Saturday, November 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also happened to be happy hour in the bar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

We Walk into a Bar near Sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

We Walk into a Casino and Dean Gets Scolded

Club One Casino, Fresno, California
Actually, the security guy never told me I couldn’t take pictures. I’d taken a picture of the bar’s dining area and then turned and took a picture that included the casino area, but from a distance.

That photo also included the security guy, who approached me shaking his head. I put my phone away, and he seemed good with that. But let me repeat, he never told me explicitly not to take pictures.

There are all kinds of ways to use cameras to cheat, so keeping them out of the card playing area makes sense. Mindy took pictures in the bar (she was in the restroom when I got my possible reprimand), but she stayed far away from the gaming.

I recently began working at a downtown Fresno hotel. You’d think a city with half a million people would have a thriving downtown, but that’s not the case. When my shift begins at 11:00 pm, the only food options outside of the hotel are Club One and Domino’s Pizza, and the only drink option in the neighborhood, outside of the hotel, is Club One. I thought we should see this place where I’d directed people.

We walked through the gaming area (where, in California, only people 21 and older can visit) to the restaurant’s bar.  Club One also has a coffee shop that sells Starbucks coffee, though it’s not an official Starbucks. Coffee is available to players, presumably to keep ‘em playing.

The bar had many TV screens on the walls, and though some played basketball or hockey games, about half were tuned to game seven of the World Series. When we’d walked into the casino, a security guard (not the one who later kind of scolded me) saw my Oakland A’s shirt and said, “Go Dodgers!” There were a number of Dodger fans in the place, but also a number of Dodger detractors (who are probably also Giants fans). Fresno’s halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, so it’s interesting to notice plenty of fans from both the Blue and the Orange and Black.

But the game kept us from asking the questions we often ask (“What makes for a good bar?” and “What makes for a good church?”), because people had their mind on other things -- such as Yu Darvish’s rather disastrous pitching performance for the Dodgers. (Dodger fans booed their own pitcher as he left the field.)

I ordered an Angry Orchard cider, Mindy had a glass of pinot noir from Sonoma County’s DeLoach winery, and we shared an order of egg rolls. The bartender who brought us the menu was attentive to our drinking and dining needs, but aside from smiling, didn’t engage with us at all socially. I didn’t catch the name on her tag, let alone get a chance to ask her what made for a good bar. I couldn’t get a sense whether the people at the bar were regulars or not, but we enjoyed our drinks, the egg rolls, and the couple of innings (which turned out to be decisive innings) we watched.

On our way back to the parking garage under the casino, a man standing near the door asked us, “Are you from out of state?”

We told him no, and I asked why he thought we were.

“I saw you taking pictures, and I saw the security guy talk to you.”

We told him about the blog, and gave him a card. So we did end up chatting, just for a minute or two, with one person at Club One -- besides the security guys, the bartender, and the man in the cage who validated our parking ticket.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

We Decide Not to Walk into a Bar

The Chocolate Bar, New York, New York, Las Vegas, Nevada
We set ourselves the challenge of visiting four bars during our weekend in Las Vegas, which probably doesn’t sound that difficult. It’s embarrassing to admit, but we didn’t reach our goal.

Here’s what happened:

On Friday night, we arrived, found someplace to sleep (thank you, Thunderbird!) and waited two hours in line for free (delicious) hamburgers at Burgerim's grand opening. By the time we got back to the Strip, it was past 10:00 pm. Parking was at a premium (we weren’t sure why we had to pay extra for event parking when we weren’t going to the event, but we paid), and we got to the evening’s bar, Red Square, just in time for last call.

We drank, chatted with the bartenders and waitstaff, and called it a night after walking around Mandalay Bay for a little while. We figured we’d do better on Saturday. There were certainly plenty of bars.

Cookies and Hope were the agenda for most of the day Saturday, and the sun set during the first of the weekend’s worship services. After saying goodnight to our friend Kathleen, we headed back to Thunderbird for dinner at the lounge, then walked a few blocks to the bar that turned out to be a highlight of the whole adventure, Millennium Fandom. After that, we had no interest in driving back to the Strip.

We went to sleep expecting to go to two different churches before stopping at The Chocolate Bar next to Hershey’s Chocolate World on our way out of town. We figured midday Sunday parking would be pretty easy. We were wrong.

The Strip was crowded. It was a beautiful day, and people were everywhere. We missed the turn into the New York New York parking garage.Then we saw the dreaded “event parking” sign at the entrance to the next parking garage, the one at Mandalay Bay, where we’d been Friday night.

The idea of paying twenty-five dollars to park for an hour or so (and walking half a mile to the bar) on top of paying at least that much for each of our drinks was daunting. Our wallets were feeling very slim (even though we hadn't gambled at all), and at that moment, eating fast food and getting on the road for our six hour drive home was even more appealing than the combination of alcohol and chocolate.

So that's what we did. No chocolate martini for Dean on this visit to Las Vegas. Still, we managed an equal number of bars and worship services, which has to be some kind of record for Las Vegas tourists, right?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

We Walk into a Bar without Costumes

Millennium Fandom Bar, Las Vegas, Nevada
Millennium Fandom Bar, Las Vegas, Nevada
So I was talking with Buffy Summers (aka “The Vampire Slayer”), and learned that she didn’t live in Las Vegas. She’s from Southern California, and she was at Millenium Fandom to celebrate her friend Saffron’s birthday. Saffron lived in Las Vegas and was a regular at the bar.

