Saturday, January 28, 2017

We Walk into The Bar

The Bar, Fresno
“You turned off the jukebox!” one of the patrons complained to Nicole the bartender.

“I didn’t turn it off,” she responded, “You’ve got to put money in it!” Nonetheless, Nicole started up the machine again. (When we arrived, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was playing. When Nicole started the music again, it was pretty much hip hop and rap for the rest of the evening.)

We came to this particular bar because it’s close to our apartment and we were looking for something basic to end the month. What could be more basic than The Bar?

Last week, we didn’t go to a bar. We just wrote a photo post about this bar and its sister bars, The Next Bar and The Other Bar. (Last year we heard about a bar in Baltimore called Bar. The story there was that the owner didn’t really want to be found, so she used a name as nondescript as possible.)

The Bar in Fresno is, in many ways, what one expects from an average neighborhood bar. Inside, the bar looked a little like Cheers, with a rectangular bar that surrounds the bartender and the beverages. Beer and spirit ads decorate the walls. One more innovative design element was in the restrooms, where the wall were chalkboards -- one supposes so graffitti can changed on a regular basis.

As we came in, Nicole the bartender immediately noticed us, welcomed us, and asked what we wanted to drink. I asked about ciders, and she apologized that they only had Angry Orchard. I said that would be fine. (I later saw her apologize to someone who asked for tap beer option, and she had to tell him they only had bottles.) Mindy apologized for not knowing what she wanted, but Nicole assured her that was all right. Later, Nicole told us that 90% of people coming in don’t know what they want.

After she took care of us, she returned to a pool game. She was back quickly, and we asked who won. She smiled, saying that she had, and that she’d been playing her boyfriend. In spite of the game, she greeted each person as they came in and tended to customer needs.

I noticed a popcorn machine and went to fill up a paper bowl. Some guys at my end of the bar were having an animated discussion about a “ball peen hammer holster” and about where they could get one or how they would make one.

We overheard Mike’s name as he chatted with another patron. After she left, he moved down one stool to chat with us. We told him about our bar and church visiting project, and he asked about the process of working on a book about our year of travel. We told him we were writing a proposal that will go to an agent, who will present it to publishers. A physical (or even virtual)  book has a ways to go in the process.

He agreed to answer the questions that we always ask in bars, but it was difficult to get the answers -- he kept wanting to ask questions about our project (not that we mind talking about ourselves). But we kept asking.

As for what makes for a good bar, Mike said, “It’s too easy. Your heard it all from too many other people.” But we insisted we wanted his answer. The music was playing quite loudly, making talking more of a challenge.  He said, “There should be background music, but not overpowering. And you should be with people you know. How difficult is that?”

He wasn’t as comfortable with the question of what makes for a good church. “I’m more of a Jon Stewart guy; I’m an atheist. I’m not comfortable with churches. They think they know God, but they don’t.  I’ve been to Presbyterian churches, Episcopalian churches, and Christian churches. I’ve been to places that you can tell have money, and they ask me for money. I haven’t been to a Unitarian church. Maybe I should try that.”

We asked our questions of Nicole the bartender, too. She said the bartender makes for a good bar (as many bartenders do). She’s been at the job (though not just in this place) for ten years. She likes that it is never dull, and she meets new people all the time. Some of her best friends she met first while working in a bar. But she insisted that the bartender “is the biggest thing” for what makes for a good bar.

Mike said he wanted to add to his answer. “A good bartender makes for a good bar. If you have a good bartender, you’ll come back.”

As for what makes for a good church, she insisted she didn’t have anything to say, “I’m not religious.”

When I said that many people had the same answers for bar and church: “like Cheers, where everyone knows your name,” she agreed that was important.

“Everyone wants to be somewhere welcoming and inviting,” she said. (Mike agreed with that sentiment as well.)

For the rest of the year, we hope to be doing themes for bars, with a different theme every month. (For instance, in February we plan to go only to Applebee’s bars. Really. We’ll explain later.) But sometimes, it’s nice to keep things simple, with people and with The Bar.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

We Don't Walk into a Bar

Fresno, California
The cross-country bar-in-every-state adventure is done, and frankly, we're still figuring out what this blog will look like in the year to come.

We know that there will be monthly themes (cocktail lounges, distilleries, wolverine bars, manicure bars...okay, we're still figuring out the themes).

