Letters from the Drinking Town #4 – Leo’s Ristorante

Dear Worcester,

Leo’s is a neon sign on Shrewsbury Street. It’s a fancy curlicue sign with red letters that states “Leo’s.” It makes you think of old times on the shore with the family back when men wore hats. That’s all it ever was for me in the near two decades I have lived in and around Worcester. An art installation more than a restaurant.

The restaurant proper is a few hundred paces back away from the street. I never felt the need to go there. I never heard of anyone recommending it. The only thing I might have been told is that it used to be a great old school Italian place but now the kids are running it and it’s not what it used to be. You hear that thing all the time. “The kids don’t have the heart the old man had for the joint.” That has been said as long as there have been family businesses. It doesn’t mean that it is true.

I have had no desire to try it out for the gin and tonic tour. Maybe because every time I mentioned it, people would pshaw it and say it ain’t worth it. So I skipped it when I hit 144 places for gin and tonics and the world did not break asunder.  I came back to do the new bars and restaurants last year and Leo’s didn’t even cross my mind. Now here I am on the third go round of bars in Worcester and I figured that I might hit the places I overlooked or ignored. While sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I made a list of joints to hit and get a gin and tonic. For some reason, I caught myself writing down Leo’s. And so that is how it happened.

At 6:45 on a Wednesday (during restaurant week) I parked the car and walked down what felt like a back alley to the front of Leo’s. I wasn’t sure. I felt like a lobby to a forgotten hotel. I found the door and on my right was the mostly empty dining room. Greeted me was a mass produced sign that said, “Seat yourself.”

Okay, call me a snob. But if I want to seat myself, I will get my dinner at a food truck and find a nice bench to rest upon. If I am going to a restaurant that is not known to be cheap, I want someone to greet me at the door with pleasant efficiency. I want them to look at the table chart and find me the best and proper table. I want a smile and a, “This way please.” Is that so much to ask?

Apparently so. No one even acknowledged my confused presence.

I had to navigate the strange old setting myself. I looked down a short hallway and thought it was a good bet there might be a bar there. The pictures on the wall were family portraits, the owner and his wife I guess. It was more like going through a hallway in a friend’s family house, looking for the bathroom then looking for a place to have a drink.

I did find the bar and had an eight dollar gin and tonic. Do I have to even state that it was okay at best. The bartenders seemed preoccupied. There were three couples there at the bar, all eating and drinking. None of the food looked appetizing. They were just pasta with red sauce glopped on it like it was an Italian Restaurant themed horror movie: On Top of Satan’s Spaghetti!!!!

Outside of one of the bartenders, I was the youngest one there by about two decades. And I’m in my late forties. No one was excited to be there. It was the day to go out eating and so they were. I tried to think of something to write about but was stymied. The place is a tired joint filled with tired people.

To make my point, the bathroom has an ad on the wall for Charlton Manor Rest Home/ Assisted Living. I’m not knocking it, they know the right place to advertise. The copy reads in part “We are a small elegant home with many special feature, you will feel like you are visiting a Bed and Breakfast or an Old Inn.” Which is different from the feel at Leo’s – the Neon Sign that Walks Like a Dining Location.

On the wall of the bar area was a large painting that no doubt was purchased at Home Goods. It had a young stylish woman in a black dress at a bar. The bar was classic wood and was inviting. The view was from behind. Her head was turned so you spied her in profile. She held a martini glass aloft. She seemed poised and pleased. I thought to myself, “Why can’t I go there?”

Well that was snarkier than I thought it would be.

Until next time,

Dante of Worcester

A Letter from the Drinking Town #3 – Poetry in Bars and Towels

Dear Worcester,

Every now and then, heading for home, I will stop by Breen’s Cafe to have a beer and watch a little of the Bruins game. I only want to stop there if the Bruins are playing, don’t ask me why. For whatever reason, if I get the chance, that’s where I want to watch hockey.

Last week, the Bruins were playing and I was driving by, so I stopped and got a beer (this is not one of those letters where I write about a new bar to try a gin and tonic in. This is a letter about being at a bar in Worcester and what I and others find in those moments. I figure I will share these with you, if you don’t mind.) The Bruins were doing just fine and the beer was cold. People were talking and having a nice time.

And then I had to use the men’s room.

It’s a bar. There is beer. This is an act that occurs often in such an establishment. I went into the stall and noticed a linen tea towel framed and hung above the toilet. There was a poem on the towel, an old yellowing thing. Around the words were the pearly gates, bottles of spirits, a glass of wine. The things you expect in a bar. Well, maybe not the pearly gates. But that is in the poem.

 

Let me give you the words to the poem that greeted me in the bathroom stall in Breen’s.

He deserves a hero’s medal for the many lives he’s saved, And upon the Roll of Honour his name should be engraved. He deserves a lot of credit for the way he stands the strain. For the yarns he has to swallow would drive most of us insane.

He must pay the highest licence, he must pay the highest rent. He must battle with his bank and pay their ten percent. And when it comes to paying bills, he’s always on the spot. He pays for what he sells, whether you pay him or not.

