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 Gem├╝tlichkeit 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.