Suburban safari

Elephant Bar & Grill

6063 Sunrise Mall
Citrus Heights, CA 95610

(916) 961-3628

The word from the top was not good: Chic Swank, my onetime alter ego, had run amok in the suburbs. Swank had called headquarters babbling that savage beasts armed with umbrella drinks had invaded Citrus Heights. HQ had in turn called me, requesting that I immediately rein in the obviously delirious figment of my imagination. Swank was waiting at the Elephant Bar, they said. Go get him.

Battling one’s former alter ego is a heady task, so I enlisted a pair of dining companions—strong, beautiful Amazons—in the cause. On the haul out to Citrus Heights, I explained to them how Swank, a fictitious character I’d created some five or six years ago, had taken on a life of his own. It’s an incredible story, and far too strange and convoluted to tell here. Suffice it to say that such characters, once animated, have been known to rend the threadbare fabric of society into tattered shreds.

We took the recently re-engineered Sunrise Boulevard exit off Highway 50, marveling how the new design seems to have instantly relieved the area’s longstanding traffic congestion. The boulevard leading into Citrus Heights has been spruced up as well, creating the impression that you’ve arrived at an actual destination, not just the parking lot of the Sunrise Mall, where Elephant Bar sits like … well, an elephant in the parking lot. I grasped a brass elephant head by the trunk, and the door magically swung open.

It was early in the evening, but the crowd milling about on the leopard-print carpet was already thick. A few young suburban families and more sharp-and-pointed single people than you could shake a stick at. The carved head of an enormous, angry-looking elephant glared at us over the hostess’ shoulder as she informed us the wait for a table (Elephant Bar doesn’t take reservations) would be 45 minutes. No matter. Swank would be at the bar.

Sure enough, there he was, beneath a halo of blue neon light rimming the ceiling of the circular bar. Three bartenders frantically tried to keep their customers supplied with drink. It was a losing game.

“Try the E-Tea!” Swank slurred. The drink was Elephant Bar’s version of a Long Island Ice Tea. “You’ll grow an extra testicle.”

“No thanks, already got one,” I said, ordering a Big E Beer instead. It tasted like Anchor Steam. The Amazons ordered martinis. Their drinks glistened like opals beneath the blue neon glow.

“This is what I call progress!” Swank said. “Notice that there are no stuffed animal heads, no mounted big game trophies. In fact, there’s nothing in the place that was ever actually alive. Animals are merely referenced—the sheet metal elephant heads above the bar, the bold animal print graphics, the fish wall mural. In the old days, we’d be sitting on a dirt floor beneath a thatched roof. Progress!”

Just then the electric coaster the hostess had given us began buzzing like an out-of-control vibrator, signaling that our table was ready.

While I was tempted to agree with Swank that the restaurant does indeed represent progress of a sort, the menu confirmed what I was beginning to suspect: the restaurant was about as African as Michael Jackson. You’ve seen this menu—my companions selected oriental chicken salad, sizzling fajitas, various grilled and barbecued meats—at 100,000 corporate chain restaurants. The closest thing to an African dish was lobster and chicken jambalaya, which I ordered.

All of the dishes were prepared sufficiently, but nothing really stood out. Then again, perhaps nothing is supposed to. They’re not offering good food at Elephant Bar. They’re offering an experience, albeit one that is as shallow as the restaurant’s own animal-print décor. The fact that such a place can be popular—there are a dozen Elephant Bars in California—simply points out how desperate we’ve become.

Swank, of course, would have none of this at first. Neither would he return to the fictitious world. “Progress!” he’d said, ordering another round of drinks. But as we left him at the bar, I heard him muttering to himself.

“The horror. The horror,” he whispered.