420 Robinson Avenue, Hillcrest
The first place I ever ate a Snickers bar with a knife and fork? Right here. Tonight. At Neal's place.
It's a tiny sliver of a joint up in Hillcrest, across from the Crest Café. "The Wit's End," it says. Brick, white stucco, a green awning. Coming from inside is that burble of conversation and laffs that tells you they've got something going on here.
So, hey, I moseyed in under the little green awning. And realized that I'd been here before, back when it was the Sui Shin, a Japanese teahouse sushi place. Reds, golds, blacks, bamboos, a raised table-platform in the back for tea ceremonies, ceilings hidden by tented goldy-red drapery. Very cool.
The drapery is still here, the tile floor, the gold metal "bamboo" chairs still all lined up at what used to be the sushi bar, but the rest of is all pub. People downing pints of red beer, eating and yakking at tables. A sign advertises "a hundred beers from around the world!" and a Homer Simpson Chia-head is trying hard to sprout green grass hairs inside a plastic-bag "hothouse" on the bar. Near the front door, a rubber chicken hangs by its neck with a sign: "No Solicitors."
I sit down at the counter. Ooh. I see Red Trolley Ale is on tap, along with Stone and other good local brews. Behind the counter, a guy sets a dumbbell weight on top of a hinged sandwich toaster to keep it pressed down. Mad TV is onscreen, doing a number on George W. Folk music plays on the system. I notice the tea-ceremony table, where you used to sit cross-legged in Sui Shin days. Now it's full of people eating and talking. I order up a Stone Pale Ale. Not cheap. Four bucks, but I love the stuff.
I flip the menu to the food side. It's a big page of appetizers, soups, salads, omelets, sandwiches, rice bowls, and desserts. A lot, for a café-pub.
"It's the Menu that Grew," says Neal, the sandwich-presser. He's also the owner. He also owned it when it was Japanese. "Sui Shin never quite took off," he says. "We called it quits about 18 months ago. Reopened as this pub, café-style, but with a serious attitude toward beers. There's no other place like us around here. But we started without a name. Just couldn't think of anything. I was at my wit's end when my wife Laurie said, 'That's it!'"
He says he "limped along" through the summer of '04, then with the presidential election heating up he started showing The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His satellite feed brought it in three hours ahead of cable. "Suddenly we had something going here. We became a bastion of liberal values! It's never stopped. Come any night at eight, the show's on, the regulars are here."
He leaves me to the menu. Oh, man. Everything's within range. Six, seven bucks. Looks honest. Like, they have "today's soup" and "yesterday's soup." The bowl's $4.75 for today's, $4.45 for yesterday's. The pot-roast hot sandwich with horseradish and au jus is $6.45. They have vegetarian sandwiches too, but I kind of like the look of the rice bowls. Teriyaki beef or chicken rice bowl is $6.45, pesto chicken or beef is $6.65, and the one that really sounds outstanding is the beef or chicken stroganoff bowl, "creamy stroganoff with mushrooms and onions, $6.95."
On the other hand, there's this weird afterthought. "Gary's Bowl." Get this: "Rice, meatloaf or pot roast, covered with your choice of soup. $6.95."
"What's going to fill me most?" I bleat, as usual, when in doubt. "One of the omelets," Neal says. Yes, they serve them all day. The "Mexican" comes with onion, avocado, cheddar, salsa, sour cream, and steamed rice, or toast or green salad, for $6.45. "Guaranteed to fill you," he says.
And what's up with "Gary's Bowl"?
"Gary's my older brother. He just concocted that. Lots of these dishes are from customers' ideas."
That does it. I go for Brother Gary's bowl, meat-loaf version. It comes with today's soup, chicken tortilla. So, like, thar she blows, the big block of meatloaf, submerged in this mess of potage, tasting like something grandma might whip up for you.
But we're not through with weird yet. Fifteen minutes later I'm looking at desserts. A "mini ginger crème brulée" is $3.50. So is the root beer float.
Then you've got "Snickers Bar Seinfeld-style, $1.50."
Well, you know I'm going to pick the $1.50, no matter what.
The Snickers arrives on a big plate with big heavy stainless knife and fork. People are looking.
"Don't worry," says Neal. "They all understand. This comes from the Seinfeld episode where George is trying to impress his employers. He's at a New York Yankees boardroom luncheon and eats a Snickers bar with his knife and fork. 'How do you eat yours?' is his famous line. Soon everybody's doing it. Quite an episode."
I slice away. It feels pretty, well, civilized. I leave humming, "These are the days, my friend..." 'Cause this is the kind of place where you'd look back through the window and remember a whole chapter of your life passing inside. If only you could have it about a block away from home.