightclub is great fun, even if you don’t understand Mandarin. The service staff is excellent, though you need to  watch out for strangers putting something in your drink. (I went with this bar over The Raven from Raiders of the Lost Ark because The Raven -- another notedly multilingual bar -- didn’t pass the health inspection.)

5) The Double Deuce from Road House (1989): I’m not a big country music fan, but there is decent entertainment in the place; on the stage and with the drama among the patrons. And I appreciate the emphasis of the management on Niceness. The staff is urged to “Be Nice,” and I think that’s nice.

4) The Midnight Star from Silverado (1985): There were many bars from Westerns, but I like the management of The Star. Stella (Linda Hunt) and Paden (Kevin Kline) are charming people who both value quality in their bar.
When Paden first meets Stella, he says, “Compliments to you Miss Stella. This is what I call a saloon.”
“Thanks,” she says, “That’s what I call it too.”
Paden replies, “And I know what I’m talking about.”
Stella: “You like a good saloon?”
Paden: “It’s the only place I’m happy.”
Stella: “Me, too! What’s wrong with us?”
Both are concerned about serving a good pour in their drinks. They seek to keep the games honest and the fights to a minimum. And I love the way Stella manages to look customers in the eye.

3) Park Hyatt Piano Bar from Lost in Translation (2003): Sometimes the thing people value in a bar is that people can find people like themselves. For actor Bob (Bill Murray) and wife-left-alone Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), this Tokyo bar is the place to find company and speak English. (Let it be said, if there was a good chance of meeting Bill Murray at a bar, I’d be there.)

2) Martini’s from It’s a Wonderful LIfe (1946): Even though this bar isn’t completely violence free (movie bars seem to have a problem with all the punches thrown), the management of this bar is competent and friendly. When it’s run by Martini (Bill Edmunds) in the regular world, this is the place you want to be. You probably don’t want to be in George Bailey’s (Jimmy Stewart’s) alternate world bar, Nick’s. As Nick the owner says, “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around here to give the joint ‘atmosphere.’” Nick’s is pretty much the the opposite of our top movie bar.

1) Charlie’s from Harvey (1950): An old fashioned neighborhood bar has a special attractiveness. It’s the Cheers appeal, which is a common element in this bar and Martini’s. There’s something wonderful about a place where an eccentric man like Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) who sees six foot tall talking rabbits can be at home. I could sit and listen to Elwood for hours. Maybe, after all, the most telling sign of a great bar is finding Jimmy Stewart there.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

We Walk into a Karaoke Bar

The Captain's Brig, Fresno, California
The Captain’s Brig, Fresno, California
You don’t have to be drunk to sing karaoke badly.  A lot of beers seem to help, and that’s led to frat boys to doing things to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that violate sections of the Geneva Conventions. I’d had just one Angry Orchard hard cider, and yet I went forward to sing “Shut Up and Dance.” I’ve sung in church choirs and even sang solos in musicals a long time ago, so I don’t think it would be too egotistical a statement to say I have a better than average singing voice. I’ve sung "Shut Up and Dance" along with the radio plenty of times, and I thought karaoke would be doable. Instead, I found myself stumbling all over the timing and singing way off key. I feel the need to offer Nicholas Petricca (lead singer of Walk the Moon) an apology for my assault on this song.

We were at The Captain’s Brig in Fresno to meet our new friend Sandra during “Introduce us to your favorite bar” month. Sandra is a volunteer at Project Survival’s Cat Haven. (My brother founded the place, and we volunteer there on occasion.) Sandra has had a rough last few months; her father passed away, and there have been other struggles. She’d offered to introduce us to the Brig shortly after we moved to Fresno, but we were concerned with one thing and another, she wouldn’t be up for the outing. Instead, she was happy to have a reason to return to karaoke night at the Brig.

Sandra was greeted by the bartenders, John the karaoke guy, and various patrons. Some people said, “Where you been?” and other people seemed to know. She told us she didn’t know how people knew about her recent troubles, but some did and expressed sympathy. Even a bar in a big city has some small town to it.

After getting our drinks (cash only), we sat with Sandra at one of the tables. Right away, she asked if we were going to do karaoke. It seemed the thing to do. John had brought notebooks with lists of songs and artists. One notebook listed songs by title and others that listed songs by artist or year of release. You were supposed to list several song titles (along with a number to help John find the song) on little slips of paper, but Sandra didn’t need to fill out a slip.

John already had dozens of slips Sandra had filled out in the past, and he had a feel for the sorts of things she’d like to sing. I asked whether there were times he made picks she refused. She said sometimes she made requests too late in the night after too many beers when her estimation of her abilities was too high.

Since Sanda had last been there, months before, John had purchased new sound equipment, including digital microphones. The microphones were fitted with small plastic devices that kept the mics from falling off tables if they were set down instead of put back into the stand.

I asked Sandra about bad song choices that other people made. She said that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is usually requested by young women who’ve had too much to drink, but her least favorite karaoke song may well be “Picture” (written by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow). If a guy asks a girl to do this song as a duet, he probably wants to do more than just sing.

