This continues the story of my Asia expedition begun in An Asian Expedition Part 1: Seoul, Korea.
A little thing? Sure, but it’s only the 2nd or 3rd time in 30 years of flying that I’ve ever been in one of those cushy cabins! The airline upgraded me (I have no idea why) when I got to the gate, so I had more leg room than I am tall, and a reclining seat that would have served as a bed. If only I’d had that on the previous 13-hour trip from Chicago! Talk about pointless luxury for a 90-minute flight!
It was a little decadent to be served orange juice before the flight took off and to watch how attentive the stewardesses were to the businessmen in the front cabin though (they took the suit jacket of the man next to me and hung it somewhere, returning it to him at the end of the flight. Nice.)
After the short plane ride from Seoul, I made it through customs and a 45-minute cab ride without any problems and checked into my hotel just after lunch. It was a hotel in Shibuya, a restaurant and nightlife district of the city. The hotels near the university where I was working that week had been sold out, so I had decided to stay in a spot in a part of the city that sounded like it would be fun in my off-time.
The lobby and adjoining restaurant looked small but nice. My stomach sank, however, when I opened the door to my room at the Tokyu Rei Hotel.
If I’d had sinful space on the flight over (and in my previous hotel), this was the reverse. The room barely could contain the bed and a wall-length shelf that the small flatscreen TV and a bunch of advertising flyers sat on. There was no closet. The window to the street was covered in a wooden “door” that slid open on a track. I immediately opened that for the rest of the trip so I wouldn’t feel claustrophobic. I’ve been in closets bigger than this room. And the bathroom was even worse… the entire thing, floor to ceiling, was covered in hard plastic (do they just hose it down after each guest?) and the toilet was wedged into a corner. Damn. I’ve been in Motel 6’s that were swankier. After the luxurious InterContinental Coex in Seoul, this was… depressing. Especially since I was going to be there four nights. I texted a picture to Geri and she said “it looks like a prison cell.” That’s exactly what it felt like at that moment.
I didn’t have time to stew on it though, because as soon as I unpacked, it was off to a business meeting and subsequent dinner. When I returned to the room a few hours later, it was night, and I quickly changed clothes and went out to explore nearby Shibuya… and my depression at a crappy room faded.
Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in Tokyo (it’s listed as a “thing to see” on all the tourist lists), was hopping.
Just a block from my hotel, the city was alive with neon and throngs of people. J-pop music blared from giant TV screens on the buildings, and teens and twentysomethings moved in and out of the nearby Taito Arcade next to the big Bic Camera store. I walked a couple blocks and entered a busy pedestrian street that went from restaurant to bar to restaurant to clothing store.
My faith was restored. I may not have gotten the best hotel room, but this was exactly where I wanted to stay. Shibuya is definitely one of the beating hearts of Tokyo.
Smiling, I followed my phone’s GoogleMaps guide until I reached a British pub I’d heard of, The Aldgate, and walked up the stairs to find myself in a classic British-style pub with British bartenders and Bass Ale on tap, as well as some local brews. My first beer in Tokyo was a London Calling cask IPA from local Sankt Gellen Brewery. I settled in with hops and my laptop to catch up on email and Facebook for a couple hours. And had a plate of British chips with malt vinegar. I’d found a comfort refuge spot for the next couple nights!
The next day was a long one, 12+ hours on the clock, but when it was done… we were done! My business in Asia officially ended Friday night around 7 p.m., but my workmate and I had agreed to pay for a couple extra hotel nights on our own, so we were staying until Monday. We actually had Friday night through Monday lunchtime to explore Tokyo. And over the next 60 hours, we covered as much ground as I think humanly possible.
That weekend I bought some nifty cords and an anime doll of hologram star Hatsune Miku in Electric Town, had a decadent steak dinner and visited a microbrew pub in Roppongi, stopped at the inpsiring Meiji Shrine and grounds, hung out in fashionable Harajuku, ate amazing sushi in the Tsukiji Fish Market, snapped photos of the city from the top of the Metropolitan Government Building lookout station in Shinjuku, spent an afternoon around the big Buddhist temple / market area in Asakusa and walked around the grounds of the Imperial Palace (the actual palace was sadly closed). I got to be quite adept at deciphering the Tokyo subway maps and figuring out how to vault from one end of the city to the other using foreign coinage (which was quickly in short supply!).
On Friday night I did some people watching on the crowded streets and had dinner at a small Japanese / Vietnamese restaurant on the second floor of a busy street. It was hard to settle on a restaurant there… many of them are very small, and there were several Korean barbecue places (I’d just come from Korea, and was looking for a more Japanese experience). Plus, many of the restaurants are on the 2nd or 3rd floor of buildings, so it’s hard to tell from wandering the street where to go. If I ever go there again, I will do a lot more Internet stalking to choose my restaurants (though the food that night was good.)
After dinner, we tried to stop by the Aldgate, which was packed, so instead we headed down to the Hobgoblin, another British pub in the area. Sadly, they were out of their flagship Hobgoblin Ale! But their Hobgoblin “light” wasn’t too bad.
HARAJUKU / MEIJI JINGU SHRINE
First stop on Saturday, after an egg sandwich and coffee at a Pronto – a chain of cafes there, was the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine.
Just a 15-20 minute walk from our hotel, we cut through Harajuku and stopped at the small Togo Shrine there before heading towards Harajuku Station and the large Yoyogi Park / Meiji Shrine area.
I’ve been curious about Harajuku ever since I heard the Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” song.
So it was a kick to finally walk through the street that day and a subsequent night and see some real live Harajuku girls dressing up in wild costumes and parading about. The morning we walked by, there was a line that stretched down a whole block for a fashion store that was about to open with a big sale. Fashion capital, indeed.
Once past Harajuku, the Meiji Jingu Shrine park was thronged with people. We walked around the grounds first which would have been far more impressive if we’d been there in the spring or summer; the area was originally cultivated for a queen, and apparently has flowers everywhere in season. While the trees still had leaves while we were there in January, there were no flowers. Though I did get to kneel and dip my hands in a sacred spring.
The shrine itself was much larger than the one I’d seen in Korea, and had dozens of vendors selling prayer sticks and poems. That was one interesting thing about all of the shrines I visited in Seoul and Tokyo – there were always people selling prayer sticks and satchels that held small prayer scrolls at all of them, no matter how small the venue.
TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
After visiting the gardens and the shrine, we took the Toei Oedo Line train to Tsukiji and walked around the famous wholesale (and retail) fish market of Tokyo.
There were several blocks of vendors, some selling packaged freeze-dried fish goods, others selling fresh, others selling trinkets and kitchen pottery. And interspersed with those were lots of sushi joints.
I’ve enjoyed sushi for quite a while now, but until Tokyo, I had always been a sushi baby — mainly, I’ve always stuck to some kind of roll – my tiny hunk of raw fish always shielded by a blanket of rice and well-seasoned with soy and wasabi. When we finally stopped for lunch at the fish market, I decided to go ahead and get the “large hunks of fish” style sushi. Hunks of fish that sat on rice, sure, but the rice wasn’t going to hide the taste of that fish like a California roll does.
I worried a bit that each different slab of fish was finally going to hit me with a “fishy” taste, but none of them did. The meat was creamy and rich, some lightly seared which gave it a “grilled” flavor, some not. And we were warned to avoid the soy sauce — the sushi chef had already lightly seasoned various types with soy and/or wasabi… and it was true.
The taste was perfectly balanced. Exquisite! I was instantly converted and before we even left the fish market, I was looking forward to having more!
There was a small shrine at the edge of the fish market which we stopped at briefly before heading to the train for our next destination.
It was late afternoon when we left the fish market, but we figured we could get in one more stop before returning to Shibuya. We decided to head to Akihabara, home of Electric Town, a huge shopping district for video games, electronic equipment (I bought a couple ipod/iphone cords and chargers) and anime and manga merch. I figured the place wasn’t going to pull up the carpets at 5 p.m., and I was right — the streets were full of people.
I spent a lot of time in a store with hundreds of anime-oriented figurines and ultimately bought my Hatsune Miku figure there… not realizing at all that she was the representation of one of the most bizarre music phenoms ever — a music company sampled a woman’s voice and used it in music creation software… which has since led to more than 3,500 songs being created using the voice, as well as spawned a 3D holographic character (Hatsune Miku) who has opened for Lady Gaga, and is currently touring North America!?!
My iPod charging cable was dead, so I found a replacement that also serves as a battery pack, which was pretty cool (never had seen one of those before for an old-school iPod.) And I got a fancy recharging cord there for my iPhone while I was at it.
All along the strip of shops, there was J-pop blaring out into the streets, which added to the energy. Usually with female singers, the music was electronic and catchy, and belatedly, I used my Shazzam iPhone app to figure out the name of one of the bands. I wish I’d done that earlier, because there were some crazy catchy songs playing while we were there.
But thanks to Shazzam, I now have a new favorite act — Silent Siren. And the start of a J-Pop Playlist on YouTube!
I stopped at a few anime and electronics shops, and probably could have stayed there looking at all of the neon and dolls and electronics all night…
But after a day of walking for miles, we decided to catch the train back around 7 p.m. so we could eat dinner in Shibuya.
Back at the hotel, I was determined not to wander cluelessly looking for food as we had the night before. The concierge gave me a tip on a good restaurant row, on the 7th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie, a building a couple blocks away, so we stopped in there for dinner and I enjoyed a beef pot and pot stickers with the local Suntory pilsener beer. It hit the spot after a long day!
Way to Play!
One of the cool things I noticed in Japan is that their entertainment centers are on multiple floors. The building across from our hotel had bowling alleys on three floors, plus a couple floors of arcade, a billiard floor and a table tennis floor. Plus Karaoke. It was fun to go up and down the elevator and check out the action on each level!
It was a long day, but I packed a lot of sights into that Saturday! At the end of it all, I stopped back at the Aldgate to refresh my “Western” batteries, and watched a little soccer with a Baird Jack The Ripper IPA.
