I’m momentarily blinded when I enter Frankie’s Tiki Room (1712 W. Charleston Blvd., 385-3110), the abrupt transition from blazing day to tomblike darkness throwing my eyes out of whack. A man and two blondish women sit at the far end of the room, the bartop in front of them studded with damp rings and empty shot glasses. Duane Eddy twangs softly through the speakers as hula girls flicker silently on the television screens.
“Spicy?” Bartender Brahim picks up a glass for my Bloody Mary and moves toward the cache of tiny sauce bottles.
I flip through a National Geographic (the cover story is Easter Island …) and nibble on the olives. Frankie’s feels secure, timeless, like the private bunker of some wealthy old stoner sea captain. In the back, bottles are restocked, floors are mopped, boxes of glassware unpacked. A bar in the early hours is like backstage, revealing the downtime when everyone prepares for the night’s performance.
One of the blondes downs the dregs of her Jameson’s, slings her purse over her shoulder, walks toward the exit. The other half-turns on her stool, calling out, “You have a good day! You keep that self-esteem high!” Her friend waves as she disappears into the white light beyond the door.
Brahim is describing The Cleveland Show, pausing to pour two more shots of Jamie for the duo down the bar. I cross the street to Real Donut for a large coffee and a Boston crème. The sun reflects off the orange plastic surfaces, the air is thick with the smell of warm sugar, but I just want to get home in time for Looney Tunes — they usually open with a Pepe LePew and I hate to miss those. …
Decatur Liquor (546 S. Decatur Blvd., 870-2522) is part of an early example of one-stop shopping — a drugstore/lunch counter/bar with adjacent laundromat and barber-stylist. The tavern itself is a large, airy room with old-fashioned paneling, speckled linoleum and an impressive collection of beer signs, mirrors and lights. Two women sit with their eyes locked onto the NASCAR on ESPN, and tip bottles of Miller; a few more patrons sit further down the long bar, conversing idly, occasionally tapping fingers to the oldies radio — playing the jukebox might shake the atmosphere.
Ann the bartender favors the color pink and maintains a remarkably sweet nature for someone who has been a teacher and a bartender. She brings me a large greyhound with a shot glass of grapefruit juice. “In case it’s kind of strong,” she smiles.
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
“Good! Then you’ll like it.” She moves down the bar to stack cocktail napkins and open another beer for a gentleman with white hair and black-framed glasses. In the early hours, a bar is almost entirely regulars — maybe they work third shift, perhaps they’re easing into the day with a cocktail rather than caffeine. A man in a Bud Light workshirt and Dickies walks in with a large box and a ladder. He takes down an old sign and replaces it with a citrus-toned neon light for Shock Top beer, a contrast to the nearby vintage model of plastic Clydesdales under glass.
I push the bar door open, then swing back in to the entrance of the coffee shop/drugstore and take a seat at the counter. The clink of silverware and dishes overtakes the conversation, most of the diners are enjoying silent contemplation of their solitary breakfasts. Or maybe the biscuts ’n’ gravy is too good to talk during. …
Of course, there is that early morning drinking that happens because last night’s drinking hasn’t stopped yet. Such is the scenario at the Hard Rock’s Center Bar. Five days out of seven it hosts a graveyard happy hour, offering two-for-one drinks until 8 a.m., although one does have to ask. On a Saturday morning, this place would be crawling with Burbank douchebags and Dubuque bachelorettes swaying on their feet and trying to maintain game-face.
But today the crowd is lighter. Two guys sit by the service bar, one T-shirt advertising Affliction, the other Rehab. They order more shots of Tequila and Crown Royal.
“… it’s been in the shop for three days now,” says Rehab, thumping the video poker buttons.
Affliction yawns, stretches. “You still like that car?” A bar back heaves plastic mats around the floor while another carries in cases of Corona. In the casino, a few players are still slumped at the poker tables, Red Bulls at their elbows; early check-outs ferry-rolling suitcases and plastic bags of souvenirs across the floor.
I contemplate Mr. Lucky’s, but don’t feel breakfasty. I consider finding a nice steam room someplace and riding out the hours until noon like the Rat Pack — sweating out the toxins, regrouping for later hijinks. I can see through the lobby doors that it’s a beautiful day. Let’s not start it just yet. …