616 J Street, fourth floor, San Diego
"Caution, adults at play," reads the sign. Guy dressed up as a lion is waving it.
"Pro-grams! Get your programs here," shouts a booming-voiced middle-aged man.
"Padres win! What a finish!" yells another voice. Must be a recording, 'cause the game won't even start for another 90 minutes. A ginger-haired fan with "Hernandez 55" on the back of his jersey stands looking for friends. There's a smell of cigars.
"Look," says Hank. "This isn't going to happen."
He's talking about us getting in to the game. We came down here on a whim, thinking the touts may have a deal 'cause it's midweek. No such luck.
"So?" I ask.
"So, let's eat instead. What is it now, five-something? Happy Hour, dude. Follow me."
We cross J to this new Back-East, bricky brand-new building building sandwiched in the elbow of the fancy "Solamar Hotel." A small sign says "Jsix."
Oh, I get it. An eatery at 6th and J. A look inside shows waiters with long aprons, swoopy counters, swanky full booths, yuppies holding triangular cocktail glasses and yakking it up.
"This ain't for us," I say. "Let's hump down to Lee's on Fifth."
"Hold on," Hank says. "I got a plan. Just follow me."
So I do. Into the building, past blue-suited security, into an elevator, up to the fourth floor, and bam!
Takes a moment to get used to the light -- I can't believe my eyes. It's a tropical garden, with a pool and a circular bar. Looks like a David Hockney painting. Somebody dives into the pool. Big splash. He was kinda porky. Somebody laughs. Music wafts. They have giant green-leaved trees, square blue umbrellas, white cotton cabañas, and beyond, hey, I catch the tops of the stands at Petco Park. You can hear that come-on recording still echoing out of there.
"Padres win! What a finish!"
"Man!" I say. "Lifestyles of the...okay. Can we go now?"
"You kidding?" Hank leads the way to the circular bar. Sea-blue mosaic side, sea-green countertop, see-thru blouses on a couple of babes sitting on the stools -- surrounded by about fifteen businessman-types who are laughing too loud. Oh. I see the blouses are worn over swim gear. Still wet.
I grab the back of one of the bamboo stools. It's a little greasy. SP-15 sunblocker for sure.
"Something to drink?" the barman asks me. I look at Hank, who says "Iced tea."
"Lemonade," I say.
"Sure," the barman says, and in a sec he's placed two classy frosty glasses on black paper coasters. He fills them, leaves a menu, and takes off.
"What's going on?" I hiss at Hank. "I hope you're loaded, 'cause this is Shangri-La."
Hank hauls out a little yellow pamphlet and hands it to me. "Executive Chef Deborah Schneider's Coastal California Cuisine..."
Hank says, "Look at the back."
I flip it over. Down below Jsix's signature cocktails -- "Christie's Passiontini, Bacardi limon, Cointreau, orange and guava juice, 10," -- (guess that means ten bucks), it says "Happy Hour: Monday--Friday at Jsix and Jbar, 4--6pm. Draught beer $3.00, Frozen drinks $5.00..."
Hank stabs his finger at the bottom three items. "Spicy bar mix, $2.00. Grilled Moroccan lamb skewer, green olive sauce, $2.50 each. Bucket of garlic fries, gooey black bean-cheese dip, $5.00."
"You can have one of each for $7.50," he says. "Then we'll trawl for tix. Half of these people are too drunk to go to the ballgame." He scans the foot-high bar menu. Good Lord. Onion rings are eight bucks. Tortilla chips $7.50. A half-melon filled with "seasonal fruit" is $11.00. And, oh man. What I'd order if I had bread: steamed clams, with "tequila, butter, cilantro, garlic, gemelli pasta." $11.50. A babe to our left is devouring some. They look great.
But Hank's hanging tough on his nuts-and-twigs regime. He scans a Jsix Caesar salad with "mission green olives, house-cured anchovies" for $7.50 (or $10.75 with chicken breast). There's also a baby spinach and arugula salad with "strawberries, jamón serrano [mountain ham], Spanish cabrales cheese," and vinaigrette. Eight bucks.
We order two lamb skewers -- one for Hank -- the garlic fries and goo, and the spinach salad, then try to strike up conversations with our fellow millionaires. See if we can relieve them of the need to go to the ballgame. But they're all on their cell phones to New York.
When the food arrives, I mean, it's pretty. Hank's salad looks tasty, but, one, we don't see no arugula, two, the lamb skewers are toothpick-tiny, and three, there's plenty of garlicky-smelling fries, but no "gooey black bean-cheese dip." Just a pot of ketchuppy stuff.
"Well, this is just Happy Hour snacks," says Jesse, the barman. "And we stopped the black bean dip. But the fries are two dollars cheaper now." Have to say, he isn't mean with the drink refills, which are free. Hank mows through his salad in minutes, but I take my time to get through the fries. They're good, even if the taste isn't up to that "come hither" smell.
The lamb, however, is tasty. So is the olive sauce. I like the big classy cloth napkin, the heavy silverware. At least they treat you like a grown-up here.
Hank's reading my mind. "If we were inside the park right now," he says, "we'd be lining up to pay the same, or more, for some flyaway polystyrene hot dog."
Faintly, in the distance, I hear that recorded announcer again.
"Padres win! What a finish!"