Remembrance of Things Past
It is not uncommon to hear murmured remembrances of the long shuttered (and then plundered and then burned) downtown bar & venue The Red Room these days – a timeless bar succumbed to time. It seems that the musicians and industry folk who inhabited this bar, which existed adjacent to Grill, the equally infamous all-hour diner, are frequently prompted to nostalgia when navigating the quasi-urban terrain of our redeveloping downtown. Indeed, sensing this communal reminiscence from afar or not, Will Elliott, an ex-Tucsonan and now James Beard Award winning, Brooklyn cocktail guru, recently gave the bar a shout out in Brooklyn Magazine.
On a local level, the veracity of these memories is less important than their signaling of the relative lack of ‘timeless’ institutions on the downtown landscape of late. While the newer generation of more conceptually driven, downtown bars and restaurants are well suited to a variety of people and occasions – dinner with the folks, anniversaries, tourists and travelers – they nonetheless fail (or avoid) to engender the kind of humble, late night comradery one found in the institutionalized, local late night spots of Tucson’s yesteryear. The tendency of newer businesses to appeal to the newer consumer demographics downtown is a business decision as much as anything else (which has to do with the exponential rate of gentrification insofar as no one makes ‘business’ decisions until there’s ‘business’ to do) and so it makes sense that locals celebrate a lack of conceptual posturing when they encounter it. Indeed, from La Cocina (low-key locals in their favored, dusty, pueblo-deco setting) to R Bar (anti-hipster hipsters amongst show goers) to Owl’s Club (a slightly grown up bar serving a slightly grown up musical community and their ilk) to Saint Charles Tavern (more below), different aspects of this communal desire for authenticity and cultural relevancy are not only a welcomed relief to wrongheaded development but, in themselves, the manifestation of some of the best local bar culture we’ve seen in years.
If You Have To Date People You Don’t Know, Do It at Saint Charles Tavern
A couple on an actively assisted blind date recently passed the time playing Cards Against Humanity on the perfect patio space behind Saint Charles Tavern. The supporting couple had both facilitated this meeting and brought the card game, a contingency for any less comfortable circumstance, which was rendered superfluous on this patio with its soft light, sandy ground and old tables. Indeed, insofar as it is nearly impossible to feel overwrought here, I put it forth as an ideal first date local. The drink selection is democratic and affordable but peppered with enough smaller batch products to feel curated while unpretentious. Any number of people can drink well here, whether that means cheap beer and great tequila or cheap whiskey and great beer. Alternatively, the gluten-wary drinker will be happy with the selection of dry French and Belgian ciders, while the spirit inquisitive will find and handful of rare and compelling spirits seemingly at home beneath the low, antique, pressed tin ceiling.
Tonight the foursome drank well-limed Victoria, cider and uncomplicated highballs while they negotiated the card games call to wit, offensiveness and belabored hilarity. Two of the four were a few weeks out from smoking their last cigarette and, knowing this on some level, inhaled American Spirits with a vigor and abandon not seen since the days of adolescent smoking behind various dumpsters at Midwestern and Phoenician high schools respectively. Unlike the smoker’s impending challenge, the stakes at Saint Charles Tavern felt refreshingly low. The goal here, it seems, is nothing more or less than providing people a place to gather, facilitated by decent libations, day in and day out.
Beyond nostalgia for cheap drinks, then, there is something communal, light-hearted and persevering that emanates from Saint Charles more than other bars of a similar age close to downtown. You can feel that the owners are doing exactly what they want to be doing and are happy to stay the course. This is the ambiance of the true ‘Public House;’ a tone based on an understanding of bars as a community service rather than a temple to the self, or a quick, veneered, money-maker, or any of the other sometimes misguided reasons people get into this business.