The breadth and depth of the cocktail menu at Tough Luck Club (TLC) is astounding. Located in the volcanic rock walled basement of Reilly’s, TLC is some iteration of gastro-speakeasy-exclusivity accessed via a commercial staircase off the beer garden.… The menu has a certain “above and beyond-ness” that speaks to TLC’s inherent and animating interest in cocktailing as an art in and of itself. It is the product of youthful vigor and ambition and, importantly, they seem to be pulling it off.
The playfully pedantic, illustrated menu finally feels at home in this basement setting. Illustrator Sharon Moon’s aesthetic, like Sharon Moon herself, is intuitive and rad and well-traveled. The puns and pointed digressions of the names signal a need to communicate something beyond what the paper menu traditionally permits. In total, there are enough drinks on the menu that a bit of trend hopping and other over-indulgences can be forgiven. A well-curated selection of classics made simply are available for five dollars during happy hour, a program which seems to require from the guest a pre-prohibition thirst—thrifty, bottomless, and of the daylight hours. In total, the selection is smart, tends towards dry, and even when challenging is not a waste of time.
The basement space is mostly unaffected and age worthy without relying on too much forced patina and faux-vintage fixtures. Tough Luck Club is lit with different shapes of Edison bulb as a solution to the generic, ubiquitous quality of Edison bulbs in general, which feels a bit heavy handed. Nonetheless there are few more appropriately designed bars downtown. TLC toes the line between snark, classic comfort, and hipster smarts without feeling juvenile, Pinterest-y, or overly self-satisfied. It’s meaningful that the bar staff that opened TLC is intact. The bartenders appear at home, radiating a sense of ownership that translates into a hard-to-fake, confident service style.
Tough Luck Club
(Basement of) 101 E Pennington St.
Tucson, AZ 85701
While waiting on a friend, the owner of a well-loved local dive bar enjoyed a cocktail called ‘Kentucky Cream Soda’ at Good Oak Bar, a hole-in- the-wall neighborhood spot located next the Rialto which serves local beer and wine alongside straightforward, mostly classic, cocktails. The ‘Cream Soda’ cocktail reminded her of a coffee and cream concoction she had had recently at Welcome Diner, “simple, strong, a little sweet, perfect.”
This acknowledgment that a little sugar often adds an enjoyable dimension to cocktails is the obvious truth that most industry folk tend to dance around. Indeed, so enthralled are we with the idea of the austere sophisticate who prefers the “driest” of everything (while remaining beholden to our natural instinct to enjoy the small pleasures of life, sugar being one of the most essential) the term “dry” has, in many restaurant conversations, often come to mean some iteration of “sweet.”
To acknowledge that “a little sugar” gives a drink a pleasant softness, richness and depth, then, is an important linguistic stand which can bring us back to saying what we mean and meaning what say. Sugar speaks to the heart, to warmth and the instinctual, to basic desire and appetite. The stuff of dryness and savoriness, on the other hand, is cerebral—characterized by exploration and the odd pleasures of asceticism. To know yourself is to understand how and when to sate certain appetites, and it is a mature bar which can meet demands on both sides of the spectrum. Seeking the more adventurous side, a couple of recent U of A School of Architecture graduates sipped mezcal and discussed their delight with a new app-enabled LED light bulb that was capable of producing 15 million different colors on demand. A reminder was scratched on receipt paper to investigate further in spite of the fact that the only application of dynamic lighting which the young architects could muster, when pressed, was something to do with making the walls blue and red during a Wildcats game.
A man named Billy stopped downtown on his way home for the evening and found a local stout he liked (Iron John’s Mole Stout). Getting comfortable, he held forth on downtown Tucson of yore. There were, Billy said, “Mexican bars and Indian bars and country bars,” notably “The Manhattan, Hurricane Bar, The Champagne Buffet, Pete’s Lounge, The Esquire, Trojan Inn, and Perez’s,” a drive-through bar across from Crossroads which served open containers to be consumed in the parking lot—or not.
Billy came to Tucson as a political refugee of sorts from California in the 60s—a time when, he’s says, urban California was nearly impossible to live in as an American Indian (he belongs to the Pascua Yaqui tribe). Tucson, he said, was freer and safer.
When we say Tucson is the “Wild West,” what we are really attempting to characterize is not lawlessness but a relative lack of institutional hegemony. We’re reminded that it’s not so much one’s ability to break the law that we celebrate here but the law’s relative distance from our daily lives that makes this place special. Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone and perhaps less and less true for anyone as Tucson grows. But it was true for many Tucsonans to whom we owe the subtler histories of this place. For Billy, Tucson remained free and safe enough to resettle and continue his advocacy work.
Sentimental or not, it is a privilege to hear and overhear anecdotal, oral histories from the bartender’s side of the bar—a function and phenomena of the “public house,” which we too often take for granted but which serve so powerfully our need for perspective.
Good Oak Bar
316 E Congress St