The new bar exam

Our arts editor examines the latest generation of Reno bars

Photo By Lauren Randolph

There’s a whole slew of new bars that have opened up over the course of the last year. But I’m a busy man. And when I do go out, I rarely stray from my regular haunts, therefore there are a lot of places I haven’t had a chance to check out. So I gave myself a one-night mission: round up a merry band of drinking companions and embark on a bar tour. Every destination should meet two criteria: 1) be a bar that has opened up within the last year, and 2) be a place that I personally had never been to before. And, because I couldn’t persuade any of my friends to take on the thankless task of designated driving, I added a third criterion: 3) all the bars had to be within walking distance of each other.

Here’s a roundup of what I discovered during our long and wild night. This is by no means a complete survey of all the new bars around town, just a snapshot of a few of them.

Amendment 21 Grill & Sports Bar
425 S. Virginia St., 786-0808

I arranged to meet my friends at Amendment 21, the first stop of our bar tour. I later learned that that day, Dec. 5, was the 75th anniversary of the actual 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the repeal of Prohibition and the inspiration for the name of this bar and grill, which is housed in what used to be Board of Trade, Adele’s and a series of other high-end restaurants.

That anniversary meant that this joint was uniquely suited as a starting point for a night celebrating the glories of legal alcohol. However, I was afraid that it would also mean that the place would be slammed. When we arrived, there was a good-sized crowd, but it’s a big, spacious place, so it didn’t feel too packed.

It was a really weird crowd. There was the group you might expect at a downtown sports bar: frat boys, young professionals and old men who inexplicably take their shirts off. But, in honor of the occasion, the servers were dressed like 1930s gangster molls, with suits and bob wigs—but the wigs were all bright pink or blue. And to top it off, the bar was hosting a reggae show later in the evening, so there were a bunch of dreadlocked Rastafarian dudes wandering around.

It’s not actually that sporty—the core of the clientele were definitely there to watch highlight reels on the giant TVs, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly athletic. The service was friendly and easy-going.

But the biggest selling point was the food: We had the potato skin pizza ($12.95 for a 12-inch pie): a thin crust pizza with big wedges of potato, as well as green onions and bacon. I love any dish that combines two foods I already like, thereby eliminating any need to have to choose between them.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

St. James Infirmary
445 California Ave., 657-8484

It seems like everywhere I’ve gone the last week or two I’ve heard chatter about this place. I was initially intrigued by the name: “St. James Infirmary Blues” is an old jazz and folk standard—Louis Armstrong cut a famous version, though I was familiar with it mostly because of the White Stripes. It’s kind of an obscure reference for the name of a bar, which I thought was pretty cool.

RN&R special projects editor Kat Kerlin interviewed the owner last week. “I think you’d really like it,” she told me afterward. “It’s a bar for pop culture nerds—and that’s what you are.”

Every person I’ve talked to about the place has mentioned the jukebox. It’s a real jukebox (well, CDs anyway)—not one of those damn overcharging digital things—with handpicked discs: The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, the Pixies’ Bossonava and even a disc of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western themes. Just about every disc was something I would’ve been excited to find in a dive bar—but at this bar, they just seemed like the logical picks.

I was just drinking Pabst, but my more discriminating friends were impressed by the drink prices—inexpensive Chimay and Framboise and other specialty drinks. The TVs here don’t play sports, but classic flicks. David Lynch’s Dune was playing when we visited. There’s also a collage of black and white photos (mostly film and music greats: James Brown, Buddy Holly, Orson Welles and others) and a really nice smoking deck up on the roof.

It is indeed “very LA,” as I overheard somebody say, but I’d definitely recommend it to fellow “pop culture nerds”—though that being the target audience, “St. James Place” would’ve been an even cooler name since it’s, you know, a Monopoly reference.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Strega Bar
310 S. Arlington Ave., 348-9911

Strega and I started out on the wrong foot—I walked in the wrong door and almost knocked over a group of people. The last time I had been in this building, it had been Dharma Books. The bottom line about this place—the thing that really distinguishes it from other bars—is that it feels like a house party. Probably because it’s in a 1912 house. There are four or five separate rooms, each brightly lit. The atmosphere, when we visited anyway, was fairly rowdy, like a kegger or something—people were yelling and falling off of furniture.

But a bar that feels like a house party begs the question: Were you invited? And even though I bumped into more people I knew here than at any other bar we hit up on our tour, I never really felt like I was supposed to be there. That probably tells you more about me than about the place, but there you have it. But if you prefer rowdy house parties to regular bars, you’ll dig this joint—because everyone is invited to this house party.

The music was really good—in a weird moment of serendipity, they played David Bowie’s “Suffragette City,” a song I had paid for on the St. James Infirmary jukebox, but hadn’t stuck around long enough to hear.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

The Waterfall
134 W. Second St., 322-7373

Of all the places we visited, this one most closely adheres to the classical definition of a “bar.” The lighting is low and intimate, and the bar itself is long and narrow. The place veers toward hole-in-the-wall status, but the beers-on-tap selection is impressive.

After Strega, it was a real relief to be in a bar that actually felt like a bar. This place had a slower pace than anywhere else we’d been. The bar was lined with people, but they weren’t hooting and hollering. However, after visiting two back-to-back joints with great music, it was a bit of a letdown to visit a place playing canned, generic “alternative rock.”

The real selling point for us was the back room, complete with sofas, an unused bar and a fake fire burning bright. Our group—there were about eight of us at this point—was able to take over that back room and have more in-depth conversation than we’d been able to manage anywhere else. It’s a real Nevada bar—the TVs here were playing a rodeo—and that back room is a great secret hangout in the heart of downtown.

Of course, it’s a great secret I’ve just blown.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Red Martini
214 W. Commercial Row, 329-9444

The first thing I noticed at Red Martini was all the smoke in the air. This might’ve been the only place we went to all night that allowed smoking. There was also a saccharine twinge to the smoke that only made sense when RN&R photographer Lauren Randolph told me that they rent out hookahs.

She also told me that it was “Ladies ’80s” night, which explained why they were playing New Wave. The place is amazing mixture of fancy nightclub and total dive bar—it’s a little bit of both, and nothing in between. That might sound like a dis, but it’s not. It was kind of the best of both worlds: the energy of a club, but with the casualness of a dive.

There were young ladies in funny outfits dancing choreographed moves on the dance floor while gangly gentlemen watched from the sidelines. People seemed to be having more fun here than anywhere else we went.

Of course part of that might have been the hour. The alcohol was really catching up with me at this point. I noticed a mural on the wall: two large bulls in front of what appeared to by a rising sun.

“Isn’t that the flag of Thailand?” I asked my friend Mark.

“That’s the Red Bull logo, dude,” he replied.

The “’80s” music ran a pretty wide gamut—the most surreal juxtaposition was when Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” played while a Britney Spears video bounced and jiggled on the TVs. But my girlfriend, Sara, and I got up and danced to Prince and Madonna before I crashed on a sofa (or it might have been the floor) and decided it was time to go home.