Earlier this month, we visited bars run by friends, but now we're paralyzed with indecision by the bar options in our new home, Fresno, California.

What should be the next bar? Should it be:
Or should we walk into the other bar?

We're still undecided, but don't worry. By next week, we will have found the bar.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

We Walk into a Bar with Former Classmates

“I really love the controlled mayhem,” John said on a day when there was little mayhem to be seen. To be fair, it was only a little after 5:00 pm on a Saturday night, a time when mayhem would be difficult to find, but John’s love of the hospitality industry is apparent and long lived.

John Timberlake is delighted to have, after years of working in bars, a bar of his own: The Final Edition in the Larkfield Center in Santa Rosa. I knew John back at Comstock Junior High when we were managing the 8th grade basketball team,  but the seed of his interest in the hospitality industry was planted before then.

John’s mother was, in John’s words, “quite religious;” Greek Orthodox. She won a trip to Las Vegas, and she decided to take preteen John along so he could witness for himself the evil and shallowness of Sin City. When John saw the lights, neon, and “the women at the Thunderbird,” the trip had quite the reverse effect. They happened to arrive when a James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever, was being shot -- enhancing even further the city’s allure. The dream of being in the bar business was planted.

John has worked in a lot of different bars through the years. He admitted that the life has taken a personal toll. The hours (afternoons and evenings) are tough on relationships, and John said there is also the “moral tone” of bar life. He’s been married and divorced several times and admitted his job has made things difficult for his significant others.

But when the chance came to have his own place, a convergence of the right opportunity with a good backer, he jumped at it. He loves the community of his bar, naming a number of regulars who have become a part of his life. John values his customers and his staff, and It was fun to watch him joke with guests and bartenders.

We were supposed to be meeting friends from our alma mater, Piner High School, but they were delayed. In the meantime, we got our drinks and sat down at one end of the bar near Carol and Keith. They were commenting on what a character John was, and I think Carol remarked on his wearing cargo shorts on a stormy, wet day. They also seemed to be discussing other regulars at the bar, such as “Surfer Joe” (as opposed to the other Joe whose descriptor I’ve forgotten). John had mentioned the two Joes as well.

Keith and Carol agree to hear our two questions, “What makes for a good bar?” and “Whether you go not, what would make for a good church?” Keith immediately asked what I was drinking, just to be sure alcohol was involved. I thought I understood better why he checked on this when he answered the question on what makes for a good bar. He responded, “You don’t talk about politics or religion in a bar.” (I think he wanted to be sure I hadn’t come to the place to order a seltzer water and proselytize.)

Carol added her response to the bar question, “They should have a ‘good pour.’ That’s Keith’s term. Keith knows more about bars.” She added that a good bar included, “What Keith says -- no religion or politics.”

Keith said, “What’s cool about this bar -- this time of day -- you come in, and (you’ll) be sitting next to a guy who in the trades.”

Carol said, “Like Dave! This guy!” Pointing him out, she said, “He came and fixed my lights.”  

Keith talked about meeting people from other professions at the bar, building relationships that carry on outside of the bar. “It all happens at the bar...It’s cool.”

Carol said, “I actually got a job because of someon I was talking to at Willi’s Seafood bar.”

They both made it clear that Carol was the one who had an interest in church, and Keith wanted none of that question. She remembered growing up in a small town where church had an important role, “If there was a storm, that’s where you went. I was never a God/Jesus girl.” She like to go in and hear about the Golden Rule, but to her, “The Bible is more like Aesop’s Fables.” Carol said, “A good church is a place you can go and leave without being sold. I don’t like being approached. I like the message, I like the singing, but I don’t like being approached.” She mentioned “that rock and roll church,” by which she may have meant Spring Hills, but she said, “I just want to go, get what I get.” She said she hasn’t yet found the kind of church she’s looking for.

While we were talking to Keith and Carol, our friends Syd and Diane came in, and we went to join them at a table. Syd called out to John, ordering a beer. John pretended to ignore him, which Syd said was their running schtick. Diane, on the other hand, was welcomed graciously.

We asked Syd and Diane our two questions. Diane admitted she wasn’t a bar person and has only begun going occasionally with Syd. They went to The Final Edition on New Year’s Eve last year (a couple of weeks ago) early in the evening, enjoyed drinks and several bowls of popcorn, and then left before the ball dropped in New York.

