There’s a lot of variety when it comes to bars. Saloons, dives, cantinas, clubs, lounges - each different, with its own feel, its own music, even its own drinks. The funny thing is, people who go to one don’t often go to the others. They stay in their lane, drinking where it’s familiar, with their own crowd, their own bar stools, their own bartenders.
Then, there are those places that don’t really have a crowd, maybe not even a classification. In these places, people come and go, wandering in and out like the currents in a stream, taking the flotsam and jetsam here and there as the seasons change. When it’s football season, fans of the pigskin congregate at the sports bars to watch their teams in the Super Bowl. And then, later in the week, those same people meet up after work to belt out a tune at the karaoke bar.
Neither of these places are the regular hangout – they’re used for a short time, for a specific event, and then forgotten. While they don’t get a lot of praise, I think they should. So, I’m going to use the Super Bowl as an excuse to recognize two places that closed much too soon, places where I would gladly spend a day watching a football game or embarrassing myself on stage.
We’ll start in the Bay Area and say a few words about the Old Pro, opened in Palo Alto when Steve Jobs was still wearing short pants. This was one of those classic sports bars that just sort of accumulated memorabilia. Starting with bare walls, little by little its collection expanded until one day every spot was taken up by a team pennant, a framed magazine article, an autographed picture, or a university flag.
Crowds at the Old Pro were rowdy and boisterous and kept lubed up by beer towers and cheap drink specials. And when the game was over (and after a good helping of booze), there was even a mechanical bull to help customers pass the time.
On any given night patrons were settled in to watch sports – that was the staple of this place after all. Stanford students flocked here to watch college or pro games and helped add to the collection of bric-a-brac dangling even from the ceiling. When one of the many Bay Area teams was competing – especially for a big game – the place was filled to capacity. All this changed with COVID and the many mandates that followed, which kept the doors closed and the crowds away. The owner finally threw in the towel in 2022.
But enough about the sports bar, on to our second step-child – let’s swing by Kansas City and hit the karaoke bar, the Red Balloon to be more precise. To be honest, a place like this, which locked its doors just last December, is only a karaoke bar for part of the time – usually at night when people get off work and need to blow off some steam. The rest of the time it’s actually a dive bar – perhaps the best of all bars out there.
The Red Balloon was opened in 1989 and, frankly, really didn’t offer that much – not for those used to the more upscale places anyway (places where bartenders are called mixologists and they have the word “lounge” in their name). It didn’t, for example, have a cocktail program, special ice, or even a laser light show. Instead, it had pinball machines, darts, pool tables, a couple of TVs, and a corner stage, from which drunk revelers would do their best, always terrible impressions of Taylor Swift or Drake (or even Johnny Cash, my personal favorite).
There was so much about the Red Balloon to love. For starters, it was cash only. That’s the kind of place you know you’ll have fun at because it means that the beer you ordered might cost five bucks as it says on the sign, or it might be two dollars because the bartender likes you. You never know. Sure, it’s a pain to remember to bring currency with you, but luckily there’s always an ATM by the door you can use (never mind the criminally high service fees). Also, the interior was dark and barely lit, and it was easy to hide in a corner and be left alone with your drink. Or, if you wanted the spotlight, you got that too, on the stage to the cheers of a friendly crowd of equally as tone-deaf regulars. After 35 years in business, the owner decided it was time to retire, so the Red Balloon had one final fandango and locked the doors, RIP.
If you read the reviews about either one of these places, you’ll see they’re pretty mixed. I think that’s how it should be. Some people didn’t like them, but others did. Honestly, I’m suspicious about five-star bars. I can’t believe any joint would appeal to everyone. Mixed reviews mean that enough people from different walks of life passed through their doors at one time or another to rate the place honestly. More importantly, it means the joint wasn’t trying to be everything to everybody (which always means death to a bar). One a sports bar, the other a karaoke bar, but both authentic and comfortable. I wish they were still around, but I guess they served their purposes for long enough. Both are now gone, the screens dark and the stage empty, but here’s to hoping a couple of new ones take their place.
Now, a round of shots and beers please, and on to the game!