A View From The Top of Shinjuku
Sunday was slated to be the warmest, sunniest day of my trip through Asia – with temps in the low 50s. So that was the day to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where there is a free observation floor. At first, it appeared that we wouldn’t be able to get in to the building — all the visible access doors were locked. But then after circumnavigating the whole building, we found a sign for the observation deck pointing to a stairwell down. After walking through an underground garage area, we arrived at an elevator to the observatory (travel lesson #1: never give up!)
Visibility was a little hazy, but I had a nice coffee and cake while overlooking the city there. And got a distant view of Mount Fuji!
I also found a Studio Ghibli display at the gift shop there, and broke out the credit card for Shaun. We have watched most of the Studio Ghibli movies of Hayao Miyazaki together, and I’d hoped to go to the Ghibli Museum while in Tokyo (unfortunately for me, it was sold out for the weekend).
After the lookout station, we walked across the bridge to Shinjuku Central Park where a martial arts exhibition was going on.
And found yet another shrine — the Kumano Shrine:
Then it was time to hop the train to our next destination — the old town temple district of Asakusa.
Sensō-ji, Buddhist Temple
While it was a little difficult figuring out the subway system given that most of the signs are in a foreign language, we had our only major subway gaffe of the weekend leaving Shinjuku. First I misread Google Maps and walked past the underground subway station… and then managed to get on a train going the opposite direction. But … this time Google Maps clearly demonstrated my error, and after hopping off the train and walking to the other side of the station, we were at last on our way.
The Asakusa area is right near the Sumido River, and is a major shopping area, as well as the home of one of the more famous Buddhist temples, the Sensoji. Out of the entire week, this turned out to be the most crowded place I went. The street that led to the temple was lined with shops selling all sorts of toys, food and other merchandise, and you could barely move right or left to move towards a shop if you wanted to. The street was a solid mass of people.
The area was filled with old architecture and once inside the temple grounds, there was an avenue of street food vendors. I tried what I later found out
(thanks to Loren Rhoads) was a okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake omelette that included flour, shredded cabbage, shrimp and pork belly.
I also had some gyoza – Japanese pot stickers.
There was a ceremony going on inside the temple itself, but I braved the throng and got a quick peek at the entryway. The public was not allowed inside the building itself.
There was a group of kids practicing martial arts near a small shrine nearby, as well as a woman showing off a trained monkey!
And who can resist a trained monkey?
On the way back to the train, I bought another Totoro stuffed animal for Shaun (a Miyazaki character) and posed with a welcoming kitty!
For our last night in Tokyo, we decided to visit another nightclub district. After the craziness of the past 36 hours, things turned out to be a bit slow there on a Sunday night. And after searching for a good restaurant, we ended up deciding to see what the Japanese would do with a “Western” steakhouse. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse was definitely the fanciest room and pricetag of any of our meals in Asia… but my lobster bisque and petit filet was definitely good!
After dinner, we walked around the club district a bit, which is filled with Nigerian guys trying to lure men into hostess clubs. It was truly annoying, as they will follow you for over a block, ignoring your increasingly aggravated declarations of “I’m not interested” as they implore you to “just take a look” at their club. After having read about many instances of business men getting a mickey in their drinks and their credit cards charged to the hilt in Roppongi, there was no way I was walking into one even to look.
Instead, I closed the night with a Kanagawa-brewed Brimmer Pale Ale – clean but robust with just the right amount of hop bitterness – at the Two Dogs Taproom, a little microbrew place that obviously caters to Westerners (they had Japanese micros, but also taps from U.S. breweries like Left Hand and signs from Seattle’s Elysian Brewing (where, ironically, I just was a couple months ago!) Had to love their tap wall — which was completely “tiled” in pennies!
Last Look: The Imperial Palace
Monday in Japan was a holiday, so I knew the Imperial Palace was going to be closed, but took the subway there anyway, after a coffee and scone across the street from my hotel. I figured there was bound to be something to see.
For awhile… I feared that I was completely mistaken. While there was a flea market going on at the perimeter of the palace, and a marathon filling much of the sidewalk around the place, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is not one of those palaces that you can see for miles.
For one thing, the place is surrounded by a moat… but there are also hills and hedges and stone walls on either side of the moat. The place is completely shielded unless you can actually gain admittance to the inner grounds. So I never actually saw one inch of the palace itself. I did however, get to see the gardens on the outskirts (which would have been more impressive in the spring or summer, I’m sure). And there was the remains of some old guard posts, as well as a small bamboo garden.
After hanging around the Imperial Palace area for a couple hours, it was time to return to Shibuya. I had just enough time for a last dose of sushi before leaving Japan, and I wasn’t about to miss the chance. I stopped at a “sushi go-round” restaurant, where the chef stands in the middle cutting fish and filling plates that go around a track that runs around the bar where the customers sit. Each plate is color coded, based on the cost of the sushi, and you just keep grabbing plates and eating what you want until you’re done… then the waitress totals up the cost of your stack of plates.
I ate my fill, largely of a nicely wasabi-ed whitefish variety!
And then… it was time to go home. While I hated to leave the throngs and sushi of Shibuya behind, I was more than ready. It was an exceptionally long week. I saw a lot of things, but still only scratched the surface. I loved the politeness and manners of the culture — it’s a small thing, but everywhere I paid with a credit card, it was handed back to me with two hands, as if it were a gift offering. People appeared helpful and friendly, if not well-versed in English. And while our hotel room was not what I had hoped for, the staff at the hotel itself were wonderful – going out of their way to help us with our bags, and taxi and restaurants.
I wish we could have gotten out of the city to places like Kyoto or Mount Fuji… or even poked into Tokyo Disneyland, which I passed on the way to the airport. But I was happy I at least got a couple days to bounce around and see all of the things I did. From the Shibuya to the Fish Market to Harajuku to the Akusa Temple… it was all an excellent adventure. And with a direct flight, that 11-hour flight home seemed like a breeze compared to the 18-hour commute that started the trip to Seoul the week before!
Here are a few more pictures from the trip:
I TRAVEL A LOT for my dayjob, but typically just to domestic cities. Over the past few months, however, due to a special circumstance, I had the opportunity to go to four international locations, the most recent being a trip to Asia, visiting Seoul, Korea and flying from there to Tokyo, Japan. Due to the logistics, I didn’t get nearly as much time to explore Seoul as Tokyo, but what I did see, definitely left me hungry to go back.
Because… The food was amazing!
I’ve had Korean food once or twice before, and been to Japanese steakhouses a few times…. but my main go-to for Asian food has always been Thai. That will definitely expand thanks to this trip!
After an 18-hour commute that began on Sunday (13 hours to Tokyo + layover + a couple hour flight to Seoul), I arrived at my hotel in Seoul late at night on Monday, January 4th. The time difference (15 hours) made things weird the whole trip — I would be having a beer at the end of the night while texting with my wife Geri as she was having breakfast.
I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel Coex, which is a beautiful, modern facility in a nice shopping district of the city (it’s attached to a ginormous mall). It also gave me my first experience with electronic bidets, which I saw throughout the rest of my trip. There are a lot of clean butts in Asia, apparently. And given the electronic, heated seats, apparently they are clean warm butts!
When I got up on Tuesday, I was able to walk around a large restaurant area adjacent to the hotel and tour a Buddhist Temple that was right across the street, before heading to work for a few hours.
As I’d feared before the trip, the language barrier did make things difficult now and then. While a lot of things had English subtitles, very few people spoke very much English. That made things difficult looking for food — while the air smelled delicious, I didn’t know what or how to order! I looked at restaurant after restaurant, wondering where I should go in.
I finally settled on a decent looking place that had one line of English on the wall outside, so I figured that was a good sign… but it turned out they still didn’t have an English menu. The waitress and I managed to communicate with a lot of hand gestures, and ultimately she brought me a beef rib soup with side dishes of rice, kimchi, freeze dried salted seaweed, onions in garlic sauce, peppers in some kind of white sauce and another spicy vegetable thing which I never was able to identify (wish I could, cuz I finished the bowl). It was an amazing amalgam of tastes, though slightly embarrassing when the waitress had to show me how to eat it — she brought tongs and a pair of table scissors, and demonstrated how to cut the meat off the soup bones (glad she did, because I would have been at a loss of what to do if she’d just dropped scissors on my table and left!) She also brought me a fork, but I left it on the table with disdain – I ate with chopsticks the entire week.
After lunch I walked around a bit more, and ended up stopping into a German place – Oskar Dine & Brew – for a mild IPA since I’d had tea for lunch. Their menu was bizarre – German Spatzle sat right alongside Mongolian chicken! Looked like a good place for Westerners and Europeans to get a little breath of home… sadly I wasn’t there long enough to come back for a meal.
I walked over to the old Buddhist temple after visiting Oskar’s. It was the first time I’d been in a temple (though I would visit a few more in Tokyo in the coming days). I took my shoes off, as is customary, and knelt on a mat to watch part of a Buddhist prayer service. I love the combination of music and meditation, and wish that I could have stayed for the whole thing. And it probably would have helped if I could have understood a word or two. Here’s what it sounded like:
And here are some pix:
That night, my workmate and I returned to the restaurant district I’d been wandering earlier, and enjoyed a Korean barbecue dinner of beef and pork — cooked over coals at our table. We were totally out of our element… the waitress cooked the first part of our meal, before it occurred to me after looking around that nobody else had “help”… they were all cooking their meat themselves. And moments later, the hostess directed us to do just that (“you move, every little bit” she said and pointed… or something like that!) She also showed us how to garnish and “sandwich” the meat using lettuce leaves (warning to fajita eaters — the key with Korean is small… you have to fit the whole lettuce-wrap in your mouth in one bite — no munching it in half or you’ll have slop in your lap!).
In any case, we got with the program, and enjoyed an amazing meal. The meat and sauce they used on it was phenomenal. And the ever-present kimchi was great too.
The next day was an all-day work deal, with a short break before a group dinner. I took the break opportunity to explore the adjoining Coex Mall, which is touted as the largest underground shopping center in Asia. It was large… kind of like wandering around in the subterranean corridors of an airport. There is even an aquarium tucked in down there (though I didn’t go in). I got a kick out of seeing what was familiar… and not familiar… on the bookstore shelves and “bestseller” tables. Apparently there is no bookstore in the world where Stephen King is not on display.
