“No matter where you are on the Boulevard, no matter what part of town, you’re always on the Boulevard,” says Chino.
The Boulevard, of course, is El Cajon, and Chino, whose long dark beard sways a little as he works behind the bar at Norm’s Cocktails (7403 ECB), has been here at Norm’s, out at its far eastern edge, for just about a year. He started a few months after Norm died, arriving by way of the Turf Supper Club — first as customer, then as employee — and its East County offshoot, the Riviera. He was the first male bartender Norm’s ever had. All women before, on the young and pretty side.
7403 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
“See that bottle?” Chino asks, nodding toward the corner of the bar counter nearest the door. “That was Norm’s seat. He lived here. Always buying drinks for the customers. But he ran a tight ship. What you see going up and down the street, he didn’t let that in here.” (I never saw any of “that” going up and down the street. But Chino wasn’t the only one to mention it. Maybe I just went home too early.) The result was, in Chino’s approving estimation, “a nice, chill place.”
Norm’s daughter Kim runs the bar now, and it’s still a chill place — or, if you believe what’s painted on the inside of the front door, “the happiest place on the planet.” Chino estimates that the clientele is 85 to 90 percent regulars.They come because they live in the neighborhood and because they like the company.
And they come for the food. “If you’re here and you’re buying drinks, you can eat. But it’s a way of showing appreciation for the regulars. There’s biscuits and gravy every Saturday morning.” (Norm’s opens at 6 a.m.) We’ll get pizzas in for Monday Night Football. Last Sunday night, we had ribs. We do a Thanksgiving dinner every year. And a memorial party for Norm, with live music.”
7366 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
If the gentrifiers ever plant their hand-woven flag this far east, they will almost certainly strip the Chico Club (7366 ECB) of its pirate-y theme and make the place over in honor of the man whose first name adorns its excellent neon sign, Chico Marx. “The original owner, who opened it in 1940, was a friend of his,” attests bartender Jeff, a big, amiable fellow who has “been around the world twice, lived in most of the lower 48, tended bar for 30 years in dinner houses, strip clubs, Vegas casinos, and dive bars,” and who can “hold three or four conversations at once and know what the people are talking about. I think bartending is 20 percent making drinks and 80 percent conversation.”
Once, the story goes, the bar displayed a signed photo from the famed Marx brother. “But someone walked away with it,” just like they walked away with the skull-shaped glass mugs that contained the bar’s signature cocktail, the Buccaneer (Malibu rum, Captain Morgan rum, Coke, and 99 Bananas liqueur on top). So, now the drink comes in a plastic skull mug. But for $10, you can get a shot in a skull-shaped glass and take it home (the glass, not the shot).
By way of conversational demonstration, he holds forth on how Chico got his name (“chicken-chaser,” i.e. ladies’ man), and how he was such a wastrel that the other brothers took over his income and give him an allowance. “Moe Howard [of Three Stooges fame] did the same thing for Curly,” offers Scott from down the bar. Like lots of the club’s customers, Scott is a regular. He once paid for his drink with a silver quarter; Jeff held it until he could offer less rarefied payment.
“I’ll sling you some whiskey or make you a cocktail, but if you want some fancy shit that takes 40 ingredients and looks like you made a salad in it, go downtown.” That said, he’s not opposed to innovation. “I make a lot of Firechatas — Fireball whiskey and Rumchata. Also, Washington Apples: Crown Royal Regal Apple, Apple Pucker, and cranberry juice.”
When I visit the Chico, it’s a quiet neighborhood joint. But Thursday, Friday, and Sunday are given over to karaoke and a thumping DJ, while Saturday usually means live music. “We’ve gotten some pretty good acts in here,” says Jeff. “But not always. One time, a couple walked in and heard the band, and the lady asked me, ‘Can we leave?’ I said she was free to go, and she left me two dollars out of pity.”
7235 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
On Halloween 2015, you could have paid $10, slapped on a wristband, and set out on a three-bar holiday crawl, starting within the tasteful-cozy confines of Next Door Wine Bar + Craft Beer (7235 ECB), progressing to the Chico, and finishing at Norm’s. “We started crawlers with three tasters of beer and a cupcake,” says bartender and co-owner Jen, “and we timed it so that you’d arrive at each place in time for its costume contest.” Not a bad way to spend the night if you’re not trick-or-treating, and a good way to build community out here at the edge of East.
The idea for it came from a customer. “We have a group of 10 or 15 who are always suggesting parties. They’re the reason we did Oktoberfest, too.” Jen is happy for the input; events bring the crowds. “We’ll be at capacity — 65 — on trivia night,” the crowd listening to trivia master Allison from every nook and cranny, of which there are many (plus a patio). That’s on Tuesday.
Wednesday, it’s Winesday and potluck. You bring $30, or $20 plus a dish, and start in sampling. “Sometimes, we’ll taste 20 different wines. We vote for best dish of the night; winner gets to attend a subsequent Winesday gratis. Baked brie has won twice. Last time, it was a chocolate torte. We had a tie when we did our chicken-wing cookoff.” Ties are settled by Sawyer, the bar dog. “I’ll hold a piece in my left hand and another in my right, and he’ll sniff them, and whichever one he goes for wins.” There is video on Facebook to prove it. Other nights, you can pick up a pre-packaged cheese plate or bring in barbecue from Ranchwood, the joint next door (tri-tip sandwich, $7.50).
Beers are $6, served in Mason jars. The list is forever changing to make room for San Diego’s endless array of product; just now, Jen is a big fan of Jamul Brewing Co.’s Proctor Valley Monster Double IPA. “I got a big keg of that, 15 gallons, so it’ll be around three or four weeks. The Stone Vertical Epic is a small keg; it’ll last a week or two.” Wines lean domestic and peak at $10 a glass. The cidery white sangria is an autumnal treat at $6 and comes with a striped paper straw to boot. “If I can pay my rent on a Friday night,” offers Jen, “I think I’m doing okay. And the rent is a third of what it is down there.” Down there = downtown, North Park, somewhere below 70th.
Speaking of the sangria: just as Jen estimates that 80 to 90 percent of her customers are locals, a local guy wheels his bike into the bar to meet a date. “I still owe you for that stout,” he reminds Jen. “The stout and the sangria,” she replies, nodding at his lady friend. “Oh, she didn’t pay? That’s real convenient,” he says, settling up.
7123 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
When Marcus Peoples bought The Go Lounge (7123 ECB) five years ago, it was a karaoke bar, and Lola Love was sitting inside on a claw machine. (Test your skill!) Lola was a holdover from when the place was the Mad Dog Saloon biker bar, and it was clear from the outset that while the claw machine had to go, Lola had to stay. These days, she’s a hot mess, but she has over 1200 friends on Facebook, and that’s very good for a mannequin with no right hand and no left arm. (Some people have strange taste in souveniers.)
Lola sits in the front corner of the bar, overlooking the pool table with the leopard-skin bumpers, its black felt matching the black vinyl benches that surround it. The vinyl shines under the muddy yellow light of the 1960s hanging lamps. “I bought those before I even found the bar,” says Peoples, a man with his heart in the 1990s (concert posters abound) and his head firmly in the fomenting future. “I like to build websites for businesses I want to start, just to get the feel right.” These days, the owner of the late, lamented Sherman’s Shack is thinking about a restaurant in Tijuana, plus an update for the lounge: tables and chairs for the bar area, new seating on the patio for Monday movie nights, and a more versatile stage space for bands and comedians.
The bar lineup isn’t huge, but it’s solid. Bulleit rye and bourbon, plus Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark; Patrón and Hornitos; Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray; etc. Jameson’s outsells the other whiskeys; Coors the other beers. Trends come and go: Fernet, Fireball, Snakebite. I’m here on a Tuesday. Tuesday has $3 you-call-its from 9 p.m. to midnight. “It used to be $2 for two hours,” explains Peoples (not that any explanation is required), “but I didn’t include things like the Patrón. Also, some people were pounding too much too fast. So I raised the price and extended the time.” Bartender Angela is warm, cheerful, and quick, and the Manhattans are icy, strong, and deep.
A youngster in an unbuttoned Yankees jersey plays pool against an oldster who doesn’t bother with a shirt under his denim vest. Bald black dudes chat with bald white dudes. “We don’t get much of the college crowd,” says Peoples, “unless they’re art students. We’ll have shows here.” To build rapport within the College Business District, the lounge has scheduled a flag-football game against a nearby insurance business. Peoples likes to hunt after spark and grit — that’s what brought him to the Boulevard — but he’s also a businessman, and maybe that insurance guy at quarterback was three rows behind him at the first Lollapalooza.