I should acknowledge that “Buffy” and “Saffron” are not their real names. I learned their real names, but they asked we use the names of the characters when we quoted them here -- which was only fair, because they had put real work into their costumes, and they went with the bar’s theme for the night, “Joss Whedonverse Celebration.” Whedon is the writer and director of many beloved movies and TV series. He is perhaps most closely associated with TV show (and movie) Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I loved that our new friend didn’t just dress as Buffy, but as Buffy from a particular episode, “Doublemeat Palace” in which the Buffster works for a local fast food franchise, wearing a Doublemeat uniform and carrying a soda cup with the franchise’s logo. Saffron, a recurring character on another show created by Whedon, Firefly, wore the costume from the “Our Mrs. Reynolds” episode.

Later in the evening, the bar was holding a Whedon trivia quiz that we were told would cover everything from Toy Story to Cabin in the Woods.  We left before that started, but while we were there, two different Whedon works played on the TVs around the bar (The Avengers and Serenity, a movie sequel to the Firefly show).

Whedon’s work represents just one “fandom” that the bar salutes. On the bar menu, we saw nods to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (The Golden Ticket), Guardians of the Galaxy (In Groot We Trust), and the Coen BrothersThe Big Lebowski (The Dude).  Mindy ordered the Bond themed License to Kill and I ordered the Columbo, which was, um, Columbo themed.

Judging just by the name of the bar, you might think it would be just a Star Wars themed place, but it’s actually a welcoming place for a variety of fans from detective fiction to cartoons to zombies.

When we walked into the bar, we were quickly welcomed by the founder and owner, Alex Pusineri. He was warm and gregarious and happily shared his desire to make the bar a place where people felt at home. He pointed to the people playing a variety of board games around the room and assured us that if we asked, any of the game players would be glad for us to join them. He mentioned that though vaping was allowed, the bar was a non smoking zone. Gambling was also forbidden (a rare thing in this city).

Alex is from France, but obviously delights in all kinds of American popular culture (though Japanese and European pop culture is celebrated as well). We observed Alex greeting almost everyone who entered, often embracing returning guests. He took pictures of everyone who had dressed for the night (it seemed that Firefly ensembles dominated the evening).

The bar was decorated with a icons from many different fandoms: the police call box Tardis from Dr. Who was tucked in the back of the room; a display case housed a tricorder, communicator, and phaser from Star Trek TOS; Captain America’s shield was on the wall along with Superman and Batman symbols; and the golden idol from the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark is in another display case. I was embarrassed in my deficit of nerd knowledge when I had to ask the identity of artifacts from The Fifth Element.

Mindy and I had decided ask different questions at this bar. (We usually ask, “What makes for a good bar?” and “Whether you go or not, what makes for a good church?”) At this bar, we asked, “What’s your favorite bar in fandom?” and “What’s your favorite church in fandom?”

The first person we talked to about this was Linda, one of the bartenders, who said that one thing she enjoys about her job is the chance to dress up for the plethora of theme nights the bar offers. I asked her about favorites, she said she liked the Disney fandom nights, and we weren't surprised that she enjoyed dressing as The Little Mermaid’s Ariel because of her bright, gorgeous, long red hair.

Her favorite fandom bar was one I thought we’d hear repeatedly through the evening, but to our surprise she was the only one who said her favorite was the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine in Star Wars: A New Hope. She said she’d love to serve that variety of alien guests.

As more and more customers came into Millennium Fandom, it took a bit longer to find out what her favorite fandom church was, but she finally decided on the church from the AMC series Preacher. I also enjoyed that show, so we talked about it a bit, especially the amazingly destructive end of the first season. Neither of us had watched more than the first season on Hulu, since neither of us pay for cable, so we’re waiting for the second season to come to the streaming service.

Tyler was the other bartender that evening. I complimented him on his hat, a hideous piece of knitting which the character Jayne wore on Firefly (in the show, the hat was a gift to Jayne from his mother. Tyler had borrowed the hat from birthday girl Saffron.)

I asked his favorite bar, and he admitted that his fandom specialty was gaming, so his favorite bar came from the video game Mass Effect, a place where violence ran rampant. (Not necessarily a place he’d like to work, he added) He also served guests between questions, and took a bit of time to think of a church. He finally came up with the religion of Dungeons and Dragons, telling us that every Thursday night, he joins a D & D group at the bar. The characters in his game group honor “Helm the Watcher,” and throughout the game are likely to call out “Helm help us!”

When I asked Alex the owner our questions, he first spoke of a real life fan bar, the HR Giger Bar in Switzerland, which is based on the artist who designed the creature and ship from the film Alien. Obviously, that bar was an inspiration for this bar, but Linda pointed out that the question called for fictional places. So he changed his answer to the Overlook Hotel Bar from The Shining. (Really, who doesn’t love ghost bartenders?) For a church, he went to his native
France for Notre Dame Cathedral, the residence of Quasimodo the hunchback.

We also asked Buffy and Saffron our questions. Buffy went to Firefly for both of her answers, mentioning the bar from the first episode of the series (which she called the “Unification Day Bar”) because it was a good place to observe Browncoats fight. Instead of church, she told us her favorite fandom clergy, Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass) -- who we agreed was a great character.

Saffron went to Firefly for the bar she liked as well, but her bar choice was the bar from "Jaynestown", the cantina in the town of Canton where the scurrilous character is honored as a hero. For her church, though, she went to the HBO show, Carnivale, which she appreciated for its preacher and revival meeting.

We very much enjoyed our time at the Millenium Fandom. If we lived in Vegas, we would likely be regulars. I might even be found there every Sunday night when people get together to watch the Star Trek show, Discovery, because I’m not about to pay for the CBS streaming service that broadcasts it. And we would certainly be curious what Halloween was like in a bar where people don’t need a special day to dress up and celebrate their favorite characters.