Two in one

Bartender Tony O., a.k.a. “Rick,” serves up drinks at the Alibi Lounge.

Bartender Tony O., a.k.a. “Rick,” serves up drinks at the Alibi Lounge.

Photo/Eric Marks

A swirling cloud of indecisiveness, fatigue and self-imposed deadline pressure hung over my head as I tried to decide what to write about this week. That bad night’s sleep fatigue gave me the notion that I should go somewhere for an Irish coffee, something warm and caffeinated striking me as just what I needed on a gray winter day. Alibi Lounge seemed as good a choice as any.

Even if I had never been to the Alibi before, my image of the place based on outside appearance would probably be pretty close to reality. The working class neighborhood strip mall set behind Shoppers Square, the swanky font on the sign, even that it’s nominally a “lounge”—it all brings to mind this feeling of a ’70s heyday, maybe a little divey, an average bar to have a beer after work on a Friday. My only previous visit is a distant blur, so my only preconceptions were based on what I saw and what I’ve heard. There are a million drinking stories in the Biggest Little City, and it seems like a lot of them include the phrase “we ended up at the Alibi.” By that word of mouth, I think of it as a (very) late night stop, an option after other bars close for the night or get too crowded—perhaps the final questionable choice made for the night.

The first thing that struck me, during daylight hours, is how dark it seemed. I paused momentarily between the two doors to let my eyes adjust. Inside, the bar glowed with video poker screens. An unlit fireplace in the corner seemed vaguely familiar. No windows for anyone to see in, maybe helping ensure your alibi is intact while you’re here. (I was later told there is parking out the back door in addition to the obvious front lot.) I realize that another considerable light source is the spotlighted wall of liquor bottles behind the bar. Literally a wall, tiered shelves from near the floor to eye level, displaying one of the most impressive selections of booze in town. Just a few taps of unremarkable beer, so yes, it’s a “lounge” as in “cocktail lounge.”

A few regulars haunted the bar, making small talk with the bartender and each other, and welcoming me, the outsider, as kindly as imaginable. I’ll be honest. I’m kind of an introvert, and dropping into an unfamiliar place, alone, with no idea who is in there or what the mood is—it takes a little resolve and forces me out of my comfort zone. Despite that unease, I slipped into place at the Alibi like an old glove, comfortably and easily. Trivial conversation that didn’t feel forced, a friendly suggestion for a “coffee special”—adding Irish cream—rather than the basic Irish coffee I asked for, and not the slightest hint of annoyance at having to brew a fresh pot of coffee for me.

Unavoidably eavesdropping on bar chatter—about squares on the Big Game pool, afternoon plans, and mutual acquaintances—it occurred to me that the Alibi is like two bars: By day, it’s a bar you go to, the neighborhood gathering place for regulars, close like family with each other and the staff. Think Cheers, but much smaller and darker. By night, it’s the dark, smoky place—not where you go, but where you end up—when you’re not quite ready to go home but you probably should. Whichever one you visit, remember to park out back and maybe try the coffee special.