The closing of Al's Bar yesterday after 83 years has my close circle of the alternative media abuzz. Atomizer awoke from his posting drought
to discuss the past and the future of the corner of France Ave. and Excelsior Blvd., along with some personal introspection. Yesterday I had the opportunity to discuss on NARN the tax implication that led to yet another neighborhood bar closing.
It was a nice discussion, but we didn't really have the chance to get into some of the stories about why Al's was special. Sure, I've been going there for 23 years, and have spent about 45 Monday nights a year there over the last two decades, but why?
Al's was a neighborhood bar. There are some characteristics that make a bar a neighborhood bar. First of all, a neighborhood bar is not hip or trendy. That means the clientele are the type of people that live and work in the neighborhood. Nurses and cashiers, mechanics and middle managers, retirees and college students all feel welcome. Guys in suits sit next to a team of pudgy softball players.
Some neighborhood bars have a kitchen that may have a reputation. Al's didn't. You could have them heat up a frozen pizza or a cheddar wurst. There were no menus. Bad popcorn was ubiquitous, and salted peanuts were $1 a bag, but that was it. It was a liquor bar. Beer was the drink of choice of most patrons, including myself. It was a simple place to drink and converse. There were decent televisions, but it wasn't a sports bar in the sense that you were assured a view of the game. Al's did have a reputation as the smokiest bar in the west metro until the advent of smoking bans.
My memories of Al's will center around their beer specials. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, we would send a pretty good large of friends to Al's on Monday night. Al's Monday special was their "mug club night." You would buy a cheap mug ($3 or so) and you could refill it for $0.50. The mug was glass, and we were encouraged to bring it back every Monday.
Invariably, each Monday someone in our group would forget their mug and would beg the waitress to sell them a mug of beer for the special price. We were pretty familiar to the waitresses, so they usually obliged. One waitress used to refer to Mondays as, "I forgot my mug club night." Ultimately, the bartenders finally agreed to sell our group specially priced pitchers so we wouldn't have to mess with the mugs anymore. That arrangement lasted until the very end.
For a while, remember we were young, we spent our Wednesday evenings at Al's for three for two pitcher night. When you ordered a pitcher, the waitress would give you a coupon. When you had two coupons you could get a free pitcher. At the time pitchers were $5.50 or so. Our group would show up and buy the first pitcher or two. Meanwhile, there would be groups of people who just wanted to stop by for a pitcher. They would have an extra coupon (sometimes two) and as they left they often would toss it on our table. There were nights where we would pay for three pitchers and drink nine or ten. As a poor post-graduate student, I appreciated the generosity of the more temperate patrons.
The best part of Mondays at Al's was the fact that you never knew who would show up. As we aged, many friends couldn't make it out to Al's anymore. But everyone knew that someone would be at Al's every Monday. That meant that if the wife and kids were out of town or they had to work late or if they really wanted to watch the game, an old friend might walk through the door and time would stop. There's no way to replace that.