East Sac dive
Follow J Street just beyond Alhambra Boulevard, you’re almost there: the great divide, the crossing point where loud, overpriced ultra-lounges fade like a bad dream and half-empty, reasonably priced neighborhood establishments emerge. A promised land where pints are less than $3, bar snacks are given freely, and drinkers are bathed in the warm light of neon signs as they play Big Buck Safari in solitude.
It starts at Hilltop Tavern on Folsom Boulevard and 48th Street at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, where I’m greeted by a friendly but wildly drunk man at the door. This tippler acknowledges my existence just long enough to make me feel special, then offers to buy everyone in the bar a whiskey before finally fading into the woodwork until he’s called upon again. The next move is multi-choice: Do I accept the whiskey from the old man? Do I order a beer at the other end of the bar? Or do I load up on pretzel sticks and play a humiliatingly amateur game of pool near an autographed picture of Creed?
The answer? Clearly option three.
If you ask the bartender at the Hilltop—who, according to my drunken handwritten notes, is repeatedly referred to as “the very nice man”—he will not give a recommendation for any other cheap bars in the area. Like any good tender of bar, he will insist that his is the best. There are no other cheaper pints nor wide-open rec rooms this side of Alhambra.
“Except maybe Chargin’s,” another patron chimes in.
“Yeah, well, maybe Chargin’s,” the bartender concedes.
Following said advice, I wind my way north toward J Street through the wide streets of the glamorous Fabulous Forties. Teetering along, a sign advertising “Cornish Pasties” near Club 2 Me convinces further investigation.
Wood-paneled walls, thinning carpet, and drooping foil shamrocks stapled to the ceiling make Club 2 Me more sadly hopeful and Midwestern than other area dives. There is a pool table, a shuffleboard and a defunct built-in telephone booth with its own little light that turns on when you close the door. Drinking inside the booth makes the drinker feel sneaky and mysterious because, although clearly visible, it’s fun pretending you can’t be seen.
But don’t be fooled: This door is not soundproof, they can hear you, and you’re not getting away with anything.
Bars get better with every drink, so by the time I finally make it to Chargin’s on J and 49th streets, I’m having a great time. In fact, my inebriated handwritten notes detail just as much: “HAVING A GREAT TIME,” in all caps, which is then circled and underscored several times for emphasis.
The popcorn machine at Chargin’s seems revolutionary! Later, the bathroom at Club Raven is so elegant! And, finally, the vegetarian burrito at La Fiesta Taqueria—ordered in Spanish, no less—is sobering enough for a short ride home.