Some of my favorite bars also happen to be some of the smallest in the world. I don’t really go looking for them. Maybe there is something sub-conscious about wanting to drink within small confines. I don’t mind small crowds but large throngs pressing around me sometimes make me dizzy and ill at ease.
There is a large square in Munich called Marienplatz and the city hall is located there. (I have always loved the German name for city hall, it is called Rathaus.) Everyday by noon the square is filled with tourists from all over the world to see the famous clock with little characters that pop out and run around in a circle every hour as well as Munichers on their way from here to there.
When my wife and I were staying in Munich a few years ago at the apartment of our dear friend Luisa Klein on Stollberg Strasse we had to cross the Marienplatz to get to our favorite supermarket located in the basement of the huge department store Kaufhof.
If we were too late in getting out of the apartment we dreaded crossing the square because of the crowds. She and I both noticed a reluctance to do this late in the day although neither of us knew it made the other queasy. When we finally realized we were both subject to the same reaction we named it “Marienplatz.” To this day if there are too many people around or we start to feel uncomfortable we merely say let’s get out of here I’m feeling Marienplatzed and we know exactly what we mean.
I found no small bars in Munich. They tend to be big and beer-hallish. There is one amazing bar named Schumann’s but that is another story. I found a very small one in Lausanne recently during a sojourn when my wife was invited to present some films at the Lausanne Underground Film Festival, a brilliant event held every fall.
While walking near our hotel I stumbled upon a long meandering pedestrian walk filled with shops on either side. Everything you needed could be found there from food and drinks to clothing and office supplies. It was a perfect little pedestrian area. On that street was a tiny little bar in the ground floor of a rather tall and narrow building that looked as if it had been there hundreds of years. The bar was called Pinte Besson and I slipped inside to wet my whistle and had a lovely time.
The absolute king of all small bars is also the bar where I was served my first drink. Although it no longer exists it was located in the Chinatown section of downtown Los Angeles. It was attached to a restaurant called Yee Mee Loo.
The bar was probably 25 feet long and no wider than a large automobile. It was long, narrow and dark as night any time of day. There were no windows and the ornately carved bar with Chinese motif was itself a work of art. It was the bar where time stood still. You might have noticed but it also had a clock with the numbers reversed that ran backwards so you never really knew what time it was.
The bar at Yee Mee Loo had two legendary bartenders over the years I knew it. The first was Alan. I never learned his last name but he retired after many years and I heard he moved to Honolulu. He was a bartender’s bartender, friendly without being officious, efficient without being rude. I miss him still.
The next bartender was nothing like his predecessor. His name was Richard Mah and among the two-dozen or so meanings of the sound “mah” in Chinese, one is horse. No name could have been more appropriate as Richard’s passion for horse racing was Runyon-esque. Before the bar opened at 4:00 PM or on the rare day off I sometimes ran into him at the racetrack.
When I went to the bar I was often with my good friend Daniel and I suppose Sean is not too easy to remember so, although I was as loyal a customer as is humanly possible, nevertheless whenever I walked into the bar he always greeted me with, “Hi Dan.” The fact that after many years I didn’t mind one bit is a testament to his kindness, generosity and skill as a world class mixmaster.
Richard spoke very little English and what he said I venture to guess no one understood but somehow he did his job with all the skill and grace of an Olympic athlete. Indeed if there was an Olympics of bartending Richard was a gold medallist. If I miss Alan I shed a tear for Richard. Several years ago I heard he was working at another bar in Chinatown. I hope he is still there.
The final bar on my list of tiny swill shacks, I have been to only once. We were in Tokyo for an exhibition of artwork by my late father-in-law, Al Hansen. Our son Channing was performing one of his grandfather’s performances and the exhibition was at the LA Foret Gallery atop a large building full of shops in the Harajuku section. We were staying at the Okura in Akasaka not far away.
One night we decided to go out for a drink at the invitation of our curator Wayne Baerwaldt of Winnipeg. He said he knew of a bar that we might all enjoy. I trust Wayne implicitly when it comes to drinks.
Finding anything in Tokyo is daunting even for people who have lived there all of their lives. The reason is there are no addresses. There are addresses of course but they are not numbered sequentially. In addition many of the streets in the former Edo were plotted precisely to confound invaders. Apparently several hundred years later the plan is still quite effective.
We set out in search of our bar. We knew the name and the general area. It is said that the only people who know where an actual address is are the postmen and the neighborhood police wardens. This accounts for the plethora of mini police kiosks in almost every area of the city. Since there is very little crime in Tokyo their main responsibility has become giving directions.
It was about 11 at night and most of the postmen were sleeping, I presume, but the policemen were in their little white cabanas waiting for some thirsty unassuming tourists to wander by. We did not disappoint.
If you’re wondering why buildings are not numbered sequentially I can’t tell you. What I can say is that they are numbered in the order they are built according to block. So building number 17 could be next to building number 29 which is next to building number 12. I am certain we could not have found our destination without the friendly Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
Many buildings in Tokyo hold literally hundreds of bars. A twenty-story building for example could have ten bars per floor. That makes 200 bars in that one building. The good part is that they usually have some sort of lighted sign at the street level indicating which bars occupy that building. It is sort of like going to the doctor. But in Tokyo you could actually find a bar where it was like going to a doctor and the nurse would examine you in ways, well… perhaps that’s another article as well.
We finally arrived at the bar called simply, Vivienne. We thought we were too late and had missed all the fun. There were only a couple of very pretty young ladies at the tiny bar and we assumed that the night was winding down. It was near midnight.
Not at all, we were told it really picks up after 1 AM and besides the hostess wasn’t even there yet. We must stay. There is only one booth at Vivienne. Or at least I only remember one. There are a few seats at a bar about 6 feet long and some stools to one side. The remainder of the bar is open but you couldn’t open a suitcase in there without bumping someone.
Wayne decided to share the booth in European tavola grande fashion. Sitting at the same booth was a distinguished Caucasian gentleman smoking a cigar. I worked in a cigar store as a kid so I knew it was good, Davidoff or Partagas, probably Cuban.
He and Wayne began speaking while I slowly realized that all the young ladies in the bar were actually very pretty lady-boys. They were gorgeous and we admired everything about them, their hair, their clothes, their makeup. They were all dressed to kill.
After a short time the conversation came to what we were doing in Tokyo. “We’re here for an exhibition at LaForet” said Wayne.
“Oh really, whose?” asked the distinguished gentleman. “Al Hansen,” said Wayne. The next thing to come out of the stranger’s mouth made my jaw drop.
“I knew Al Hansen. I used to see him at Chin’s Bar in Cologne,” said the stranger. “I thought you looked familiar,” said Wayne and after some brief and intense introductions I learned we were all sitting at a drag bar in Tokyo with the artist Joseph Kosuth.
He told us a little more about the bar and a short while later introduced us to the owner, the inimitable Vivienne Sato. By day he is Takaki Sato, working in the studio of architect Arata Isozaki but at night he sheds the suit and tie, gets dressed up and becomes Vivienne. Sato is also an accomplished artist in his own right and certainly a fixture on the Tokyo social scene.
It was a lovely evening spent in the company brilliant and talented individuals in one of the tiniest bars I have ever seen. If you should find yourself in Tokyo I recommend a visit. You never know who you might run into. If you get lost just ask a policeman.