That night we enjoyed a group dinner at a Korean restaurant in a different area of the city, where they cook all sorts of stuff on a communal table. Soju, a rice/wheat-based alcoholic beverage was poured liberally into glasses of light Korean pilsener (a Korean boilermaker!), as one by one, all of the group were called upon to make toasts. Thankfully, no video record exists of mine.
A video record does exist, however, of the chopping and “flaming” of the pork:
And that… pretty much was that! While I wish I could have explored more of Seoul, we left at 6 a.m. the following morning for Tokyo. And that’s a whole other adventure detailed in An Asian Adventure Part 2, Tokyo, Japan.
Here are a few other photos from my brief stay in Seoul.
LAST MONTH, I had a short trip to Barcelona for business, and while I didn’t get much free time to sight-see, I did discover a couple brewpubs that are must-stops for any beer lover.
I had one afternoon where I was able to take a City Tour Bus around town and at least get a glimpse of what I’d like to see, if I actually was there in the city for a few days on my own time! And I walked around after dusk a couple nights, so I was able to visit a couple of pubs as well as walk through the gothic district, down the famous Las Ramblas strip and around the harbor. Barcelona is definitely a beautiful place with friendly people, amazing architecture and great food that I’d love to return to!
I checked in at a cool boutique hotel on Sunday, November 15, 2015 called Room Mate Pau right near the city center plaza (Placa de Catalunya). The hotel is definitely worth staying in if you’re going to Barcelona – it’s right at the center of things, a couple blocks from Las Ramblas and the gothic quarter. And it had cool room decor:
Thanks to Ben Holbrook’s 10 Craft Beer Bars in Barcelona guide, I picked out a couple places that I wanted to visit ahead of my trip, so I used my little bit of free time there well. I only wish I could have hit more of the places on his list. I had a couple hours free in the afternoon after checking in, so I stopped at one of the pubs on the list right off, the Ale & Hop, which was just a 10-minute walk from my hotel in the gothic quarter. The place had a funky b/w art display on all the walls, and taps featuring microbrews from around Europe.
My first beer in Barcelona was an Omnipollo & Buxton Ice Cream Pale. I was skeptical of pairing vanilla cream with a pale ale, but it was pretty good. And yes… You can taste both vanilla and hops! I tried another IPA there, but the Ice Cream Ale was the most memorable, though I don’t think I’d want to drink two of them in a row.
Proving that the world is, indeed, small, the bartender told me that the previous summer he’d been to Indiana, just an hour or so away from my house, to attend a beer fest there. He fell in love there with Three Floyd’s Brewing, and remembered their Zombie Dust by name!
After my visit to the Ale & Hop, I was back “on the clock” for a few hours, and then once done with work, had my first taste of true Spanish Tapas at the Taverna Del Bisbe. It was a good place right next to the Catedral de Barcelona, and I sampled some prawns, garlic potatoes, peppers, creme brule ice cream… Mmmm!
The following night, after a 14-hour day on the clock, I enjoyed a late (after 10 p.m.!) business dinner at El Nacional, one of several restaurants in a converted old train station. It was an excellent dinner – oxtail stew, tomato-rubbed olive oil bread, fried potatoes, olives and most importantly, a refreshing, golden Estrella Damm lager!
Afterwards, I took my laptop to La Taverna De Barcelona, a little bar near my hotel where a local band was playing an array of pop hits. And… ironically, I happened to be editing a new Siren-spinoff story at a bar that was flanked by… wood-carved sirens. What are the odds? I worked a little bit and enjoyed some popcorn and a refreshing but full-bodied Cruzcampo pils as the band moved from Oasis to Black-Eyed Peas. Life rewards those who live….
On Tuesday, I had the afternoon to roam the city. That’s when I hopped on the “Red Bus” and took an audio-guide tour around the city, catching glimpses of the harbor, retired bullfighting stadium (bullfighting is outlawed there now) and the famous Park Guell.
The tour is a great way to see the city because you can get on and off all day long as long as you retain your ticket. I got off the bus for a while at Park Guell and walked around and had a paella lunch near the park, which had a TV shoot going on for “Emerald City” (helmed by Shaun Cassidy). It was kind of weird to know that former American pop star Shaun Cassidy was filming just a few hundred yards from where I was walking in Spain! Here are a few photos of those things and the city square, Placa de Catalunya, which is right next to where I stayed. The bombings in Paris had happened just a couple days before my trip, and so the Placa had an impromptu memorial set up of hand-drawn prayers and art, which was inspiring to see.
The best thing on the tour that I saw was the beautiful, still under-construction church of lights, Sagrada Família, begun in late 1882 and taken over the following year by the architect Antoni Gaudi. The architect has sites celebrated all over the city, including Park Guell at the top of the hill overlooking the city. The construction on the church continues year by year, based on tourist donations, and is scheduled to be finished in about 10 more years. I spent well over an hour at the church, admiring the amazing streams of colored light and different architecture styles on its various facades. It is truly an architectural work of wonder.
After getting off the bus tour, I walked down Las Ramblas — kind of like the city’s “Times Square.” The boulevard is full of outdoor cafes and tourist trap shops and leads all the way to the harbor. Once there, I stopped at another of the brewpubs mentioned in the Beer Guide — the BlackLab Brewhouse & Kitchen, which is right near the water, and apparently a big hangout for beachgoers.
While I was there, I noticed a stack of beer coasters from Founders Brewing sitting on the bar… when I asked the bartender why they had a Michigan brewery represented (all the beer on tap the night I was there was brewed in Barcelona), he told me that the following day was going to be a special “Founders Takeover” day — they’d be featuring Founders brews on tap all day. I came halfway around the world to find a feature on Michigan craft beer? Weird! Anyway… while I didn’t care for the first couple Black Lab original IPAs I tried (too bitter), their Series X Amarillo IPA was pretty good and had a nice lemony finish.
After Black Lab, I walked into the Gothic district and ate at the amazing Ristorante Les Caracoles. The place looks like nothing from the street — in fact, you can’t even tell it’s a restaurant; all you can see is a long bar. But then, at the end of the bar, you walk down a couple steps, duck your head, and arrive at a hostess stand where you can check in… and eventually be led through the kitchen to a handful of ever-larger rooms beyond. The place was actually huge… but you’d never know it from the front, or even the first room where I sat, next to the kitchen.
I had a great dinner of barbecued rabbit and thin sliced ham… but the best part was dessert – probably the best creme brulee and sweet dessert sherry EVER! My eyes watered, they were both so amazing!
The next day was another long day of work, but that night I enjoyed a final dinner at El Callejón, a little tapas place down down an alley in the gothic district. Potatoes, cheese, steak, risotto and a mojito!
So where does John Everson go for a last spot of writing in a foreign city? Later that night I grabbed my laptop and stopped at The George Payne — the neighborhood Irish bar, of course! The place had a great stained glass window crowned staircase, good music and a warm dark wood vibe. I found a table and tried another local ale — Barcino Raval IPA, which had more of a cider-y finish to it than a bitter hop finish, as I worked on the last edits of my new Siren story.
As always happens in a cozy Irish bar, last call came quickly, and then it was off to pack and get a few hours sleep before the long flight home!
I do hope someday I’ll get the chance to return to Barcelona to wander the narrow alleyways and explore the churches and parks more — I’d love to spend a week there checking out the city… and enjoying its beaches and beer!
I’VE BEEN TRAVELLING a lot for my dayjob lately, which is not terribly unusual… but I am not usually on trips abroad. This fall, however, took me to both Ghent, Belgium and Barcelona, Spain.
While on business trips, I don’t usually have many hours of daylight to “see the sights,” but I do always try to take a couple hours at night to check out the local brewpubs and breweries of the area. And Belgium is known as one of the beer capitals of the world… so I tried to sample as many different brews as I could while I was there.
That said… I’m not personally a fan of the funky taste of Belgium yeast… so it was a challenge to find things that I really enjoyed! I did taste 3 of the 18 certified Abbey ales (Maredsous, Steenbrugge and Tongerlo) and 2 from the six Trappist producers (Chimay and Westmalle) as well as a number of other Belgian beers during the six days I was there.
1) Delirium Tremens
2) Jupiter Blond
3) Maredsous Tripel
4) Brugge Tripel
5) Monk’s Cafe Sour
Other beer mentioned in this blog: Steen Brugge, Tongerlo, Chimay, Westmalle Tripel, Prearis IPA, Gulden Draak, Gruut Amber, Duvel.
But more about those later. (If you just want the “beer tour”, click here.)
A short walking tour of Ghent
I flew from Chicago to Brussels on Saturday, August 29, 2015, and then took a taxi up to Ghent, arriving at my hotel, the Best Western Cour St. Georges, on a picture-perfect, 75-degree sunny Sunday morning. I stayed in the heart of the old city district, so everything within walking distance was beautiful and historic. The Town Hall was a block down the street. Here was the view out of the hotel doorway, and around the block:
(NOTE: click on any of the pictures in this blog to see full-size versions)
Sint Baafskathedraal (St. Bavo’s)
I arrived too early in the day to get into a room, so with the sounds of church bells ringing around town (there are churches on virtually every block there, it seemed!), I took a walk around the city center and had my first meal at Brasserie Agrea (Belgium waffles, of course) and explored the beautiful St. Baafskathedraal, the exterior of which was unfortunately under construction.
There was a sheltered concert pavilion just down the street from the hotel and across the street from St. Nicholas’ Church, where locals took turns playing an outdoor piano. In just a few minutes of standing there, I heard some amazing impromptu classical music played by three different people who just hopped up on the bench from the crowd and started playing. I took a short turn at it myself at one point in the week, when the crowds had thinned!
St. Michael’s Bridge/Graslei
A few blocks away from my hotel was the Leie River, which runs through the center of town and is lined with eateries and cafes, and crossed by a notable bridge, St. Michael’s, from which you look down on the Graslei strip, and have a beautiful view of the famous Ghent towers: Saint Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.
Gravensteen Castle (Castle of the Counts)
Just down the river was Ghent’s most famous site, Gravensteen Castle, built in 1180 by Philippe d’Alsace, count of Flanders. The castle offers a great audio tour, and perfect views of the city, as well as a small torture chamber museum with a guillotine. So… you know I had to check it out!
