We’re chomping on cheeseburgers and fries – Anglo-Saxon soul food – in a dark bar on a very bright day.
The burgers are so robust that lunch is a form of yoga. We are stretching parts of the human bod that don’t get stretched in normal everyday routines.
The very best food is physical. You eat it with the shoulders: hunching, lurching, grinding, dancing. When teenage boys eat, it’s like a shark attack.
I am with the little guy and his best buddy, Chase, and they chew as if no one is watching. Ever been in a really good restaurant, surrounded by chatty, well-put-together people, and the grub is so good you wish you were alone so you could really tear into the stuff?
Me too, which is why I rarely go to really good restaurants anymore. It just invites anger and repression. If I wanted that, I’d move back to Des Moines.
Instead, I go to the darkest bars on the brightest days. California noir. Cheeseburgers in paradise.
This may be the hottest day of a very hot summer. The sand cooks our feet and the ocean feels like a juicy first kiss. Hot sand, cool surf. Dark bars, bright days. A good life is loaded with contrasts.
School starts soon, so we are celebrating summer’s final few days. Our waterproof sunscreen is so full of wax that we smell like church. The waves break big, leaving their cool, bubbly milk.
Every once in a while you get these moments when you wouldn’t want to be anyplace else in the cosmos. Not Paris. Certainly not New York. Just here, on the left bank of a restless nation, in a very dark bar on a very bright day.
Shellback Tavern is the name of this particular institution, and if you don’t know it you will one day — one rotten, suffocating Tuesday when you just can’t bring yourself to attend another 10 meetings with chatty, well-put-together people and instead just keep driving to the Manhattan Beach pier and self-soothing in this grand and gritty old cave.
Hooky as therapy. Hooky as salvation.
This old tavern offers a Socratic clarity to my mundane little life. It seems made of driftwood. I think it washed ashore fully formed back in the ’40s. Someone hung a light. Boom, suddenly you had a very nice little tavern.
Of course, no one would confuse the Shellback with a Stradivarius. There is no aesthetic. It exists as a tribute to sticky bohemian values and junky yard-sale decor.
The surfer-servers sit down at your table to take your order and chat you up like you hung out together back in high school.
Instead of the rattle of copy machines and elevator doors, these guys work to the smell of fresh-cut limes and the murmur-purr of the surf. Their “office” is lighted by the smiles of incoming customers — from Holland, from Artesia — discovering a great dive for the very first time.
I could live here. I might actually buy it, if only I could find the owner. It may not even have an owner. Like the Red Cross, it exists just to help people.
As you may know, I hate sequels and chain restaurants … duplicates of any kind. We live now, I think, in the push-pull of franchises and brave artisans trying to do their own thing. The franchises are winning, of course, because they have big money behind them. If I were you, I’d bet on the franchises, the IHOP-Panera-Starbucks trifecta.
Yet the coast of California, which is our real urban core, is dotted with these dark dives that provide an oasis from the pressures of work and the sameness of suburban living. They are escapes from hacked emails, spotty Bluetooth, the bazillion passwords you have to remember, the upgrades that never seem to work.
In California, dive bars by the sea are like train whistles in the night.
There is Chez Jay and Big Dean’s in Santa Monica, Naja’s in Redondo, the Rudder Room in Oxnard. Without them, even more insidious chains move in. Before you know it, they’ve eaten your mojo.
“Isn’t this place great?” I ask the boys as they attack their meals.
Their cheeseburgered responses sound like two guys who just swallowed their pillows.
Gooth, Yepth. Uh-huhth …
“Guys, here’s to Stan Mikita,” I say, raising an icy Coke in a toast to the late hockey great.
“Whoth?” blurts the boy.
“Stan Mikita,” I explain. “A working stiff, a legend long ago.”
“Oh,” he says.
Someday they’ll understand.