So the cat’s out of the bag: most of you know that I’ve spent the last eleven months or so in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University and a relatively high sleeve-to-man ratio compared to the rest of the Hoosier state. We were here so that B could get his ducks in a row, and while I rather dreaded the move from Paris to cornfields, the year been much better than I imagined it could be. Evidence, in fact, for my feel-good theory that I can be happy just about anywhere if some nice folks, yummy food, and a decent library surround me. Serious cinemas also help, as do convivial bars. While I abandoned our Booze or Lose feature relatively quickly in my Paris coverage—frankly, I ran out of different pithy ways to say “There’s wine! And beer!”—I thought I’d resuscitate Clarence’s alcoholic alter ego and tell you where you should be drinking in Bloomington should you find yourself here.
If you’re like me, or at least enough like me to want to read this here blargh, you probably want to skip the bars that have a decidedly rapey-frat boy vibe. This unfortunately includes most of the beloved IU watering holes, including Kilroy’s (or as I call it, “Kill Me Now”) and Nick’s. Hoosiers will probably argue with me on the latter count, and I’ll admit that I’ve spent some enjoyable evenings at Nick’s in good company. But let’s get real: tradition aside, the place smells weirdly like antiseptic and old chewing gum, and the draft beer selection isn’t the best. B, the old man on the mountain here in B-Town, councils that while the upstairs can get kind of rough on the weekends, the downstairs area is always a great place for a drink if you want to have a real cream and crimson kind of experience. If it was good enough for Dylan Thomas, it’s good enough for him. B also advises that Hoosier-history lovers should make a stop at The Bluebird, where local legend John Cougar Mellencamp got his start.
If you like a bit better craft beer selection and a hipster grad student crowd (it is a university town, after all, and in Bloomington the Wayfarer-wearer is king), there are effectively five bars remaining in town. I’ll rank them in order from hate to love.
The bar I inexplicably-go-to-sometimes-but-nevertheless-hate-the-most in Bloomington is The Rail, a relative newcomer to the scene. No standing, leather couches, Edison bulbs, small plates of ‘heirloom’ and ‘artisan’ things, and tiny, too-sweet, ten dollar cocktails. You know the drill, dear reader, because places like this have cropped up in every city across the county. Regular readers know how much I generally hate cocktails and cocktail bars. I have a pretty unabashed “learn to drink, loser” attitude towards people who spend their time watering down excellent booze with elderflower soda and key lime foam. The Rail is the kind of place that gets my bile up for precisely that reason: it’s fussy, it’s expensive, and yet it’s lousy. You can’t get out of alive for less than fifty bucks, and yet your wine is the wrong temperature, your cocktail is syrupy, and you’re still hungry after eating six different things. The Rail’s specialty cocktails all involve things like crème de lavande or Saint Germain, as nouveau-cocktail bars often specialize in liqueurs that sound Gallic but that no self-respecting French person would ever be caught drinking. Moreover, for a place that sells itself as a place for seated conversation (they are real sticklers about the no standing at the bar rule), it has quite possibly the worst acoustics in the world. You can barely hear the person sitting next to you, much less have some kind of conversation. All you can do is shout and throw pained glances at your companions when the bill arrives by a waiter in a too-tight leather vest who looked at you blankly when you pointed out that the wine he served was two years younger than advertised. I’d skip the whole affair, if I were you.
The second bar you’ll-hear-about-but-that-I-suggest-you-skip is The Root Cellar in the basement of the overplayed, underwhelming restaurant Farm. Come to think of it, the name might be F.A.R.M., as these type of places are often clever, undisclosed acronyms. The Root Cellar looks like some place where you may have hung out in the mid-90s, a dingy basement with ratty couches and wobbly benches that will snag whatever you happen to be wearing. The booze is fine enough, I guess, but weirdly overpriced for the vibe of the place. Not to again sound like an old lady here with a hearing problem, but the acoustics are as terrible as the ones at The Rail. Don’t expect to hear anything at The Root Cellar besides somebody else’s sorta-boyfriend’s experimental noise trio. If that’s your bag, I wish you well, but I’m a social drinker myself. I either want to chat or dance, and you can’t seem to do much of either in The Root Cellar.
When B moved to Paris, the only game in town for his ilk was The Vid, a giant bar that manages to attract a wide variety of people on any given night. It’s a pretty good bar if you want to hang out with a big group of people and not spend too much money on pitchers of craft beer. You can also play pool and darts, which I particularly enjoy in a kind of talentless way. The Vid is best on weekday nights, when you can colonize a giant table and wile the evening away. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s louder, but still a generally friendly and unpretentious place to hang out. The bartenders are really nice and there’s usually a great local beer from Upland at a special pitcher price. One caveat: don’t sit next to the punching bag game, otherwise you’ll have to listen to the banging of testosterone-bulging boys all night long.