My first beer in Belgium:
After walking around for a few hours waiting for the hotel to have beds, I sat down in a restaurant/bar cafe area across from the Castle Gravensteen and tried a Prearis IPA. A refreshing summer ale, it was a faintly grassy, dry beer that betrayed very little overt hops flavor.
I was quickly to learn that Belgium IPAs offer little of the overpowering hops character that American IPAs do… I tasted a couple others that I didn’t write down for this blog, and found none there that had enough flavor to encourage a second try.
On the advice of my waiter, I switched to a Tongerlo Blond, a copper-colored abbey ale. It was a better brew, smooth, with a touch of honey… but still not quite what I was looking for — I didn’t come back to it the rest of the trip.
One thing I learned quickly in Belgium – there is an intense focus there on the beer glass as well as the beer. Every place you eat has a full stock of glasses imprinted with the brews they serve. I did not drink a beer in a restaurant or bar anywhere the week I was in Ghent that did not have the imprint of the appropriate brewery on it.
Once I had finally checked in to my hotel and unpacked on Sunday, I went out to enjoy a couple hours of daylight at the Bierhuis at Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant by the river. There I had my first Gulden Draak of the trip, a thick, darker ale I discovered several years ago in, of all places, a German bar in Boston.
I did a little writing by the river before dinner, and would come back to Bierhuis several times during my trip — it was a perfect location for writing. At one point, my bartender was singing along to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” over the radio. Not quite what I expected to hear in Ghent, Belgium!
Dinner that first night was at a great spot on the Graslei next to the river. There I tested a Gruut Amber beer (which had very little taste) and enjoyed an amazing hunk of steak. And the “presentation” was good too:
Housed in a building from the 13th century, it was both a modern and old style experience — exposed brick and beams from the original shell of the building paired with modern floors and fixtures to make a very cool space. I had to try a local dish — the Waterzooi (stew with cuckoo). And I topped it off with a Brugge Tripel, an abbey ale which I enjoyed – probably my favorite Tripel style of the trip, as it didn’t overpower you with Belgium spice notes. Topped it off with some ice cream with vanilla bourbon.
Going Old School… er… Abbey:
I tried a Westmalle Tripel, the oldest and most well-known abbey ale, at ‘T Vosken, an outdoor cafe near the cathedral one night, thinking it would be comparable to the Brugge I’d enjoyed at the dinner at Belga Queen, but instead, the character was very different.
It was fizzy like Duvel, which could be refreshing, but the fruity/spicy character was overpowering for me. To my tastebuds, it was heavily colored with Belgian spice… I was not at all a fan, and honestly almost didn’t finish the glass.
Nope… despite the high marks this one gets on Beer Advocate, Belgium just could not make me a fan of spiced abbey ale!
On the day that I toured the Gravensteen castle, I had a late lunch at ‘T Vosken after working an 8-hour day (we started early) — Belgium chickory stewed with ham in a cheese sauce…with twiced baked potatoes and a Steen Brugge.
It was one of my favorite meals of the trip. The chickory is a local vegetable with the consistency of chopped rhubarb, which was excellent in the cheesy sauce, and the Brugge was good too — not too “yeasted” for me!
It was at a little pub around the corner from my hotel that I discovered my favorite “session” beer of the trip. Ironically, I think it has the local reputation of a Bud or Miller in Belgium – as a light watered down brew.
But I found Jupiter Blond to be a good easy-drinking beer that had far more complex characteristics than its American pilsner counterparts. The most famous beer of its type from Belgium is Stella Artois… but I have a couple bottles of that in my fridge at home… so I didn’t drink any Stella in Ghent. I was most unhappy to discover when I got home that they don’t export Jupiter. Here are a couple shots of that corner bar:
It was towards the end of my trip that I finally tried Delirium Tremens, one of Belgium’s best known exports. While it has that Belgium yeast funk, I found it light and effervescent enough that I enjoyed a couple glasses of it before I left the country… and even bought a sign for my home basement bar. Ironically, this one was quaffed in an Irish bar – The Celtic Towers – on my last night there. Where I also had the worst nachos ever (ew – salsa should not be sweet!).
Breezing through Brussels:
On my one free day while in Belgium, I took the train back down to Brussels, since all I saw of the city coming in was the airport. After walking several blocks through a typical modern city, I arrived at the old city center, where there’s a square called the Grand Place, that is used for various events through the year. There are photos on the web of the place being completely filled with a Flower Carpet, during one periodic festival, that are amazing. However, when I was there… they were constructing dozens of tents.
I found that there was a Belgian Brewers Association museum off the square, so I paid my 5 euros and went in — they had examples of classic brewery equipment and a short film about Belgium’s long history of beer craft (where I learned that people in the Middle Ages were encouraged to drink beer because of the poor quality of the water — the alcohol in the beer made it safer to drink!).
As part of the tour they offered a sample of a light or dark abbey ale. I tried the darker — Maredsous Tripel — and quite enjoyed it… unfortunately, I didn’t see it on the menu at the restaurants near my hotel, so that was the only sample I got. I think it was also the only beer I had in Belgium that was not in an appropriate labeled glass. Instead… it was in a “proud of our beers” Brewery Association glass.
I also found out while watching the association’s film that that Friday, the day I was LEAVING Belgium, was the start of the largest annual tasting festival of beer in the country. That’s what all the tents were that they were setting up in the square. In 48 hours, the square was going to be swarming with beerdrinkers. Believe me when I say, I was really not happy to find that out! I came halfway around the world to find I missed the festival by a day? ;-/
A few blocks away, I saw a store called de Bier Tempel. I figured if there was anyplace I was going to worship while in Belgium, that should be it… so I stopped inside and picked up my Delirium Tremems glass and sign for my home bar.
While in Brussels, I also stopped at the site of the city’s most famous statue — the Manneken Pis (little man pee). Depicting a small boy peeing into a basin, the statue was erected in the early 1600s. There are many versions of the legend behind it — one suggests a young boy awoken by a fire put it out with his urine to prevent a castle from burning. Another suggests that a young boy urinated from a tree on invading troops, who subsequently lost their battle. You can find likenesses of this little guy in just about every tourist stop in Belgium — and when I found a life size one at a waffle shop, well… I had to pose.
One of my last discoveries after returning from Brussels to Ghent, was the Mosquito Coast, a cool little exotic cafe decked out in safari decorations just a few blocks down the street from my hotel. They only had a few beers on tap, but they served a Flemish style Oud Bruin — Monk’s Cafe — the only sour I tried during my week there. It was a beer created by the brewery of Gulden Draak specifically to ship OUT of Belgium — to a Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia, oddly enough. Supposedly Mosquito Coast was the only place in Ghent that had it on tap. I found it to be the perfect marriage of faintly fruity aftertaste and sour finish. And a few weeks after returning from Belgium, I was excited to find that a Chicago liquor store chain (Binny’s) actually carried it. So there are a couple in my fridge right now!
Sadly… all good things must come to an end, and after six days in Belgium, I left my hotel at 6 a.m., taxied down to Brussels, and hopped a plane home. Despite the amount of pictures I took, I worked long days most of my time there, so I did not get to go inside most of the landmarks. I did see enough to know I’d love to go back… and while it took some dedicated taste-testing, I know what I’ll drink when I do. And I suppose next time… I’ll need to sample some lambics. I didn’t test a single fruit beer while I was there.
Here are a bunch of other pictures from my week in Belgium:
ANYONE WHO follows me on Facebook or reads by blog frequently knows that my dayjob sends me on a lot of business trips. I’m working most of the time on these jaunts, but I am privileged to see different locales, even if only for short dinner outings outside the hotels.
I’ve been to lots of typical cities (L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, New York) and some exotic outings (Kauai, Chile, Germany). But one of the most picturesque was last week’s trip to Paradise Island, Bahamas. We were at the Atlantis Resort, which takes up a third of the island and is like a giant water park – there are swimming pools and lazy river routes and slides everywhere, not to mention small outdoor pools with dolphins, manta rays, sharks and more all around the grounds.
It was funny because over the past few days since I returned, I keep seeing TV ads for the resort and pointing and going “hey, I was just walking there…”) Considering the resort was surrounded by beach, and I’m pretty much an ocean junkie, I was really looking forward to getting a few dips in the saltwater… but unfortunately, the winter storm that was killing the northeast also sent some gloom and cool breezes to the Bahamas… so while being there was a whole lot better there than it was in Chicago, I didn’t get in the water much. I did get out a couple times, and swam with some damsels and wrasses and other fish near the shore. And I had some good dinners — and also the most outrageously overpriced dinners I think I’ve ever had.
My first night there, I walked a ways to find a reasonable restaurant, only to find it closed… and so, since I was starving after a 10-hour travel day, I ended up at the Seafire Steakhouse, having perhaps the most expensive steak dinner I’ve ever eaten (and it was the cheapest on the steakhouse’s menu!)
I quickly learned that night and in the following days that there are no IPA’s imported to the Bahamas… everything there is light pilsner beer (Corona, Bud) and most is brewed by the Bahamian Brewery (except Kalik, probably the most popular beer there). There is one amber ale brewed by Bahamian specifically for Atlantis, which is drinkable, but other than that… I wasn’t too excited by the omnipresent Sands, High Rock and Bush Crack beer, though you gotta like the name on that last one.
On the 2nd night of my trip I found that even 4-star hotels in the tropics can’t keep all the nasties out… I found this lil bugger sniffing my dirty laundry in the hotel closet. A bug perve!
He met his untimely end at my hand thanks to a dry cleaning sign that happened to be handy in same closet, after running up and down the walls a time or two. His little feelers were still twitching, so I brained him with cake of soap and then collected him on the cardboard of a soap box and left his nosy carcass in the hallway… a warning to other tenants: Paradise is not bereft of cockroaches!
After having a late lunch of conch salad and a couple beers that cost $50, I decided to try to find some more affordable food and have dinner in Nassau.
The only problem was… the hotel didn’t offer shuttle service to the larger island, and I wasn’t keen on cabbing it. At least not both ways. So… I put on my walking sandals and began my one big adventure of the week.
The Cricket Club wasn’t much to look at, but it did sit overlooking a cricket field and they served my beloved Newcastle! The only good beer I had on my trip!
