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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Riffraff at Cinebar

By Eric A. Carlson

"You gotta have some place the riffraff can go."

--Reub Dawg

I HAVE TO TAKE BACK 17 of the 19 bad things I have been saying about Original Joe's (301 S. First St., San Jose). An unpleasant experience with a smarmy waiter in 1986 had waxed me wroth, and I commenced a 15-year boycott. Perhaps a year would have sufficed. All seems to be well now. Good grub, impeccable service administered by tuxedo-clad waiters, customers summoned to their tables by microphone: "Eric, table of three," and a cozy bar in the back, like a caboose. And the waiter didn't sneer at me when I asked for a doggie bag--like the 1986 waiter did. Brusque yes, but friendly.

The 1975 edition of A Forkful of San Jose recounts: "Joe's is not quiet, it is not even fancy, the tuxedoes are a bit lived-in, but the food is extraordinary in portion, and in that home cooked flavor." Twenty-six years later the same applies. My spaghetti was voluminous and delectable--though the cook refused to pluck out the mushrooms as I requested. I will not eat fungus--or bivalves--or tentacles. Jeanne asked me to sample a scallop, which she claims was perfectly cooked in a light batter. When I refused, she responded, "The hell with you then." I did eat some ravioli and found it scintillating. And the eggplant reverberated with flavor. On a dour note, Howard provided damning faint praise with regard to the fried prawns: "Well . . . they're fine." Original Joe's is a survivor, opening for business in 1956--and going strong. (It should be safe from the 'dozers, as the San Jose Redevelopment Agency is probably not going to tear down the Sainte Claire Hotel.)

When it comes to surviving, you would be hard pressed to find a better example than Cinebar, a high-spirited and friendly dive-bar (and proud of it) occupying a corner of the old Lawrence building at 69 E. San Fernando St.--and predating Original Joe's. Any San Jose bar surviving post-1960s do-gooders and redevelopment is exhibiting clear signs of immortality. On a recent visit I had the pleasure of sitting next to Ron Slaughter, grizzled and cowboy-hatted, who has been a customer for more than 40 years. In fact, Ron experienced the old City Hall close-up--when it straddled Plaza Park--having spent a night in the jail for a youthful indiscretion. Those were the good old days, when San Joseans deposited in the drunk tank on the first floor could disrupt solemn council meetings on the second--a design feature that architect Richard Meier might want to consider for the proposed new City Hall. It would harken to the past.

Carlos Zamora, former bartender at Casa Castillo, has resurfaced at Cinebar. Carlos sports a mustache that puts to shame the hirsute expressions of the Original Joe's waiters. George Villanueva was tending bar on a recent Friday evening--while simultaneously entertaining customers with energetic storytelling and good-natured insults. George claims that Evel Knievel used to frequent Cinebar--it seems to fit.

A disco ball revolves in perpetuity, spinning colored lights throughout the room. The jukebox emits soulful reggae and a bit of everything else. A TV is seated perilously on top of cinder blocks. A large condom dispenser projects over the sink in the bathroom--promising hours of sheer ecstasy due to cleverly designed protuberances, bulges, ridges, ripples, bumps, spires, bristles and other engineering enhancements.

Another San Jose tradition--of the haute cuisine variety--is Emile's, (545 S. Second St.). The business card reads: "Serving contemporary European cuisine since 1973." This is not one of my normal stops, but when a local newspaper baron invited me there to discuss business, it seemed as good a place as any to stop for a snack. Luminous couples and immaculately coiffed men dined on sea bass poached in coconut milk--as did I. This was like no bass I had ever hooked. Ambrosial. Complemented to perfection with Chinese black rice and asparagus. And a big glass of vodka.

Final note: The men's room at Emile's surpasses even the well-appointed, tile-floored public facilities at the Winchester Mystery House. The Gods of Olympus could not ask for a more serene environment in which to take a leak.

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From the April 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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