April 14, 2012
I'm on my way down to lower Orange County in our old minivan, the Honey Fitz. It's bleeding power steering fluid, but other than that the Honey Fitz is charging out of the barn, three of the four cylinders firing in sequence, the other a virtual wooden leg.
I'd planned to bring my wife, Posh, but when I left the house, she was all tied up with some project. Actually, she was lying on the bedroom floor, ensnared in the strings of a Pinocchio toy she was trying to put away a little too quickly.
Poor Posh. But she's got to learn her knots.
"Leave it to you to get an assignment in a bar," she hollers as I leave the house.
"I know. I don't even like bars," I remind her.
Who does? I never met anyone in a bar who I couldn't just as easily have met in a holding tank or a newsroom. Not that I haven't been in a few bars. In college, I drank so much beer I used to get yeast infections.
These days, I'm so done with bars. The low-rent ones are scary and the high-rent ones slightly fascist, full of moneyed development types with shiny, patent-leather cheeks.
The only bars I really like: Tinhorn Flats in Burbank, Rusty's Surf Ranch down by the beach in Santa Monica, Mutt Lynch's in Balboa. And the oaky old bar at the Biltmore (fascist, but a good fascist).
"Smells like Shakespeare," to borrow a line from "New Girl," the cleverest show on TV.
So, I had no intention of ever going to another bar but these, till I ran across this curious old saying:
"In wine there is wisdom,
In beer there is freedom,
In tequila there is truth,
In water there is bacteria."
That makes so much sense I decide to head down to Swallow's Inn in San Juan Capistrano, a slice-of-life place with a rabid following. In my case, it was a health issue.
Here's what I immediately like about Swallow's: everything.
Customers, thankfully mostly women, have flung undergarments to the ceiling, where they hang like sexy Spanish moss. Talk about public displays of affection.
"The things that go up, we just sort of leave 'em," bartender Cal Grimes explains.
Swallow's is pure honky-tonk. A newspaper, actually this one, purportedly once declared it "One of the 10 worst saloons in America," which the place still wears as a badge of honor.
"It's not a pickup joint, it's not a biker bar, it's everything," says manager Cheryl Krupp.
This is still cowboy country, in that sliver of prairie between Laguna and Camp Pendleton, Orange County's last Ponderosa. Until recently, patrons would ride horses through the bar, till it got too dangerous — presumably for the horses.
Every night, except karaoke Thursdays, there is live music, the kind that makes you jump, the kind that makes you get up and move.
There is rarely a cover charge. The demographic ranges from barely legal to barely breathing.
Steve Nordeck bought the joint in 1994.
"I said, 'I'll clean it up, but I won't change it,'" he recalls promising the sellers, from the bar's originating family.
I'm not sure how much he actually cleaned it, but Nordeck showed the good sense not to mess with history. He says the 58-year-old saloon enjoyed its best month ever in March, thanks, of course, to the town's annual Swallows' Day Parade andSt. Patrick's Day, which fell on a Saturday this year. That never hurts the bar biz.
"I always give the credit to the people who created it," he says of the bar's long run.
What makes a gritty hole-in-the-wall like this a great bar, a local treasure, the kind of friendly joint that lures folks from San Diego or L.A.? Mostly it's fun, without a trace of 'tude.
"There's something unique about the feel," Nordeck says. "No matter who you are, you can be a homeless person, a gangbanger, a cowboy, a millionaire.... Once you step in the door, everybody's the same level."
Swallow's Inn — California's melting pot within the melting pot.
Try to keep your clothes on.
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