I eschewed the Bangers and Mash for a local plate of barbecue chicken, beans ‘n’ rice, plantains and cole slaw. It cost 1/3 the price that it would have across the bridge and was one of the best meals I had there.
The start of karaoke night at the Cricket Club put an end to my writing night, and I headed out across the street to the “Fish Fry” district of restaurants. They looked fun – lots of fish fry shacks along the ocean. But I didn’t have a chance to get back there over the next few days. I also didn’t walk the 5 miles back across the bridge; I broke down and caught a cab.
One big downside of this particular trip was that it was held over the same week as the Cub Scouts’ annual Pinewood Derby. Shaun and I built his car before I left, but I was bummed I couldn’t be there to see the race.
Still, he continued his streak of winning “Creative” awards for his Pinewood Derby Car. This was the 4th “video game” car I’ve helped him build for the Derby (following Angry Birds, Minecraft and Dragonvale) and while we’ve never built the fastest cars… they hold their own. On Jan. 23rd he placed 2nd, 2nd, 2nd!
I was on Paradise Island for a solid week – Tuesday to Tuesday – but the days flew by pretty quickly, since I was working most of the time… and the weather, as I noted, wasn’t exactly what you’d hope for. Plus, they close the beaches and outside pools and bars there at 5 p.m., so I was holed up inside a lot more than I expected. I watched a couple movies in my room, and saw Lucy in the hotel theater one night.
I had been hoping to get more writing done there than I did… but I got in a little, at the Cricket Club and at the bar of the Todd English restaurant Olives (wasn’t impressed with their expensive flatbread, I have to say!). Next to the steak and the Cricket chicken, I think my best meal was right at the end of the trip — I had the most artistic-looking highbrow Chile Rellenos at Bobby Flay’s fancy southwestern Mesa Grill.
The whole time I was there, I was wishing my family could have come on this trip to enjoy the resort while I was working… but it just wasn’t to be this time. At the end, I was really happy to finally board the plane home. Paradise is beautiful, but you don’t want to be there alone!
I write novels, I don’t build furniture. But sometimes, circumstance, bravery (or foolishness) collide. I am writing this blog to hopefully show that if you want it bad enough… you can build it. I documented most of my steps along the way with photos, so you can see all of the steps I went through. All of the photos on this page are thumbnails – click on them to see full-size versions.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN…
A few months ago, my basement had some water damage thanks to a faulty sump pump and all the carpet was removed. Before having new carpet installed, I decided that while the main room was bare concrete floor and empty of furnishings, I would finally take a crack at replacing the old half-bar that had been fashioned out of paneling 30 years ago by the home’s original owner. I wanted a more formal bar that resembled the Irish bars I’ve grown to love writing novels in.
However… the stores that sell home bars wanted $3,000 – $5,000 for the kind of bar I wanted, and really none of them offered the kind of gorgeous golden oak I loved, even if I could have afforded that kind of price tag. And they wouldn’t have fit the particular space I had very well, given that I had a short wall and a built-in refrigerator I couldn’t completely block.
So I was left with the option of trying to build it myself.
The only problem with that idea was, my experience with woodwork is almost nil. I replaced some plank flooring in a shed once… and helped my stepbrother install a small deck at my first house 20 years ago. That’s about it. I didn’t even have most of the tools I would need. During the course of this project I made a LOT of trips to Menard’s, and ended up buying a new circular saw, miter saw, rechargeable drill, carpenter’s square, nail sinker, tape measure and electric sander, among other things. That certainly inflated my overall pricetag, but I now have a great work bench in my utility room.
I didn’t let little things like lack of knowledge, experience or tools stop me! And you shouldn’t either!
CREATING THE PLAN…
I scoured the Internet for plans and “how-to’s” on home bars and found a few articles and YouTube videos with various approaches. I compared what they did with what I wanted, and found myself coming back again and again to Gordon Milligan’s excellent blog post on how he built his home bar. Emboldened that it might actually be possible for someone completely inexperienced like me to do this, I sat down and planned out the dimensions for what I wanted to do for my own project.
I’m a very visual person, and can’t really deal well with blueprints. I created some initial planning schematics in Photoshop to give me a plan, but I also saw a lot of articles that suggest using boxes or some other three dimensional object to get a feeling for what your “plan” will really feel like in three-dimensional space once it’s done… and I think that’s wise. I already had “half” a bar (the one I was replacing), so I used that — putting it in place first on one side, and then sliding it to the other side of the area where my new L shaped bar would go (the previous bar was simply an I). I chalked out the floor around it so while I had dimensions committed to paper, I would visibly see if something had gone awry from my original plan while I worked. Having a concrete floor at the time and building it in place was definitely a plus.
BUILDING THE FRAME…
The first step was to build a frame. I’d never framed anything. But looking at Milligan’s post and a couple others, I gradually got the concept of using “squares” of wood that interlock. I opted to use 2 x 4s instead of 2 x 6s, because my bar wasn’t going to be that long — just over 6.5 feet in one direction, and just under 6 feet in the other (measured from the ends of the Chicago bar rail, not the frame itself).
You have to do some math here to arrive at how big to make your frame… because on top of your frame, you’re going to hang wood of a certain dimension (probably 3/4 inch) and then you’re going to want to seat a bar top above that which covers the frame and extends 8-10 inches past your “walls” so people’s knees have somewhere to go. So you need to plan your frame based on the width of your actual bar top as well as on the ultimate final height. You should end up with your bar being about 41″ high.
If you’re doing an L shape bar as I did, you can actually build two sections completely separately, and then press them together at the very end and “latch” them. That’s how some of the pre-fab bars at furniture stores work. But I wanted my bar top to meet at an 45 degree angle and I wanted the whole bar to feel like a solid piece, so my frame is not divisible. That also means, my bar can never be disassembled to easily leave my basement. I pity the man who decides to take it apart someday.
A lot of people build the bar and then build the additional cabinetry as a separate box that sits behind the bar… I decided to frame in the cabinet area right under the bar to make the best use of space, so my frame was deeper than many I’ve seen. One problem I created for myself… In the last picture above, you can see that I made a smaller cabinet on the left (front) face of the bar than on the right. I also made the right side a couple inches deeper than the small cabinet, so I could store more things. This came back to bite me in the end, because that meant that the bar top needed to be extra wide to cover one side vs. the other… the realistic endgame of that is that the overhang on one side is shorter than the other. Nobody would notice really… but it’s a consideration I didn’t consider in planning!
You also have to plan whether your bar top is going to be edged by some rounded finishing pieces or by true Chicago bar rail. My dream was to have a bar that really looked like a pro bar… so Chicago bar rail it was. But that’s an expensive proposition too – about $12 a foot. To me it was worth it… because that edge is what you’re going to look at every time you walk into the room. I ordered six-foot lengths from Hardwoods Inc. and ended up having to order an extra piece because I’d underestimated my spoilage. Cutting that stuff without pro equipment can be challenging! But we’ll get there in a minute.
HANGING ‘CLOTHES’ ON THE FRAME…
After I created my frame, I used oak veneer plywood (3/4″) to cover the front. I didn’t have a solid piece that long, so I tried to cut the two pieces for each in a length that would naturally be covered by my facing slats. I screwed those into the 2 x 4s of the frame, knowing that I would be adding slats later that would cover the screws and the seams. On the inside, I used 1/4 inch oak plywood.
For the top “underside” shelf I used 1″ solid oak, but since I ended up facing it, I really could have saved a couple bucks there and used oak veneer plywood. That’s what I used for the interior shelves. For those, I screwed in 1 x 1 oak strips to serve as my shelf support (again, in retrospect, I could have saved some money and used pine since it’s really not visible). To cut out the front U opening in the shelves that fits around the 2 x 4 central dividers, I clamped the shelves to the top of the bar frame and used a jigsaw to create the U cut. Despite careful measuring, I cut them too tight the first time and had to open up the “hole” a little… but that was better than the reverse problem.
After I had the shelving placed inside, I used 1/4″ oak veneer slats to cover the visible sides of the 2×4 support. These were attached with wood glue and clamps. Then I used 1 x 2 pieces to create a facing lattice on the cabinet insides to hide the seams. These were also glued, with some small finishing nails to hold them in place. I used a nail punch to push the nails deep into the 1/4″ pieces and then covered them with wood filler.
Once the cabinet insides were finished, I could finally add the facing boards on the outside. I used oak 1 x4″ pieces, except for the vertical end pieces which were wider. I wanted everything tight, so I tended to cut them slightly large and then shaved them down a hair at a time on the miter saw until the seams all snugged up well.
THE BIG CUT!
Once the back facing was in place, I began to get the bar top ready. I placed a couple of 1 x 20 x 72″ sanded plywood pieces on top of my frame, and positioned my two 1 x 16 x 72″ oak boards on top of that, and then placed the oak rail in place to see how it all was going to sit once I began cutting things to size.
Once I was sure all of the pieces were going to work, I cut the plywood base for the bar top and screwed that into my frame. Then I cut the oak boards for my bar top… probably in the worst way possible! I didn’t have a table saw, and the miter saw would only cut 12 inches… I needed 16. So I put the two pieces on top of each other in a right angle and clamped them down hard. I also clamped my level — I used it as a metal guide for my saw to move against and stay straight. Then I used my circular saw to free-form cut across the two pieces to make my 45 degree angle cut. A pretty risky proposition with two big expensive pieces of oak. In the end, I got lucky and it worked pretty well… but I didn’t achieve a perfect no gap seam – after sanding, staining and varnish, it looks good, but it’s not as “tight” as a table saw would have gotten it.
Once that most stressful cut was complete, I clamped the oak in position, applied some wood glue to help lock it to the plywood frame beneath it, and then screwed the base and the top together. I drilled small holes on the underside of the bar and then screwed up from beneath (which was difficult in the far ends inside the cabinet!) I used screws short enough that they wouldn’t come through the top of my bar. Once it was screwed so much that it will never, ever, ever come apart, I sanded the top down, especially the area where the 45 degree seam met.
Finally, it was time to do the second most important cuts of the project.
