Love thy neighbor
There’s not much lacquer but plenty of liquor at Sacramento’s neighborhood watering holes
When your mother told you to look for the girl- or guy-next-door type, she probably didn’t mean the ones who hang out at your neighborhood watering hole. Or maybe she did. Corner bars are unassuming and straightforward, and they invite you to be yourself and cast pretense aside. You can roll in unshowered after having spent a couch-bound Saturday in front of the TV. Why not forgo those fancy cocktails that make your teeth hurt and, instead, guzzle an old-fashioned, watered-down beer straight from the bottle. These are the places that really care about their customers. They open at 7 a.m. so that people who work the graveyard shift have a place to socialize. Their bartenders are therapists, comedians and sometimes chauffeurs to overindulgent patrons. They know your name, and they use it.
So, leave your freshly pressed shirts, your makeup and your cab fare at home. Stroll over to one of Sacramento’s neighborhood taverns and introduce yourself.
As neighborhood bars go, admittedly I’m partial to the Pine Cove Tavern (502 29th Street, (916) 446-3624). It was well within stumbling distance of my first apartment in Sacramento, save for the hazardous flight of stairs leading to and from the place. The Pine Cove fits any mood. Need a dark corner and a fireplace for an illicit tryst? Want to chain-drink draft beer while watching a baseball, basketball or football game? Looking for cheap drinks with like-minded partygoers before hitting the trendy and expensive nightclubs? The Pine Cove accommodates these scenarios and more. Unlike many neighborhood bars, it’s fairly spacious (being upstairs has its benefits). Plus, it has free popcorn. The Pine Cove’s nightly drink specials—like $1 cosmopolitans and kamikazes on Wednesday and $2.50 top-shelf martinis on Thursday—are a bonanza for the college crowd. After 8 p.m., California State University, Sacramento, students overrun the place, but by then most of the neighborhood folks already have stumbled down the long flight of stairs toward home.
The BonnLair (3651 J Street, (916) 455-7155) was my second neighborhood bar. After moving to well-heeled East Sac, I thought casual watering holes would be harder to come by than American-made cars. Hardly. The BonnLair is the kind of place you’d like to be in on a snowy day, if it ever snowed in Sacramento. High-backed wooden booths make great settings for conversation, and the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Best of all, the BonnLair’s inventory is high in alcohol content. It has all sorts of potent, hard-to-pronounce European beer on tap, like Boddingtons, Hacker-Pschorr and Grimbergen. The bar is small, with a few stools, but this is the kind of place where people gladly give up their seats for you. The closest I’ve come to Ireland is dating a guy who liked Notre Dame football, so I can’t personally vouch for the authenticity of the place. However, I’ve heard several accents, soccer or rugby is usually on TV, and the red-faced bartenders go pale when someone orders a Bud Light.
Next to the Tower Theatre and Tower Café, Joe Marty’s (1500 Broadway, (916) 448-7062) has been around since 1938. It’s dark and a tad musty, and every inch of wall space is devoted to baseball worship. Its original owner, the eponymous Joe Marty, played for the San Francisco Seals (with Joe DiMaggio) and was the Pacific Coast League batting champ in 1936. He also played for the Phillies, the Cubs and the Sacramento Salons, precursors to the River Cats. It’s hard to put your finger on the type of crowd that Joe Marty’s attracts, because it changes with the ebb and flow of patrons. At any point in the night, you might find yourself elbow to elbow with a biker, a sorority sister or a couple of grandparents who just wandered over after seeing a movie. But by the end of the night, you’ll be chatting like old friends or sharing a cigarette out front. Joe Marty’s has ample reasonably priced pub grub—like French-bread pizza, fried zucchini and chicken wings—for less than $5. After a few reasonably priced draft beers or colorful shooters, you’ll find yourself humming along with Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or whichever artists your fellow drinkers have selected from the jukebox.
Don’t tangle with the bartenders (especially Dave) at the Zebra Club (1900 P Street, (916) 442-3972) unless you’ve got thick skin. They like to heckle—in the friendliest, most neighborly way, of course—and even women and the elderly are not exempt from raunchy bantering and name-hurtling contests. (Just ask the woman who, thanks to Dave, forever will be known as Cornelius, as in Planet of the Apes). Zebra is gritty, casual and comfortable even with the heckling. If you need a break, step onto the back patio, which can be pleasant depending on the time of day, how many patrons overdid it on tequila shots and which way the Delta breeze is blowing. Zebra has more than a dozen beers on tap, including $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon. Weekends get packed with college students looking for cheap beer and permission to be drunk and rowdy.
I wish the Round Corner Tavern (2333 S Street, (916) 451-4682) was in my neighborhood. The jukebox is stocked with bad tunes from my teen years (where else can you hear two Hall and Oates songs in a row?), the beer and food are cheap, it’s well-lit and not musty, the televisions are unobtrusive, and it lacks that feet-stick-to-the floor quality common to many bars in its price category. The bar is big, and red pleather booths provide additional seats for watching serious sharks in action at the two pool tables.
Other neighborhood watering holes
Benny’s Sacramento Bar and Grill
2013 Q Street
The skinny: What smoking ban?
3246 J Street
The skinny: cheap drinks, friendly staff, free popcorn
Time Out Tavern
4729 San Juan Avenue, Fair Oaks
The skinny: live rock ’n’ roll, free rides home on weekends
He knows your name … and then some
Huey Tidwell once sold securities, but he decided that tending bar was less stressful. “The cash is good, it’s not difficult … and bartenders have a lot of time to play golf,” he said.
Tidwell has worked at Club 2-Me (4738 J Street, (916) 451-6834) for 27 years and is a doyen among Sacramento’s neighborhood-tavern bartenders. He’s caught patrons with their pants down and their shirts off. He’s heard confessions about masturbation, adultery and incest. He’s served former San Francisco 49er Joe Montana, former California Governor George Deukmejian and numerous Sacramento Kings. He knows when patrons have had too much to drink, and he’s comfortable using force, trickery and persuasion to shut them off. Tidwell serves people who have been eighty-sixed at every other bar in town for being too drunk, too troublesome or too weird. Guys like Cliff, whom Tidwell once bailed out of a Reno jail. Cliff and Tidwell have a deal. Cliff is allowed at Club 2-Me only on Monday nights. If Cliff gets a ride, Tidwell will serve him soda and water all night and then take him home. “Soda, not beer,” Cliff said, “because that’ll get me in trouble.”