Syd said that what makes a bar a good place is “an owner like John.”  I asked Syd what he appreciated about John. He said, “His charisma and his friendliness. I’ve followed him to all his bars. He’s got a great attitude, and he makes everyone feel welcome.”

Diane and Syd both had something to say about what makes for a good church. Diane said that what matters to her is “genuine people.” She expanded, “They can not be perfect. Everybody has their issues,” but she felt people in a good church should be honest with themselves and each other.

Syd said that Kenwood Community Church, where Diane attends, “is really sweet,” mostly older folks, “but good folks.” He also said he appreciated Spring Hills “with a pastor like Bret, who’s so natural. He’s still a very humble man.”

As we were talking with Syd and Diane, John came over to say goodnight. He said he had to get home to his kid, “I’m not going to risk this one,” he said about his current relationship. John obviously still loves his bar. It seems like he has a number of customers who also love his bar. But maybe what he’s finding away from the bar is something he loves even more.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

We Walk into a Bar to See Old Friends

Duke's Spirited Cocktails, Healdsburtg, California
Duke's Spirited Cocktails, Healdsburg, California
“We’re all about equal opportunity drinking here,” Tara assured a woman after checking her I.D.

But Tara didn’t check my I.D. or Mindy’s. I assure you, I look young enough, but Tara’s known me for years. Actually I’ve known most of the staff at Duke’s Spirited Cocktails for years. Most of them used to work at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, the restaurant that shared space with h2hotel, where I worked. Back then, when I was beginning my night audit shift at 11:00 pm, bartenders Tara, Cappy, Steven, Laura,and barback Jose were finishing up their nights.

Duke’s opened on June 26th last year,  while Mindy and I were still on our every state tour (I believe that was the day we flew into Fairbanks, Alaska). In fact, Cappy was one of the first people I told about our plan to visit a church and a bar in every state. He suggested “American Institutions” as a name for the project (which might still work its way into a book title).

During my final year at h2hotel, I watched the above mentioned employees of the Spoonbar depart. Cappy had been the first to go, when he left to open an establishment in Southern California. Next Tara (who had taken Cappy’s role as Spoonbar manager), then Laura left, then Steven and Jose. And then, at the end of 2015, I left as well.

It was always fun working with these folks, because they all enjoyed each other -- has carried on into Duke’s.

Laura told me that if we came in on Thursday afternoon, we could see almost all the old Spoonbar staff. And we did. Most greeted me with a hug. They asked how my year went, and I said that -- unlike many -- we’d had a great 2016. Tara agreed that for them it had been a great year as well, because they been able to open their own place. Laura said, “We had our dreams come true in 2016.”

Tara, Laura, and Steven got backing to open a bar on the Plaza in Healdsburg, which, over the last decade and a half, has become a mecca for food and drink. They asked Cappy to come for their “solid opening date” of May 5th, but construction issues postponed the opening for a month and a half. But when the bar opened, in the midst of tourist season, they opened big. Not only were they busy, but they were greeted with critical acclaim in the media, particularly for their creative mix of fresh herbs and spirits.

Before we even sat down, Tara brought Mindy and me a glass of Fool’s Paradise, which she told us is one of their signature drinks. Mindy especially liked the fresh bay leaf garnish and was surprised to like a drink with passion fruit puree and tequila.  

Watching the staff working together behind the bar is a pleasure. They enjoy each other, joke with each other, work efficiently with each other. Tara said, “This was meant to be. We are all still madly in love with each other.”

Laura said, “The gang’s all back together and we’re having so much fun.” Tara and Laura with prefaced many statements with “Not to be corny” and then go on to express their joy at working together.

I asked Tara and Laura about the struggles and trials of opening a new place. Laura told me about the struggles of working with one contractor for months before having to switch to another, which greatly delayed their opening.

Tara said, “One of the reasons we opened this bar was to give all our industry friends a place to drink.”  They dreamed of making a neighborhood bar for their friends in hospitality and winemaking (and winegrowing), businesses that many people in the area are involved with. That dream has come through, with many old friends coming in throughout the week.

Things change a bit on Friday and Saturday nights “when we become a nightclub,” Tara said. It’s a different crowd, and they’ve had to cut people off and even break up a fight or two. “We had a guest throw a grapefruit at Steven!” she added, but said they appreciate that those nights help keep the doors open the rest of the week to do the work that they love.