THE BAR RAIL…
Bar rail is a stepped piece of wood, so it’s difficult to cut easily. It’s really important to a) have a good table/miter saw and b) put a spoiler board of the right size under the “step” of the underside of the bar rail. My miter saw turned out not to be a “perfect” angle cutter and I ended up re-cutting my edges several times because I kept ending up with a cut that left the top of the bar rail separated while the bottom was tight. Ultimately I ended up tilting the blade of my miter saw a degree to ensure the bottom of the rail wasn’t stopping the top from closing tight. That’s what you get when you buy a $100 miter saw instead of a pro piece of equipment. But I made it work. Watch this key video on YouTube to see how to do this… I watched it many times!
After I got the bar rails cut, I applied wood glue to the subboard and upper inside “step” of the bar rail. Then I clamped them in place, and drilled holes every few inches on the underside, making sure my screws were going to go through in the deepest section, so they didn’t pop through the top of my rail. It was a wonderful feeling when I took those clamps off the next day and everything was solid and tight!
THE SPILL RAIL…
After screwing the bar rail in place, I cut 1×3 oak boards and made the outside of the spill rail. Because of my shelving, I actually needed a thicker edge than many bars I’ve seen in order to allow my bar top to overhang on the outside of the frame enough, while covering the whole frame too. My actual center oak of the bar was 16″ wide. But with the bar rail and the spill rail, the full depth of my bar from edge to edge is just over 26″.
Basically with my spill trough and its outlying rail, I extended my top by several inches and achieved the coverage over the frame and cabinets that I needed, while providing a useful feature in a basement that would have carpet — while many spill rails are not contained on the inside of the bar, mine is… because you don’t want spills draining onto the carpet, but rather being contained by the spill trough.
I used my existing Makers Mark rubber mat to tell me the right dimension for the trough (3.5 inches). Once I had it all set, I glued and clamped the trough rails in place and screwed them into the support plywood from underneath so no screws show.
I also faced the inside of the trough with 1/4″ oak strips. Originally, I did this to both extend the live surface of the bar a half inch on the bartenders’ side, as well as to provide a slight divider between the bar top and the overflow into the trough. I was going to use an epoxy to finish the top of the bar and I figured that little bump would keep the epoxy contained on the bar so that it didn’t drain into the trough. In the end, I opted to simply varnish the bar, so that plan was unnecessary.
I used the 1/4″ oak veneer strips to cover the bottom of the trough so that you weren’t seeing the plywood that the oak bartop was screwed into. Then I faced the inside rail of the bar with two rounded oak veneer pieces. These gave it a finished look and also helped hide the fact that one side of the inside part of the bar stuck out from the frame slightly more than the other!
I faced the front and side vertical panels of the bar with a 1 x 6″ oak piece on the bottom and .5 x 4″ slats vertically spaced out strategically to hide the seams of my oak face. These were attached with wood glue and a couple small finishing nails to hold them tight while the glue dried since I had no way to clamp them. I sunk the nails below the wood surface and covered them with wood filler. I actually varied the pattern of the slats between the front and the long side, and like how it turned out.
MAKING DOORS WITH WINDOWS…
The final building step was to create the cabinet doors. I wanted the side of the bar that you could see walking into the room faced with doors, while I left the other side open.
I used 1 x 3″ oak strips and miter cut the ends to 45 degree angles. I actually cut them one on top of each other on the miter saw to ensure a matched cut. Then I laid them out on a flat cement floor, glued them and screwed them together. To hide the screws, I faced them with a 1/4″ oak finishing strip that I glued on and clamped. On the inside, I glued quarter round pieces, so that there was an inside “shelf” for the glass to rest on.
I learned the importance of not letting any glue leak out onto visible surfaces with that maneuver — I thought I’d worked pretty clean with the glue, but I ended up with some discolored areas once I applied the stain — you could see where glue had seeped out and soaked into the wood. Luckily I was able to touch up the marks with a Miniwax Stain Marker.
Once assembled, I attached the plexiglass I had had cut to size at our hardware store by screwing it in with screen clip holders. I then removed the plexiglass until after the stain and varnish were done (leaving the holder screws in place) and attached the doors with three hinges each. I set the doors up on blocks to ensure an equal alignment.
THE HOME STRETCH – ADDING COLOR AND SHINE!
Once the doors were on, it was time to sand and stain. I used both a small power sander and sanding sponges to go over all the visible areas. To choose the stain, I bought some stain sample packets at Menard’s and used the scraps of wood from the bar rail and bar front to test what each of our favorite options might look like. I love the honey oak look, but I wanted to make sure this had a little deeper richness to it, so I ended up using Varathane’s Golden Mahogany. I started on the inside so that if I hated it, or made any newbie mistakes, I could hide it. Once I’d completed brushing it on and paper toweling the excess back off, I stood back and looked… and worried that I’d gone too dark.
My wife agreed it looked a little darker than we thought, but urged me to press on… and once it dried, it did lighten just a bit, letting the buttery finish show.
The addition of varnish brought out the golden hue more, and in the end, it looked exactly as I’d hoped!
This was the first time I’d varnished anything in probably 25 years, and when I read the instructions to sand the urethane after each coat, I couldn’t believe it… how counter-productive is that? You put on a paper thin coat and then sand half it back off? But if you want a non-bumpy finish… you have to do it.
I brushed on 5 coats of urethane over the course of 4 days. I used fine sandpaper in between the first couple coats and then began using steel wool. I used a a tack cloth to make sure the dust all came off, however, the first four coats of Miniwax Spar Urethane were full of small remnants – it was as if I was painting the bar with a clear coat that included hundreds of grains of sand. I tried a new can, and got the same result. Finally on the fifth coat, I switched and used Varathane Spar Urethane… and the result was amazing. The urethane went on with a completely different consistency than the Miniwax. It dried to a beautiful, clear almost speckless coat, and I decided that that was as good as it was going to get. I saw some recommendations to do 7 coats, but I stopped at 5. That coat count, by the way, is for the top. I only went over the sides of the bar twice. Those didn’t need to be like glass.
A few days after my final coat, the carpet came… it was a wonderful feeling to move that bar finally into position. It had taken over two months… but I had built a bar!
THE TAP DISPLAY…
But I wasn’t completely done. I had gotten the idea to create a beer tap display to mount on the wall behind the bar. During the weeks that I was slowly building the bar, I also was searching eBay for the taps of my favorite beer as well as some cheap tap spigots to “mount” my taps on to create an authentic looking display (much as I would have loved to have them, I was not going to run real tap lines through the wall… and then have to clean them every week!). I found some kegerator spigots for about $10 a piece, and one by one, assembled my wish list of taps.
Once I had all my taps and tap spigots ready, I took two pieces of oak and cut them to size. I used a 1 1/8″ spade bit for my drill and bored holes in the top piece with about 2.75″ in between each hole. Then I glued that board to the larger board, stained and urethaned them, and then used Gorilla Glue to lock my spigots into the holes (I tried to find a way that I could screw them into the wood… but that didn’t work. Gorilla Glue locked them in really good – I just had to go sparingly on it, so the push-pull tap action didn’t get locked up when the Gorilla Glue foamed up inside the spigots).
THE BACK BAR…
My final project for the bar space was to build a “back bar.” The taps looked a little odd, floating up high on the wall with nothing beneath them, and I had more wine then our small wine rack held. Plus, I had more of my pint glass collection I wanted to display. So I decided to build a combination wine rack / glass holder to fill the space beneath the taps.
I was a little worried about the length of the thing – the wall space between the refrigerator and the bar cabinet doors is not a lot. And I didn’t want to completely block the cabinet from opening. I figured out what seemed like a good compromise and then used wine bottles to gauge how deep the lower half had to be — I didn’t want it to stick out a half inch farther than it had to from the wall! The rest was a fairly simple project after the bar — I framed up a box using oak (again, I could have saved a lot of money on this piece if I’d used mostly pine).
I measured my existing wine rack to decide how much clearance I needed between shelves, and then figured out how many shelves I could have in order to have the top piece of wood end up level with the top of the bar (41″).
Most people would do this on paper, but I figured all the measurements out using my grid in Photoshop.
I used 1.5″ and 3″ hole saws on my drill to make the wine bottle holes in the wood, both front and back of shelf pieces (small holesaw on the front and wide on the back.) I used the wine bottles again to figure out how much spacing I wanted between the holes and then clamped two pieces of wood together and drilled out my holes (one piece got the top half of the hole saw, the other piece got the bottom, so I ended u with half circles in each board).
I used small 1 x 1 boards to hold up the shelves, and then drilled and glued the rear bottle supports onto the back of each shelf board. I set those in place and slid them out slightly, so that the front wine bottle holders sat on them… then I drilled holes and attached those to the frame and then slid the shelves back inside. So the end result is, my shelves are removable, if I desire, though they look locked in place. I sunk the screws in below the face of the wood, and put filler over the top. You can see the circles, but they look like rustic wood plugs instead of visible screws.
The top half for the glasses was a very simple box made of 1x4s with a shelf right in the middle of it. I put 1/4 inch oak veneer on the backs of both pieces, and then sanded, stained and varnished them (two coats). After it dried, I brought it to its new home behind the bar, and screwed the top onto the bottom by going up from beneath, so the screws wouldn’t show. It worked out nicely!
And then for the finishing touch — I snaked Christmas rope lights inside the main bar and tacked them in place with some cable holders. Then I added an easy on-off switch at the end of the extension cord and hid them with a bottle on the lower shelf. This really brightened up the bar – there’s nothing like the gleam of colored liquor bottles being backlit!
One thing I wasn’t going to do was build the barstools… but I couldn’t find any that matched the wood of the bar — everything seems to be done in walnut and cherry. And in most of the stores where they sell bar stool and rec room furniture, the prices were $200 and $300 per stool. Ultimately, I found a set at Hobo that worked well – they were cherry, but with black leather and swivel seats. And they were just $80 a chair with backs, and half that for the stools without backs… I bought three “chair” stools for one side and three no-back stools for the other. While they don’t match the bar, they complement it nicely – and they’re comfortable!