The television on the wall behind the singers showed the Oakland A’s vs LA Angels of Anaheim (possibly the worst name in professional sports) game. The A’s were winning, so even when a song was sung badly, there was something good to see when I looked in that direction.

Sandra said that crowds for karaoke varied at The Brig. Some nights lots of folks wanted to sing, and other nights the crowd was sparse. “I like it when I can sing more, but sometimes it can be really crowded,” she told us. On a crowded night she might just get to sing a couple of times and on  a slow night , as many as ten times. She went up for her first song and sang, “All That Jazz” from Chicago. (The next song John had for her was “Hey Big Spender,” from Sweet Charity. He seemed to have decided it was Broadway Show Tune Night.)

Sandra is a very good karaoke singer, but some of the other singers were… not so good. It wasn’t just me. One woman went forward to sing “Mr. Roboto,” and before she sang she said, “I need a drink! This is why they call it karaoke!” I can at least say there was nothing mechanical about her presentation.

I asked Sandra the two questions we always ask, though I tweaked the first one a bit, “What makes for a good karaoke bar?”

She said, “They have to have a good selection of songs.” They also need a good sound system, she said. “The technical aspects need to be well done. You want to be heard, and everybody else wants to be heard. You need good microphones.” She talked about another bar in the area that had a great song selection but a lousy sound system.

We asked about her favorite karaoke experience, and she mentioned a time when she was in Phoenix for two week job training sessions that kept her group busy during the day but left their nights free. Sandra and some of her coworkers went to a place called Giligin's, home of Tuesday night goldfish racing. She said she performed a Madonna song that everyone seemed to be recording. She’s not sure, but it may still be up on YouTube.

When I asked what makes for a good church, she said a good church “makes me cry.” She continued, “I’ve sometimes felt disconnected in a church, but sometimes it hits me here (indicating her heart) and I cry.”

Mindy and I sang our last song of the night together, Huey Lewis and the News’Stuck With You.” We weren’t really good, [we were terrible -- ed.] but we did have the “Oh, how cute, look at the old couple” factor going for us.

After we sang, a man dedicated his song, “Happy Birthday, Amanda!” Amanda, at the noisy table with her friends, thanked him and said, “I’m 35! I could run for President now!” (A man in the bar was wearing a "Trump/Pence 2020" shirt. Perhaps Amanda will represent the opposition?).

As we were leaving, we asked Sandra if she’d like a ride home. She was going to stay for the duration, she said. She was loving finally getting to sing again, and people seemed enjoy her singing. We certainly did.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

We Walk into a Bar to Find a Friend

Jimbo's, Clovis, California
Jimbo’s, Clovis, California
For the last couple of weeks, temperatures here in Fresno have been regularly hitting above the century mark. It’s been really nasty hot here, and the only thing that can get people to move is the promise of somewhere or something cool. The promise of ice cold beer can be like those pools of water surrounded by palm trees you see in cartoons, but Jimbo’s is an oasis that doesn’t fade away when you actually get there. We were quite happy to find that  at the bar were right in front of the “Port-A-Cool” evaporative cooling unit. Though we aren’t beer fans, a cold cider and a rum & coke with ice were refreshing as well.

Port a cool makes everything better at Jimbo's in Clovis, California
We went to Jimbo’s because we thought we’d be meeting an acquaintance there. For us, this month is all about meeting people we know at bars. After all, that’s the chief function of bars for a lot of people: it’s a meeting place for friends. We’d talked with Kristina, a business acquaintance of ours, about our project of visiting bars every week. She told us she’d love to introduce us to her bar, Jimbo’s. She said she was always there on Thursdays, arriving sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 pm. Well, that “always” didn’t happen to include this week, and that’s okay. Kristina, you still directed us to a lively neighborhood bar, and we had a good time.

Most of the folks at the bar were in their twenties and early thirties, and they were happy to be together on this warm Thursday night. The two women next to Mindy were playing a lively dice game. When Mindy asked what it was called, one of them said it was just called “Dice,” but the other woman said, “It’s really called One--Four--Twenty-four.”

There were guys in the back room playing pool, and the bartender brought out a giant version of the table game Connect Four.

As soon as it was out, another couple played a few rounds, but we got a shot at it eventually. It’s good to have a public forum to say that I dominated that first game. Mindy claims she doesn’t do strategy. Still, the second game looked like it was heading for a draw until the barrier at the bottom gave way, and all the pieces spilled out. So we quit. (It looked like it would be a draw, but  I did see a couple of possible paths to victory. Just so you know.)

We looked out the back door at the patio area. It wasn’t exactly a garden spot, but people seemed to be enjoying themselves, and appreciating having a place to smoke. Inside, there were a number of TVs at the bar and around the two rooms.  I’d looked forward to catching some of the A’s/Giants game, but the score was already 8-1 Giants when we walked in, and this Oakland fan was not pleased. (11-2 Giants was the final.)

The music was loud and sporadic, and people were enjoying each other, so we didn’t engage in any conversations with other people after we’d learned about the dice. I guess in this month of walking into bars to meet with friends, the friendship Mindy and I have will be the one we count this week. Good enough for us.