Dive, He Said

Editor's note: You won't find any food in this Cafe column--strange things happen when award-winning food writer Howard Seftel takes a vacation. This week our guest columnist describes one of his favorite food-free environments. Welcome to saloon society.

King's Lounge, 434 North Central, 495-1597
Phoenix, now outfitted with its own high-gloss, low-caliber pro baseball team that plays in its own posh, government-subsidized housing, seems to be a city blinded by progress and development. In our sketchy urban wonder, culture is something that takes shape only when enough cash is thrown around to buy it and hang it on a wall, rather than when its people find something through which they can define themselves. Commerce takes precedence over culture; and so, mass wholesale demolition often destroys our most obvious pieces of heritage before their unique importance in our culture, landscape and shared history is distinguished.

But not all is lost. Something remains of our ephemeral cultural past. Lingering in a reductivist, second-class, low-life status are vague reminders of post-WW I and WW II optimism: Forgotten motels and hotels, bars, restaurants, even brothels stubbornly survive on dispossessed strips, or among sterile commercial architecture and primary-colored stucco boxes on busy city streets.

King's Lounge is such a place; it has overcome the odds, hanging on downtown while Phoenix spews itself east, west, north and south, sprawling grid after grid, miles from the city's core, while antidrinking political correctness kills the corner bar as a place for social gathering and casual conversation.

Sandwiched between the ornate Jungle adult cabaret and an abandoned art-deco facade, King's is easy to spot. The sucker-punch of its vintage neon beacon is 100 percent cocktail-glass glory from the golden age of sign-making, when neon signs became advertising art and sold an image-over-content message of hopeful anticipation. One can't pass it up--just on the strength of the offer.

Inside, the nicotine-stained scene has all the beauty of a vintage dive bar minus any trendy, train-jumping "Cocktail Nation" pretenses. At King's one would never see Sinatra-suited college kids who smoke cigars, listen to swing and wield dad's credit card while ordering from a list of martinis. King's only serves one kind of martini: the right one.

King's Lounge is the real deal: career drunks, sunburned blue-collar beer-swills, occasional slumming white-collar types and colorful downtown regulars. There is a feeling of family here, a sense of community, a sense that dialogue and communication are important among strangers, as well as those who make King's part of their routine. In fact, many of King's regulars reside around the corner in the Westward Ho retirement home, and it is typical for a bartender to put in a phone call of concern when one of them doesn't show for a few days.

One regular, who is customarily escorted home to the Westward by a bartender, is a neighborly black gentleman christened "Killer" because the cane he carries doubles as a weapon to "kill anyone who tries to mug" him. He really couldn't kill anybody; he's just an old geezer with a sense of humor.

Once, when my partner and I were leaving, a heartbreakingly fragile career drunk said while raising a feeble toast of draft beer: "If ya make one, name 'em after me, he he he he he he . . ."

On a recent visit, we met a young guy who was in town scouting locations for a movie and came into King's because "it's the only bar in Phoenix that reminds me of New York." One night we met a 50-something-year-old named Ralph Gordy who sang the hit "Do You Love Me" in 1962 when he sang in the pop group the Contours. He says his uncle started Motown Records. Now he's singing songs for a buck and lives in a nearby flophouse.

It's that kind of place.
Sporadic visits by white suburban yup types for whom King's is nothing more than a stop on a round of bar-diving miss the point: They may think King's fits their milieu of "dive-bar decadence" because it's old, it's inner-city, and it has a high percentage of brown people drinking in it. But King's is more than that. It's a bar frequented by people from all walks of life, and it maintains a refreshingly nonjudgmental atmosphere. DJ audio assaults and big-screen TV aesthetics are shunned here in favor of good, old-fashioned social intercourse. People talk here.

King's Lounge is two high-ceilinged rooms split by Spanish arches. On one side, a bar with vintage accouterments runs a good 40 feet along the east/west length of the place; behind it, a mirror outlined with a string of lights above an illuminated fish tank. (King's folklore has it that the owner was once regularly kissed on the lips by a rather large tilapia fish named Henry who inhabited the aquarium.) Beneath are rows and rows of liquor bottles, some long undisturbed as told by the accumulation of dust on their caps. A handful of tables lines the opposite wall. An alcove is pure rec room, containing two pool tables and fly-away booze ads with images of happy, young, fit Americans drinking the latest lite strain. Ceiling fans spin above, while a CD jukebox offers twang running the Conway Twitty-to-Sheryl Crow gamut, 10 to a buck. Beer flows cheaply at 95 cents a glass and $4.75 for a large pitcher.

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