It was a long, involved project, one that took up my minimal free time for months… but it was definitely worth doing. It looks great, it’s custom to the space, and every time I walk into the room, something inside me perks up and pounds its invisible chest and says “I did that. Me!” I think I’m more proud of the accomplishment of this project than I am of most of the books I’ve written. Speaking of which… for those of you waiting on the next Everson novel… it’s going to be a bit delayed. I… um… spent a lot of my “writing time” this year building a bar!
Of course, those of you who follow my work probably know that I do a lot of my writing in bars — and now I have a really comfortable one very close to home. So maybe I’ll be more productive this year.
After all, the bartender never calls for my tab!
P.S. If you found this post useful… please take a look at one of my horror books or e-books… because, you know… I’m an author and my novels and short story collections help pay the bills – and they are what allowed me to make the oak bar in my basement! Amazon even has a special page devoted to my books here: http://www.amazon.com/John-Everson/e/B002BMHL52/
UPDATE: In December 2016, there is a Kickstarter effort going on for my new novel Redemption (my 9th novel!). You can see the video and info about the book here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1910939389/redemption-a-novel-by-john-everson
Christmas is the time to celebrate your family and friends. It’s a time to remember and rekindle. It’s my favorite time of the year, not because of gifts, but because it’s when you get together with friends and relatives who you might not see often, if at all, during the rest of the year.
My Christmas week has started out great — I am on vacation for the next couple weeks, and so last night, I staged my third annual Christmas Ale (and bourbon) and Chili by the Pool Table night, with a group of guys from our neighborhood.
Because I was home yesterday, I was able to take a break from my afternoon of chili-concocting to go watch Shaun’s school sing Christmas carols in the gym. I also got to see Shaun throw a pie in his teacher’s face! One of the school’s fundraising drives this year was to sell pies — and my wife Geri was one of the masterminds in charge of this year’s event. To spur on pie sales, they staged an event where if you bought a pie, your kid got entered in a drawing to be able to throw a pie in a teacher’s face at the Christmas party yesterday. Ironically, Shaun’s name was drawn by the principal! It was a fun hour and the kids had a blast… and Shaun got to do something most kids never have a chance to do!
Then I went back to my kitchen to finish preparing my jalapeno cornbread and three flavors of Chili. I’m a “bean” chili kind of guy, so my chili has hamburger with kidney beans and chili beans, along with a healthy collection of sweet red and green peppers, onions, some homegrown tomatoes, garlic and different varieties of hot peppers, some of which I brought back from New Mexico and froze a few months ago:
1) Mild Green Hatch chili pepper and Poblano (the base for all three chilis)
2) Hot Green Hatch Chili Peppers with Jalapenos and Serranos
3) Hot Green Hatch Chili Peppers with Jalapenos, Serranos and Habaneros. Plus Red Hatch Chili powder.
Seven of my friends from the neighborhood came over last night, and we pretty much polished off most of a giant vat’s worth of Chili. I filled a big silver soup pot to the brim during the afternoon before dividing it into three crock pots and adding the different peppers. The little bowl in front of the soup pot in the picture below is all that was left this morning!
Everyone brought their favorite holiday ales, and after the chili, we cooled off the gullets with plenty of those, as well as some bourbon. This year my personal favorites are the Deschutes Jubelale and Boulevard’s Nut Cracker Ale, thanks to their rich, carmel molasses tones, but we also had some of my favorite from last year, Great Divide’s Hibernation Ale, as well as Fistmas from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing and the Christmas Ale’s from Breckenridge and Great Lakes. We spent much of the night around the air hockey and pool table, trading off stream-of-consciousness DJ-ing via YouTube and my iPod library. 3 a.m. came really fast!
After a great evening with friends last night, tonight we went out to a new local brewery — Hopvine — for dinner with another family. Shaun and their boys spent the whole time messing around with the iPad and iPhones while the adults got to catch up. The food and company made for a relaxing evening. And I love the Ben Franklin quote they have posted above the bar there (click the picture to see it).
This is the way life should be all the time — getting together with your friends every week, but we’re usually too busy running around “taking care of business” to make it happen very often.
I wish Christmas came more than once a year!
World Horror 2013 in New Orleans was no different… this was my 11th World Horror Con, and a special one for me, since my novel NightWhere was a Bram Stoker Awards finalist for best novel (the awards were held Saturday night).
I flew in Thursday morning and after checking in and getting the “lay of the land” in the Hotel Monteleone (a beautiful, classic hotel), I stopped in briefly at the hotel’s famous Carousel Bar – a round bar that slowly moves around its center. I’m not sure who thought this was a genius idea… I’d think the last thing that you’d want to encourage drinkers to feel is that the room is slowly spinning. I only had half a NOLA Blonde Ale there and I had to get off the merry-go-round and sit somewhere else.
After that, I took a walk through the quarter to Turtle Bay on Decatur, so that I could find a NOLA Brown Ale on tap – my favorite micro-brew in New Orleans. It’s a darker ale, like Abita Brewing’s Turbodog, but has a fuller, maltier aftertaste. Abita Brewing is on tap everywhere, but the smaller NOLA brewery, for my money, is crafting better beer.
After talking with my bartendress for an hour or two about her experiences in growing up in New Orleans (I never did get around to asking her what the skillsaw tattoo on her shoulder was all about!), I hit the restroom, focused, aimed and flushed, and headed back towards the Monteleone – now fully ready to join the convention.
This turned out to be the only day I was actually walking more than a couple blocks from the hotel in the quarter, so I’m glad I caught the performance of the Cajun band (complete with standup bass, fiddle and washboard!) on the streetcorner.
I sat in on John Little’s entertaining reading, and then got up to the mic myself, reading the prologue of NightWhere and then the title story to my second collection, “Vigilantes of Love,” which is set in New Orleans (I wrote it 10 years ago, inspired by my first trip to NOLA in the late ’90s).
After that reading, someone came up to me with a copy of In Laymon’s Terms with a request to sign it… I declined, since I’m not in the book… turns out he had me confused with John Urbancic. Once she caught wind of that story, Kelly Laymon began plotting to find other people to send to me to sign the volume. She ended up calling me Urbancic all weekend.
That night, Loren Rhoads invited me to join a group that went to Café Du Monde, and so I met Dana Fredsti and her husband David Fitzgerald, Craig Delouie, Erika Holt and Tammy Lindsley, who’s heading up next year’s World Horror Convention in Portland. We had coffee and beignets at midnight there, where Dana unwittingly demonstrated how NOT to eat beignets (she was covered in powdered sugar by the end!), but then after a nightcap (and a book trade with Dana – NightWhere for her Plague Town) we called it an early night.
The next morning I went to the “Anthologies – How To Get Your Story Into Them” panel with Angel Leigh McCoy, Vince Liaguno, R. J. Cavender, Bev Vincent, Ellen Datlow and Tom Monteleone before heading to the “New Media Presentation” by Guest of Honor Amber Benson (in which she showed her web series for BBC on Ghosts of Albion, written with Christopher Golden).
From there, I wandered into the “Zombie Apocalypse – Now What?” panel with Joe McKinney, Don D’Auria, F. Paul Wilson, Rio Youers, James Chambers and John Joseph Adams.
After an excellent lunch with my editor Don D’Auria at Redfish Grill, Chad Hensley grabbed me and Mikey Huyck for a beer (at the non-revolving bar), which turned into a chat session that lasted the rest of the afternoon, and was eventually joined by John Urbancik, Sephera Giron, Hal Bodner and Hank Schwaeble.
Finally, Hal, Hank and I decided we could stall no longer and headed to our 5 ‘oclock panel on “Extreme Fiction,” which also included Don D’Auria, Bracken MacLeod and C. W. LaSart. We seemed to be hung up on defining “torture porn” for awhile, but it was an entertaining panel, I think.
Then it was on to the “Mass Signing” where they sit all the authors of the con at tables and let everyone sign books that others bring, or sell their own books if they want. I shared at table with Damien Walters Grintalis, and we also had fellow Samhain authors David Bernstein, Brian Pinkerton and Russell James on either side – it was like the Samhain aisle!. I signed several copies of V-Wars, as well as some old Leisure paperbacks and a couple copies of NightWhere. Thanks to Sandy Shelonchik (and Deb Kuhn for the last one) for snapping these photos:
In turn, I had Yvonne Navarro and Jonathan Maberry sign MY copy of V-Wars, and brought Lucy Taylor a couple books to sign, including the Silver Salamander edition of her excellent Close to the Bone collection from the ‘90s.
After the signing, there was a “costume” dance party with a live band of authors, sponsored by Heather Graham (who also fronted the microphone). That led into an 11 p.m. party in the con suite with the lights low and lots of glowsticks available… which made their way to some interesting places in the following couple hours.
They also had a photo booth that spit out sheets of instant pictures, which was a big hit… especially with those who had been enjoying the open bar for awhile.
At some point late in the evening David Bernstein and I began talking shop and went out on the balcony overlooking the Quarter… and somehow 2:30 arrived and we were the last people in the room! So we finally called it a night.
Thanks to being awake ’til 3, I didn’t make any of the panels on Saturday morning, but I did go on a coffee run with Damien (who treated me to caffeine!), and then went to Alan Clark’s “Accidental Art” demonstration, where they used paint, balloons, a bit of water and a hair dryer to create some really beautiful acrylic paintings.
After that, I went to the Dealer’s Room and talked a bit with Shane McKenzie, Chris Morey, Armand Rosamilia, Mandy Slater and Steve Laurent. Then Loren Rhoads and I grabbed lunch at NOLA, a great Emeril restaurant near Jackson Square. I had some decadently rich shrimp and grits (with mushrooms!) and Loren had the biggest Po’ Boy I’ve ever seen.
To kill time before the Stokers, we checked out the rooftop pool (wish I would have brought a suit!) and met a fellow writer and fan who said she was rooting for NightWhere that night, since she’d really loved the book (always a nice thing to hear!)
I talked a bit with Tim Waggoner at the bar and Chad Hensley shot my picture in front of the big lobby grandfather clock (I need one of these for my house!) and then hung out in the art room for an hour with Alan Clark and Chad Savage… then … suddenly, it was time to get ready for the big night!