Tara said they want to be the kind of place where a field worker can come in with dirty boots  and still feel welcome. Tara said the town has gotten a bit snooty at times, but “we try not to keep our pinkies in the air or up our nose when we drink.”

But this isn’t a simple beer joint, though they do have a wide variety of craft beers on tap. The staff takes pride in making sophisticated drinks and selling quality brands. While we were there, Laura was working on a variation of The Sound of Music, a seasonal drink that they wanted to make available more of the year. After tasting it, Tara said, “I’m so excited right now. Are you excited?”

But eventually we needed to do what we have been doing for over a year now, ask our two bar questions: “What makes for a good bar?” and “Whether you go or not, what would make for a good church?”

It was fun to ask Cappy our questions, since he’d been in on our project since its inception. Cappy said, “It’s a hard question. There are so many types of bars: neighborhood bars, hotel bars, cocktail bars… I guess a good bar makes the clientele feel it’s a good place to meet. To ease up a little. Meeting up, spending time with people, relaxing.”

As for what makes for a good church? “A church should be inviting, people should be made welcome.”

Tara, coming over after helping another guest and thinking we were talking about bars, added “People should feel at home.” When Cappy said we were talking about churches, Tara replied, “Oh, if I went in a church, I’d light on fire,” but we agreed that feeling at home was good for a bar or a church.

Cappy said he also appreciated the sense of history many churches provided. Many neighborhoods have areas where houses have come and gone, he said, but often the church has stayed around. Cappy likes that.

A couple came in and sat at the bar next to Mindy. We realized they were our former neighbors, Ben and Brianna. We had fun catching up on their kids and what they’ve done with their house, but then I had to ask about bars and churches.

At a bar, Brianna said the key is talented bartenders. “They either know what they’re doing or not.”

Ben concurred, “That’s exactly what I was going to say.”

As for a church, Brianna said she want to be somewhere with people who are real.

Ben added “Whether you know the Gospel or not, people you can have a conversation with.”

Since Tara didn’t answer our bar question, Cappy took me to the office, so I could ask her what made a bar good. “A great bar comes with the bartenders.You can have good bartenders but it’s the bartenders that bring you back. Will they make you what you want? They should offer a variety of spirits and make it special, memorable.”

Laura was in the office as well, and she seconded what Tara said. She also added that as a new owner, “I am grateful and appreciative of every person who comes in.” She pointed out that it’s important for a bar, or really any business, to make the “experience of the customer take precedence over everything else.”  As for what makes a good church, she said many of the same things apply: they should make people welcome, feel warm, make people happy. She said she’s appreciated the times she visited her husband’s parents’ church where she was welcomed with handshakes and hugs.

In 2015, Steven was a finalist in a cocktail making contest that earned him a trip to Marrakesh. (When a computer ate the essay he’d written for the competition, I was happy I was able to help him make the deadline). I caught Steven just before he headed out the door. “Good booze, fun bartenders, good atmosphere, welcoming, engaging and educational.”  Educational isn’t a word I’ve heard very often in reference to bars, but Steven loves to learn and believes that Duke’s  does provide people to learn about drinks. For a church, Steven would look for many of the same things: providing an atmosphere where people can learn in fun and engaging ways.

We spent last year meeting mostly strangers in bars. It was great fun to meet old friends in a new place. It felt more like being welcomed into their new home -- their new home that serves award winning beverages.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

We Walk into 2017

Mecca Bar, Fairbanks, Alaska
Some of you have asked, “Will Dean and Mindy still walk into bars in 2017?”

The answer is “Yup!” But we won’t be going to a different bar in a different state every week this year. It’s already been done.

We’ll continue to visit bars that seem interesting and talk to people we meet there, because we’ve found people in bars have interesting things to say. We have a number of friends who work in (and even own) bars, so we plan to spend January catching up with some of those friends and writing about those visits.

For the remainder of this year, we plan to have themes each month and to write about bars that fit those themes. For instance, we might take a month for dive bars, or a month for distilleries. We’re also considering a month of Applebee’s bars -- but first we’ll check with our cardiologist to see if we’re up for that level of excitement.

Meanwhile, we’ll will be working to write a book about our year of visiting churches and bars in every state. So if you don’t feel like talking to people at a bar, you can just go back into a corner booth and read a book about it.

We’d really appreciate if you read our book about it.