While B was away in Europe, however, the hipster hoards migrated down the street to Atlas (209 South College, Bloomington, Indiana, 47404), a newish place that is just starting to have that lived-in vibe. If you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, read some Foucault and have a masters degree or two, wear horn-rimmed glasses and an inordinate amount of American Apparel, name-drop obscure bourbons, and get excited when New Order comes on the jukebox, Atlas is the place to be. It’s loud, which I obviously don’t like, but it’s a pretty fun place to spend an evening. There’s good DJs on the weekends, and I sloppily danced my birthday away there last winter. The free agents I know report that it is the best place in town to mix and mingle with other single folk. One of the doormen is the crush-object of practically every lady I know. Some of Atlas’ conceits are silly – the oft-broken down photo booth and chalkboard list of songs banned from jukebox come to mind. But it’s a bar that has hit its stride, and I’ve had many good times there.
My favorite part (and this is Clarence talking now) is the fact that The Happy Pig food cart parks outside on the weekends, offering their succulent Notorious P.I.G.G. sandwich: toast, crispy-gooey Gunthorp pig belly, Indiana maple syrup, and a perfectly fried egg. Now that’s an undisclosed acronym I can get behind, as the P.I.G.G. is the ultimate in drunk food, and the best game in town at 2 a.m. on a Friday night.
For those of you that are still awake, with four down, we have finally arrived at the best bar in Bloomington. And the winner is…
The Bishop (123 South Walnut Street, Bloomington, Indiana, 47401). Hands-down. The bar, which is always without a cover charge, has an amazing rotating selection of regional craft beers on tap for totally reasonable prices. Recently, with the acquisition of a liquor license, the bar added a serious selection of the hard stuff, including one of the most varied and interesting bourbon lists I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the bartenders know their stuff, and given some information can clue you in to things you’ll really like. The crowd is a little older, with a mix of university folk and townies. The Bishop also houses a great small music venue, and all the best bands seem to make The Bishop their one stop in Southern Indiana. I caught Nat Baldwin there, along with an excellent Pogues cover band called the Fauxgues. Local favorites The Vallures made my New Years Eve one of my best ones yet, as I danced to their sweet Motown covers until the early hours of the morning. Finally—and here’s the cranky old lady motif again—while the room with the stage is loud, the bar itself is pretty quiet, making the booths a great place to chat with friends (or, in our case, play over-zealous games of Euchre). I’ll miss The Bishop, and hope you make a stop there should you find yourself in Bloomington.
Sing us out, Tom.
Are you guys still following Monsieur Bigoudis’ photos on flickr? Just because I fancy myself a decent photographer nowadays (snort) doesn’t mean that you still shouldn’t be looking at the real deal on a regular basis. In particular, I’m loving her work from a trip to Japan this past spring:
Sigh. I have such a totally rose-colored romance about Japan, likely the result of watching Sans Soleil a few too many times. It’s totally at the top of my travel wish list, no thanks to M’s gorgeous images of her trip.
My girl also recently clued me in to a little YouTube gem: Wim Wenders’ documentary about the people who make the wax food replicas that decorate many of the entrances of restaurants around Japan (and Japanese restaurants the world over). Too too cool.
Hope you are having a great weekend, sweet reader. Let’s hook up for ramen later, yes?
MC, a good friend from my time California, has relocated to Chicago for the past two years. Despite my best intentions, I hadn’t managed to spend any time with him despite our relative geographic proximity this year. This was remedied when he drove out to the lake during our stay, both to escape the city heat and for a long awaited catch-up. B had never met MC before, so I prefaced the visit with the two most important things I know about my friend: (1) He likes Steely Dan better than anybody has liked Steely Dan, like, ever, and (2) He judges the quality of SoCal Mexican places by the quality and quantity of the escabeche on their salsa bar. Jalapeño to carrot ratio, spiciness level, container quality — the guy can tell you everything you want to know about every taco bar in the greater LA area.
It’s a great thing when you can fall back into step with a friend after not having seen them for years. One of the things that bums me out the most about the current state of my life is the feeling that all the people I like best seem to be scattered to the four winds. MC and B got along famously, supporting yet another iteration of my fantasy where all of my friends move to the same city and we live a blissed-out life together. I’ve always been a “family that you choose” kind of gal, and wish that all the folks that my good fortune has brought into my life could all be together somehow. But until we all meet again in Valhalla, visits like last weekend will have to suffice.
A decidedly well-mannered houseguest, MC arrived bearing the perfect gifts for Clarence. A pack of Daisy Cutter Pale Ale from the Half Acre Beer Company in Chicago was a delightful surprise, as was the paper-wrapped submarine sandwich smuggled across state lines from Bari Italian Subs. But far and away, the best gift he brought (and a strong contender for the Best Hostess Gift Ever Award) was this:
Do you guys know about giardiniera? I sure didn’t until this year. It’s no surprise that my escabeche-loving friend is also an appreciator of this amazing stuff. The consummate condiment of the Italian population of the greater Chicago area (and everybody else with a brain), this combination of pickled hot peppers, olives, bell peppers, carrots, celery, cauliflower, garlic, and the occasional mushroom is the ultimate addition to virtually any sandwich. As MC so rightly put it, something totally alchemical happens when giardiniera meets mayonnaise.
I was introduced to the stuff immediately upon my arrival in the Windy City last fall. B talked dirty to me the entire flight back to the states from Paris about our first meal on our native soil: Portillo’s Italian Beef with giardiniera. Like the French dip sandwich of your childhood (but better), Chicago’s famous Italian beef sandwiches get their verve from the crunchy, spicy, tangy, salty taste of giardiniera. The stuff is fantastic on any kind of deli meat sandwich. MC recommended that we try putting it on a pizza with some Italian sausage, which sounds like a really excellent goal for the future.
Mezzetta (you know, ‘Don’t forgetta!) makes a kind of passable version of the stuff that I’ve seen in grocery stores outside of the Midwest. Here in Indiana, our fridge is never without a jar of the Dell’Alpe’s hot giardiniera relish, which I slather on grilled cheese sandwiches and mix with the yolks of my devilled eggs. You can also get a pretty fantastic giardiniera on your sandwich at the Potbelly chain, which sells a delicious, if overpriced, version in jars at some of their locations. But MC knows his stuff, and Bari’s giard’ is the best one around. He advises to give it a rough chop if you are putting it in a sandwich, and to go whole hog should you want to sprinkle it on a pizza. This jar is coming with us to California next week when we move as a memento of our year of giardiniera eating.
Get some if you can, dear reader. And whether your summer includes this Midwestern heat or not, hope you are staying cool. Sing us out, Steely:
You arrive at her house for a visit, and a “casual lunch on the patio” consists of red caviar and blinchiki (Russian crêpes), festooned with sour cream and fresh dill. Oh, and a perfect salad of fresh radishes, green onions, and cucumbers. Side effects of caviar-on-landing may include weakness in the knees, but Japanese beer is a good remedy for that.
What’s for dinner when a Soviet loves you? Homemade golubtsy (stuffed cabbage rolls) topped with more sour cream, of course. Sour cream is an important component of Soviet love. Side effects of golubtsy-love may include bloating and boasting.
Have you found the love of a Soviet Jew? Then lunch the following day will probably be shuba, that fuchsia salad of Eastern-European Jewish diaspora, made of salted herring, potatoes, carrots, beets, onion, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and dill. My Soviet is an expert at using the smallest amount of mayonnaise humanly possible, so her shuba never gloppy. Side effects of shuba-love may include eating beets for breakfast and excessive bragging on your blog.
Merci beaucoup, M!
After two summers in France—scampering around Parc Belleville trying to get a view of the Bastille Day fireworks and glumly eating hamburgers at Maison Mère on July 4th proper—we were pretty hungry for some good old-fashioned American pyrotechnic patriotism. So this past weekend we headed up to Michigan to the lake where B’s folks live and spent two lazy days swimming, boating, boozing, and eating guacamole and barbecued chicken until we were cross-eyed (well, the last one might have been just me). On Saturday night, we headed out on the pontoon boat and gleefully lay underneath a fantastic fireworks display, close enough to the action that ashes fell on our faces. Afterward we made s’mores around a fire, chatting until the wee hours of the night with friends and family. It was pretty idyllic, if I do say so myself.
I’ve gotten my July 4th rocks off, so to speak, but nevertheless we’re having a little shindig here in Bloomington tonight to celebrate this most red-white-and-blue of all holidays, Wednesday or not. We were originally planning a barbecue in the early afternoon, but a week of 100 degree plus days has meant that standing outside around a grill would surely have killed off any ambient patriotism, not to mention the grillmaster. I’d give my kingdom for central air conditioning! Anyway, we shifted to cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and porch-sitting this evening. I conceded spicy pickled okra to B, he conceded that I could make a joke about “sangria of our forefathers” as much as I wanted. I’ve heard a rumor that one of my friends is bringing hot pink, pickled, devilled eggs, a down-home recipe from her West Virginia family. Be still my heart. I’ll provide documentary evidence if such a thing does materialize.
In the meantime, I hope wherever this finds you, dear reader, that you’re staying cool and wearing your sunscreen. And to the Americans out there (both at home and abroad), may you find yourself with a drink in hand and firework ashes on your face.