And when you walk into his Bar, he’ll greet you with a smile. Be you a workman dressed in overalls or a banker dressed in style. If you’re Irish English Scotch or Welsh, it doesn’t matter what. He’ll treat you like a gentleman, unless you prove you’re not. Yet the clergy in the pulpit and the preacher in the hall. Will assure him that the Churches are against him one and all. But when the Churches plan to hold a ballot or bazaar. They start by selling tickets to the man behind the bar.

When he retires a job well done, to await six feet of soil, Discards his coat and apron, no more on earth to toil. As Saint Peter sees him coming, he will leave those gates ajar. For he knows he had his Hell on Earth, THE MAN BEHIND THE BAR

Now let me say that I didn’t read the poem there. I just realized what it was and took a picture of it on my phone. I then did a search and found it on the internet. Cut and paste and here it is. I didn’t do much heavy lifting. I learned that this poem has been around for a long time. In some places, the poet is Hasty Peter. Hasty writing from Hasty Peter. But for the most parts it is an anonymous poem to be read in a bar for a bar audience.

Which brings up the question, was I expected to read it right there in the toilet stall? Was I going to give me much respected private time to the reading of bar poetry? In the past, were there lines for the john as people finished reading the fine literature waiting for them there?

Before cell phone cameras and internet searches, how did anyone read poetry in public? Did people stand in front of framed tea towels in bars across the county and quietly and conscientiously study the words of the beer soaked bards? Was there slurred discussion of metaphor and hyperbole? Well, there is always metaphor in hyperbole in every bar conversation.

Have we lost one of the great joys of bar going. The reading of accidental literature? I have already said that there needs to be an art walk of bars. Do we need a poetry walk through bars as well? I don’t know if that’s necessary, there is so much poetry in bars to begin with.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love that Breen’s has this piece of doggerel in the bathroom. It feels like what an Irish sports bar should do. It is honest and fun. I know of a few bars that put up the sports page behind plexiglass above bathroom urinals. Getting a tea towel poem is just so much better than the Red Sox box scores.

The poem ain’t much. And it is a little exaggerated about the plight of the man behind the bar, and the rhyme scheme is a little haggard. But like I said, a bar should always have poetry in it, even the stilted kind.

Till Next Time

Dante of Worcester

 

Letter from the Drinking Town #2 – Yummy Steak House

Dear Worcester,

Since the last time, I went to two more bars and had gin and tonics. Well, they are both restaurants with bars. There is a big distinction. It’s the big question of this walking around and settling in for a drink and then walking to the next place. The question, are you in a bar with food, are you at a restaurant where you can get a drink? It’s where you place the emphasis. Like how you say Aunt. Do you say it like Ant or Ahnt. I say it like Ant, which must mean I prefer to go into a bar with food. If the bar doesn’t have food, or if the kitchen has been accidentally phased into another realm of existence and then only thing available is liquor, I am fine with that state of affairs.

I went to two last Wednesday. I hit Yummy Steak House and Leo’s. Both of them are
definitely Restaurants with bars attached to them. For this letter, I think I will only talk about Yummy. I have enough to say about Leo’s and I don’t want to overwhelm with my comments, because you know me, how I do go on and on. There is no stopping me.

Actually, that is not completely true. I have one drink on this expedition of bars and then I am done. I don’t do food, I just have one gin and tonic and move along. I always write like I walk from bar to bar. From place to place. Like some western Palladin, Have Drink Card Will Travel. But the truth is, there is no way to go from place to place in Worcester without a car. It kind of takes a little of the mystique out of a bar excursion.

Yummy Steak House is a Sushi Bar, Hibachi joint, and Asian restaurant. On its off hours, it also fights crime. 1121 Grafton Street is where it is. Another Asian restaurant was there before this. The bones of it is what you would expect. A large area for hibachi tables, a room with a colorful bar, tables for diners and an area for the sushi to be made. There was keno and sports on the flat screen. There were bright neon colors for accent. Nothing out of place. Well, maybe I was out of place.

Because I wasn’t eating. There were folks at the bar but all having drinks and appetizers, as you should. The bartender gave me a menu. The manager asked if I needed some little snack to help soak up all that good booze sloshing in my belly. He actually didn’t say it like that, he was very polite. The drink was alright, good enough, for 7.50. If you are at a restaurant with a license to sling booze, you are truly odd man out if you just want a drink. I mean, how many people come to this place you have to drive to and is known for their hibachi and not their cocktails and just get a mixed drink? Not a hell of a lot. They didn’t throw me out, naturally, I was there and it was fine.

I hear good things about the food. That it is a really good hibachi joint and the sushi is good as well. But that is all hearsay. But that’s not what I want to talk to you about. It’s about the name. Yummy.

The place is called Yummy. I can’t help myself. I want to mock it. I want to make fun of it. I want to say that that is the dumbest name for a restaurant ever. That is courting so many dismissive comments. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

That’s what I want to do, and I guess I did. But I want to couch it. One is a friend heard I went there and said its cultural. That some Asian places name themselves that way. My friend said the best sushi he ever had was a place in California called Happy Sushi.

The next thing is that I have a bartender friend who says yummy. He will make a complicated cocktail and taste it and say, “That’s yummy.” That’s right, the only person I know who says yummy on a regular basis is referring to coladas and mojito variations.

Maybe we should say it more. Maybe we would be a happier people if grown men and women could go to a place and call it yummy. Were there less wars? Would racial antagonism dissipate and recede like a summer rain? Would be worthy of being yummy in a yummy world?

I heard the food is yummy. The well gin and tonic was basic and just passable, but that’s just a well highball. We are not judging it by its sushi or its hibachi flaming onion. We are judging it on its side effort. It’s a nice place to sit and watch the Keno numbers. Maybe the food is yummy. One would hope.

Until Next Time

Dante of Worcester

A Letter from the Drinking Town #1 – The Ballot Box

Dear Worcester,

Hi Worcester, it’s Dante and I am happy to write to you after eight months.

What is it about March that makes me thirsty with curiosity? Three years ago in March of 2014 I started a silly project where I was to go to every bar in Worcester and have a gin and tonic and then write about it. I went to 144 bars in 18 months. This is no world record but it was fun. Then last March I got the itch, the urge to check out other bars I had not gotten to. I went to 13 bars in four months. That was fun and I thought it was over and my itch had been scratched but here we are, in March once more. March, time to go out and see bars. Have a gin and tonic and try to live to tell the tale.

I was driving into Worcester today to see a friend, to sit down at a bar and write up a report for work and then out of nowhere, I said, “It’s time to have a gin and tonic.” And like that, I have started up these letters to you. I know of a few new bars so I will have places to try. The closest place for my needs was The Ballot Box.

The Ballot Box is located at 9-17 Kelley Square. It is where the Grey Hound Pub and for a little bit a hot spot called Varsity resided. Even though I went there, I couldn’t remember its name and had to check my notes to remember Varsity. Former Sheriff Glodis has now created the Ballot Box. In one of the articles about its opening, Mr. Glodis stated that he wants it to be the Hard Rock Cafe for the political set. I’m sorry, but he should aim higher.

I went in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Around two. Yes, Worcester, I know that is not the best time to see a bar and get what it is about, but that is the time I had. Also, if a bar is open, it is open. The off hours is a time a bar shows its real face, the time it greets you without its makeup on and wearing only a worn housecoat.

I went in and there were three or four at the bar and in the second room, at tables there were another ten or twelve or so. Not bad for a cold Sunday. The bartender was good. Friendly. Greeted people when they came in. I got a tall gin and tonic for 6.25. He asked if I wanted a lime. It was fine. Nothing special, but pretty good.

The place is clean and open. The second room is great. It has black leather furniture to sit and move and shake Worcester politics I suppose. I suppose. Or talk about the Bruins or the Red Sox or why that girl won’t call him back. You know, the important inebriate conversations.

The walls are full with wonderful old Campaign Posters. There is an old ballot box on the floor. I spent a good time looking at the posters. They were awesome and worth the time to go and have a beer.

Seeing the posters is like going to an art gallery. Which made me think that what we need is a walking tour of Worcester Bar Art. All the places where you can see interesting art and have a shot of whisky. Ballot Box will be on the tour, as well as Nick’s, Vincent’s, Ralph’s, George’s, Electric Haze, Guertin’s. (I’m not kidding, I want to make this happen. A tour of art you can see in a bar in town. A little guide book and a description of the art. More on this as we move forward)

There was an old school bar shuffle board in the second room and it was cool, but I do recall a bar owner looking down on things like that. It takes up room and doesn’t make money for the bar. Not a good thing, in the opinion of this one bar owner. On the other hand, it was pretty cool.

Before I go on. I like the bar. It was clean and presentable and fun. And now…

Here is my problem with it. The idea that the bar has a theme. That it is a political bar. I don’t like the idea that the bar can force a theme on any establishment. How can Mr. Glodis say that it will be a political joint. Are people forced to talk about Trump or Warren or McGovern? Will they pass out conversation starters? Will you be cut off for talking about movies or sports or knitting techniques?

It brings to mind when I take my eight year son out for dinner and he looks at me seriously and states, “Now we will have a talk Daddy. We will talk about our favorite characters from the Harry Potter books.” Or we will talk about what is the best Star Wars movie. Or it is decreed to be only what the best part of the Dr. Strange Movie was.

And for my son, I will jump into that conversation with crazed enthusiasm. But going to a bar, where I paid more than six bucks for my gin and tonic, I don’t know if I will be so enticed. “And now, Daddy, we will talk about the issues of the second amendment in regards to immigration.” I guess we could have that talk, but I don’t know if I would like it as much as saying that Lucius Mallfoy is my favorite Harry Potter bad guy.

Give a bar credit. Let it be what it wants. It might be called the Ballot Box. But the only politics of it is that it is a Meat Market, or a Gay Bar, a Sport Bar, or a high end joint to have a good drink in a clean glass. None of those are bad, of course. But all of those are not pushed upon the bar by the owners. Let the customers determine what it is. Let the customers tell you what kind of a bar they are drinking in.

Until Next Time,

Dante of Worcester