The Rise of Pompeii

Clubs like Pompeii and the Acme Roadhouse prove that there's life beyond Mill Avenue

More and more, Tempe is becoming an enemy of the state. Developers are encouraging the growth of an already overly saturated downtown area, and businesses are being forced to relocate. Even McDonald's--a company with a seemingly infallible reputation for success--was unable to survive on Mill Avenue. Some say that hungry patrons found a much happier meal upstairs at Hooters, while others blame the lack of a drive-through McWindow for the golden arches' downfall. It's hard to be sure, but, more than likely, Mill Avenue has become too upscale to cater to those looking for "value meals."

It's no wonder, then, that the area offers very little in the way of club activity. Plagued by a number of bad locations and leasing prospects, the available spots are either too risky or too expensive for most willing entrepreneurs to take a chance on. Those are among the reasons the Acme Roadhouse and Pompeii were set up off the beaten path and in relatively out-of-the-way spots. The fact that these establishments have beaten the odds and prospered would seem to indicate that there is life beyond Mill Avenue after all.

An awkward left turn from Rural just south of University brings you to the former home of Dick's Drive-In and Cluck-U Chicken. Now host to Acme, the location is enjoying the kind of traffic that the previous tenants only dreamed of. "We got established in Scottsdale first. That's where our whole friendly neighborhood-bar credo began," claims Acme general manager Dave Kiepe from his office in Scottsdale. "As far as our dealing with any perceived location curse, we merely put forth great effort in hopes of getting back what we put in. Plus, it's fortunate that the synergy created from the surrounding bars sort of makes this corner of Tempe a destination."

Regardless of the communal benefits, Thursday is always Acme's busiest evening. The vibe is classy while still laid-back, a point that best illustrates the fine line between Scottsdale impressanariums and even the more upscale locations in Tempe.

Heather Ellsworth, a faithful regular, clarifies the distinction: "It's not real stuffy like Scottsdale, and the music has a great variety--there's never too much techno." Sure enough, within a 30-minute period, I heard Lauryn Hill, the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House," "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman," and the Venga Boys' crossover house smash "We Like to Party." All this music blended together to produce an unusual aural cocktail, which was lots of fun until I tasted the bitter flavor of two Refreshments songs. Just as the DJ dropped "It Takes Two," my attention was diverted by the female bartenders wearing Acme's infamous, ultra-low-cut baby tees.

The service here is good enough to go unnoticed. Those tending bar definitely hustle, and, like speeding L.A. commuters, no matter how fast they go, they never seem to bump into each other. An exuberant customer named Bri King says, "They [Acme] cater to you totally here, the food is yummy, and you can go outside and get a drink, too, if you want. They're so attentive. Just like they are at Axis/Radius."

Moving away from the bar, she continues, "I love it [Acme]. I've never heard one complaint about the music, and there's a good variety of people in a chill atmosphere. Thursday is a good night, lots of people, no fights, and you can come as you are because there's no dress code. Still, everybody looks good."

Seizing the opportunity to get everything off her chest, King offers a common criticism of Tempe fashion. "In this town, too many people are wearing collared shirts and khaki pants. We need more style. I mean, I can look around here and tell that some of these guys aren't being themselves because they feel like they have to wear this stuff because their friends or the guys in their fraternity do. They're worried about everyone else, but I can see why because my own friends won't even talk to a guy if he's not dressed in something cool or accepted--no matter how cute he may be."

A decidedly different vibe is in effect only a mile down the road at Pompeii--the longest-running club to have ever taken up residence at 919 East Apache. Those familiar with the address may recall some of the previous failures that have called that location home. Max's 919, Senor Frogg's, and Eclipse are among the venues that opened their doors only to have little more than the hot Phoenix wind blow through. Structurally, the building has always boasted great potential, but the plans of previous owners to utilize the space were either short on money or effort to really work.

Undoubtedly, the fact that Pompeii is open after hours accounts for a great deal of its popularity. For a clubber on the east side, a drive to central Phoenix's Crowbar may be a bit too much. Chances are, the tired and tipsy will end up going home or eating at Denny's, while those still eager to groove will end up at Pompeii.

Along with the "guaranteed, post-1 a.m. business," Pompeii slowly has begun to acquire an identifiable crowd that seems less concerned with the usual social superficialities. Lounging comfortably on a couch that looks as if it were designed by Lewis Carroll, Jelena Patkovic comments, "I'm sick of regular clubs. Whenever I go out, I feel like I'm too relaxed and everyone else is unreal. I hate when clubs announce that someone famous is in the house. It's so cheesy--like I'm at a baseball game or something."

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