At the Stokers, the Samhain reserved tables were right up in front, so I literally was right in front of the podium – best seat in the house! Don D’Auria and his wife Leah Hultenshmidt flanked me on one side and Sandy Shelonchik and David Bernstein were on the other, giving me moral support for the night. And across the table, was fellow Chicagoan Brian Pinkerton and his wife. We also had Adam Cesare and Mason Bundschuh, so it was a pretty supportive table! Plus, my wife and son were watching the ceremony on the webcast, since they couldn’t be there, so thanks to that and frequent texts, it was like they were with me! But unlike past Stoker banquets, I wasn’t really nervous this time around. I think just feeling all of the love and support from so many at the convention over the weekend about the book put my nerves at ease – I didn’t need to win, I already had the affirmation of my peers about the book.
There were some great moments over the course of the night; Jeff Strand was his typical hilarious emcee self, and Ramsey Campbell set up the Best Novel award with an amusing story about looking back on what a “book” is from the future. (yes, he joked, they used to actually be these things on paper that you opened and touched!)
I was proud to be at the ceremony where Clive Barker received his Lifetime Achievement Award, since his work has been such an inspiration and influence to me over the years (and he was there in 2005 and took a picture with me when I won my Stoker Award). I served on the Lifetime Achievement jury this year, so it was great to see that part of the ceremony in person! Unfortunately Clive couldn’t be there this year, but his assistant gave a speech on his behalf. Robert McCammon was also a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was there to accept, which was awesome.
As a Chicagoan, I was very proud and happy for Mort Castle, who has been an inspiration and strong supporter of my work – Mort took home two awards, one for his short fiction collection New Moon on the Water and one for Shadow Show, the Bradbury tribute anthology he co-edited with Sam Weller. Later that night, the three of us grabbed Chad Savage and Brian Pinkterton and took a “Chicago boyz” photo at the Stoker After-Party.
While the innovative V-Wars anthology he pulled several of us into unfortunately didn’t make the Stoker ballot, I was happy to see Jonathan Maberry win a haunted house for his Young Adult novel Flesh and Bone.
And then… it was the end game… I thought about what I would say if NightWhere won the best novel award – thanking my wife, Geri, and Don, the editor of all my novels. Thanking people like Charlee Jacob, Lucy Taylor, Tim Waggoner and Mort Castle for their inspiration and support.
The envelope opened…
And NightWhere was not the winner. No need to be all nervous about a speech!
A letdown… but I was OK with it all. When I wrote the novel, I never even considered that NightWhere would end up as a Best Novel finalist — none of my other novels have been in that category, and this one was the most “out there.”
After Caitlin Kiernan took home the Stoker for Best Novel, the formal ceremonies ended, and I dumped the suit and tie for jeans and went to drink a few at the Stoker After Party sponsored by Samhain. They had a giant poster of NightWhere there, which ironically right after its loss, was the first time the poster had “come out of the closet” all weekend (it had gotten locked up with some other packing materials and never got set out during the rest of the panels and sessions over the weekend!)
Brian Pinkerton shot a picture of me in front of it, and returned the favor with his giant Killer’s Diary poster.
I also shot a video of the impromptu jam session that Mort Castle and Mason Bundschuh staged in the corner near the bar.
Harmonica and ukelele blues?
It all wound down, ironically, to the same group that I started the con with, three nights before. Dana, David and Tammy took Brian Pinkterton and me back to a room party for a glass of wine with Seph, Chris Morey, Matt Schwartz and a couple others, and then it was a flurry of goodnights and goodbyes… five hours later, I was on a shuttle on the way to the airport (having had almost no sleep, thanks to the street revelers outside my window!)
As always, it all felt much too short, but it was great to catch up, albeit briefly, with old friends, as well as meet some new ones. And now the clock begins counting down to World Horror 2014… next May in Portland.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been to Ann Arbor, Michigan and Calgary, Canada on business trips. Both turned out to be great micro-brew towns, with a handful of small breweries all within a few blocks of each other. So over the course of a few days I poked my head in, snapped a couple pictures and sampled a variety of ales. Click on any of the pictures to see larger versions…
For such a small town, they had an awful lot of busy brewpubs downtown! Interestingly, I had two different locals tell me that the best brewpub in town was Grizzly Peak, so we hit there for dinner the first night. While the menu looked great, the food we had was lackluster (my potatoes came out nearly cold) and the beer we sampled was thin and flavorless. I thought the Bear Paw Porter was OK, but nothing to return for.
The next night we stopped for a beer at Jolly Pumpkin after a great Mexican dinner across the street. I wish we could have spent more time there! The atmosphere at the Pumpkin was better than Grizzly Peak’s, it looked like a good menu and a much better mix of taps. As it stood, I only tasted the Siren, a decent amber ale.
The next night for dinner, we went to Arbor Brewing Company, which had good burgers and an excellent Olde Number 33 German Alt. Both Arbor and Jolly Pumpkin feature some pretty arty labels for their bottled beers – I looked at some of the posters of the bottle art on the walls and wanted to hang them in my basement!
Finally, on the last night, as we were heading out of town, we decided to stop at Blue Tractor BBQ and Brewery. And we hit the mother lode. The barbecue was excellent (great cole slaw, tender brisket, a couple of good tableside sauce options) and the beer was quite good as well – I enjoyed their Sudworth Bock, which apparently has won a couple of World Beer Championship gold medals. That will definitely be my first stop the next time I’m in Ann Arbor!
Another smaller city, I found Calgary to be a pretty big beer town in the couple nights I was there. On the first night, I just walked across the street from my hotel to The Palomino to have some barbecue (pretty decent) and found several area microbrews on tap.
The next night, I had a couple hours free to walk around, so I mapped out a couple places to check out.
First I stopped at Craft Beer Market, a hip brewpub with over 100 Beers on Tap. I had a bowl of their Cheese/Jalapeno soup, which was phenomenal, paired with an equally pleasing Howe Sound Rail Ale Nut Brown brewed in Squamish, BC. I could have kept drinking that, but with 100 taps to choose from… I figured I should taste something else. So I had a couple samples of things that didn’t bowl me over, and then settled on a pint of Central City Red Racer IPA from Surrey, BC which was a nice little IPA – surprisingly drinkable for 80 IBUs.
I pulled the plug then on Craft Beer Market, to check out another place for dinner, but pledged to come back the next night.
I decided on dinner at the Design District Urban Tavern, a really fun gastropub that changes their menu daily.
They have chalkboards on the walls as well as on wheels throughout, so that you really had to look the place over to figure out what you wanted!
They also turned out to have the best Poutine (with roasted jalapenos!) I’ve ever had. I’ve been to Canada quite a few times, but it was only in the past year or two that I finally realized the allure of their Poutine (french fries with cheese curds doused in brown gravy).
The District Burger wasn’t bad either. 🙂
On my last night in town, I decided to have dinner at Craft Beer Market… but when I got there, I found that every seat in the place was taken! It was mobbed (I can understand why… but I was pretty disappointed!).
Instead, I walked a couple blocks to Hudson’s Canadian Tap House. The place had a perfect brewpub atmosphere – great bar, some nice booths… but after a couple of appetizers and their Bale House Ale, I’m afraid I wasn’t terribly excited by any of it.
I wrote there for awhile, but then cashed it in because I didn’t want anymore “just ok” beer when there were plenty of options in town. I stopped back at Craft Beer Market, but the mob there was even worse than before — in fact, they pull all the chairs from the bar on Fridays because it’s so crowded!
So then I walked down to Brewsters, a nice brewpub with their own microbrews. They are also physically connected to Beer Revolution, so if you don’t like the house taps at Brewsters, you can walk down the hall and be in another restaurant/bar with essentially the same menu, but a host of microbrew taps. Their taps change so regularly, that the place is outfitted in lighted menus showing what’s on tap that day and how long it’s expected to remain available. Pretty cool system for the hop head!
I wish I’d had more time to explore Calgary – it seemed like a really friendly, homey city – with a rich network of gastropubs and brewhouses!
I travel a lot both for my dayjob and book promotion… and I love tasting good craft beer. So that means I end up trying a lot of different brews in a lot of different places. I’ve been posting snippets and pictures periodically over the past few years, especially on Facebook, about my various discoveries. But I was thinking after my last flurry of travel that I should start a separate topic on this blog to collect and document some of my adventures in beer snobbery! For my first official entry (I should probably eventually go back and tag some previous blogs to be part of this category as well), I’ll focus on Seattle.
Every time I’m in Seattle, I have a great experience. Last month, while visiting there on business, I enjoyed a home cooked steak dinner that rivaled anything I’ve ever had in a restaurant. And we ate with a great hilltop view over Puget Sound. Amazing.
The first time I visited the town was probably a decade ago now, and I enjoyed seeing Tanya Donelly play the Showbox Theatre and visiting the famous Crocodile club. I also discovered The Pike Brewery, which I returned to the second time I spent a few days in Seattle on business, in October 2009. On that trip, I got the chance to see Stars’ Amy Milan performing solo at The Triple Door, one of the slickest dinner clubs I’ve ever been in, as well as The Sounds play at the Showbox.
So I was looking forward to perhaps catching some more good music and visiting The Pike again last month when I returned to Seattle for a few days. The music turned out to be missing, but I did discover a couple of new breweries.
On my first night in town, I was in the neighborhood of Elysian Brewery’s Tangletown Bistro, and so I walked a mile and enjoyed a Southwestern dinner there with a pint of their Superfuzz Blood Orange Pale which had a nice zing to it.
I’d been hoping to try their brown ale, which was listed on their website, but didn’t end up being “on” at the tap.
This trip, it turned out that I couldn’t spend a lot of time at The Pike – I stopped in briefly for a pretzel and a pint, but there was nothing particularly grabbing on tap.
I didn’t stick around The Pike because I wanted to head down the road to sample things at Pyramid Brewery. Some of their beer is distributed to Chicagoland, so I thought I’d see what their taphouse was like.
A big wide room, since they’re located near the ballpark and obviously get some big crowd traffic. But they had a decent pub menu and a good lineup of homebrewed taps, including some that aren’t bottled. Much to my chagrin, the one I liked the best – Weiss Cream Ale – is only served there.
Here are a couple other shots of Pyramid:
And a few shots from The Pike and Pike’s Market, the hub of Seattle’s downtown, and home of the world famous Pike’s Fish Market: