Happy New Year! Check out Reno’s newest urban-hipster cocktail bars
At long last, our dear Reno has come of age and joined the new cocktail nation, but with its own hometown twist.
Rat Pack rememberers take heart. Authentic martini recipes, live piano music and swanky ambience hearken back to the first wave of lounge culture. Sinatra skeptics, your day has come, too. Reno’s new lounges take the atmospheric luster from the snazzy decades before you were born and make it look new. The sounds are fresh and varied. Live jazz and a mix of DJs lead the scene, and eclectic line-ups include country, electro-pop, punk, ’80s nights and even theater.
Whether you favor upbeat or downtempo, whether you want to shake it or chill it or drink it up, whether you want to grab a cheap pint of Pabst at happy hour, sip an $18 cognac at midnight or end up thirsty for fruit juice at sunrise, here’s the low-down on four of the town’s latest San Francisco-style cocktail lounges. Cheers!
231 W. Second St.
Eight o’clock on a weeknight feels like the crack of dawn. It’s downright sleepy. But not for long. Amber, the amiable, dark-haired, fabulously cute young groovester behind the bar, rolls out the red carpet. She lists the CDs on hand and lets me choose. Modest Mouse. We talk about how much we like long drives across Nevada and museums of natural history. I order a martini. Brief questionnaire: Brand of vodka? Something good. Level of dryness? Extremely. But some vermouth? The smallest amount you can extract from a bottle. (Winston Churchill says you should just wave a bottle of the stuff over the shaker, as the anecdote goes, but I like a little more than that.)
Amber’s tired of girl-fetishizing drink names, so she’s coined her own love potion—Southern Comfort, Midori and cranberry—the Dirty Boxer. She pours them liberally to a few smiley, scruffy-haired patrons, but when a 30-something guy in a white shirt and tie, teeth still grinding from whatever ailed him at the office, brow still furrowed, divides his attention from his cell phone to ask for “whatever you’re pouring me,” she thinks carefully. “How about a Sapphire martini?” She mixes. He hangs up the cell and unfurrows.
Tonic’s decor is sleek but warm. Dark, red walls and a wavy, purple, ultrasuede bench bring me back to San Francisco, circa 1997, a moment that brings most people back to either the actual ’70s or a thrift store. The style is pared-down kitsch mixed with smart swank, lights nice and low. Except for the halogen spots hanging over the bar, which are too high.
By 8:48, the crowd trickles in. Mostly casual, mostly 20-somethings, but it seems anyone would be welcome. If Tonic were in Los Angeles, there’d be a velvet rope to ward off the less hip, but in more-egalitarian Reno, the bar has a cool, super-friendly vibe, plus the promise of DJs at 10 on weeknights and jazz on weekends.
188 California Ave.
Satellite, the daddy of the local nouveau lounge scene, has been swinging for a bit more than a year. A glittery black ceiling sparkles down on all the well-coiffed patrons. White leather benches line most of the perimeter, and white leather seating cubes dot the rest of the floor. Nice. Minimal. Refreshing. Long, low, narrow tables round out the sleek, urban tone.
It’s not the cordial, Reno-fied urbanness other local lounges proffer, but more like the real thing. Actual, big-city attitude. This is exciting for a minute. The bouncer, collecting fives to cover the band’s fee, has a metal spike in his lip. DJ Moxy spices up her mix with loud, low booming and gun clicking. It’s innovative. It’s cool. It works. Someone is smoking a hookah. I realize an alarming number of patrons sport particularly brooding expressions. I approach the bar to order a drink. It takes a while.
Three guys sitting in a corner are holding up shopping bags from Victoria’s Secret, posing for pictures, nibbling leftover cheese from a holiday office party. This is the highest-spirited anyone gets while I am there.
For the first few minutes the band is playing, I mistake the scene for karaoke night. I continue to wait for the opportunity to request a beverage. I hear someone quip, frustrated, “If you’re not in the clique here, you don’t get service.” Up on the stage, Bobby Birdman waxes improvisational. I have plenty of time to notice the painting on the wall is graphically rich and includes apes. The static disco ball reflects colored dots all over the walls. I’m still waiting to order a drink.
I do finally get one, but before I finish it, ’tude overload starts to condense into a cloud overhead, and I duck out to a neighborhood strip-mall bar to decompress.
148 West St.
Ultrasuede again! Liquid Lounge’s front bar is classy and tranquil, probably designed by a grown-up. It’s the size of bars in Manhattan, but with none of the sardine-like feel. There are only 15 official seats, including all the comfy bar stools and the beige, ultrasuede couch. I spend lot of time wondering about the beige. And the coffee-, sage-, mustard- and olive-colored walls. And the little rock waterfalls, the well tended orchid in a pot, expensive-looking floor tile, and art that’s consistent with what the more conservative interior-design magazines are raving about.
Through a stroke of juxtapositional genius, these nearly sedate design elements are well mixed with Liquid Lounge’s most prominent feature—a glass-top bar with lights and water running beneath the surface—into an elegant but unpretentious, non-smoking piano lounge.
Speaking of well mixed, Liquid Lounge’s back bar—more of a night club—features not only funky house music, bossa nova house and “sassy tango,” but also former KCRW night-time spinster Jason Bentley, who has reportedly moved to Reno. KCRW, the National Public Radio station out of Santa Monica, is unparalleled as the very, very best eclectic, independent music station in the entire universe, and Bentley’s show, Metropolis, proffering “the hypnotic pulse of modern city life,” is a cultural treasure. Reno has just scored.
Resident ivory-tickler Grant Levin turns out the tunes on weekends in the front lounge, while DJs keep the hepkats dancing in the nightclub out back. For those who can either revel into the wee hours or set the alarm, there are juice parties featuring downtempo house music the first and third Sunday of each month from 7 a.m. till noon. For those who can do neither, Liquid Lounge serves sandwiches from 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on weekdays.
144 West St.
“We don’t have a lot of country bands," says Mairi Hennessey, a bartender and RN&R contributor, "but why not?"” I’m a sucker for anything in 2/4 time with a strong bass beat and enough ironic sass, so when Hellbound Glory sings "I’m livin’ on Pabst Blue Ribbon,"> inspiring its fans to dance a hoedown/mosh fusion the likes of which I have never witnessed anywhere, I am just plain happy.
Over to the right, two young women in low-rise jeans are playing pool and giggling, lending the sport long-needed influences from the disciplines of cheerleading and salsa dancing. A few stocking-capped skater-guys are looking on, swigging Coronas, making no attempt to hog the pool table. Pool has just been reinvented.
I hear reports of a more chilled-out, Tom Waits-infused vibe on weekdays in Green Room’s front bar, which is an exquisite example of contrasting materials blending smoothly in the assertive hands of the right designer. The sandblasted brick walls don’t hide the building’s history—it was a firehouse in a past life—and the smooth, dark wood paneling behind the bar brings the whole room into the present. Green Room’s paintings, Cubist-inspired but with a brighter, updated color palette, are among the most compelling still lifes going.
Back in the mini, black-box concert hall—where there are plans for theater productions in the reasonably near future—is the most eclectic gathering of hairstyles I’ve seen, maybe ever, in one place. There’s long and greasy, all forms of short, shaven, shiny-spiky-punk, big-soft-white-guy-Afro, “distinguished” Burt Reynolds-from-the-’70s, wind-blown-computer-geek, high-maintenance-perfectly-straight, early-’60s-flippy, luxurious goth, casual ponytail, backward biker hat and forward trucker hat, all in one room. Reno’s democracy of style shines again.