Anyone who has been following this column knows that I don't abide fools who throw around the word "dive" to describe bars that are decidedly not dives. If a place has hipster cachet, a working digital jukebox, or microbrewed beers, it is not a goddamn dive, no matter how disgusting the bathrooms are.
There truly are only a handful of real dives in this town, and we lost a great one several months ago. Grasslands, at its peak, was mother of all shitholes. It had it all: empty boxes, giant bags of rice, and plain ol' trash lining the walls and piled on the tables; huddled masses of men playing Chinese tile games; crotchety, foul-mouthed, over-the-hill bartenders who treated you like shit or told filthy jokes and gave you free beer; a jukebox that was never plugged in; and its jewel in the crown, a sign out front that read, "Grasslands: Where good friends and girls meet." There is much debate and lore about just who these "girls" were. Some thought Grasslands was a hostess bar, where attractive women would make lonely sippers feel appreciated enough to keep buying drinks. Others said it was an actual brothel, with the ladies occupying the back room. I could never get to the bottom of this mystery, because most of the time I tried to revisit Grasslands, it was closed.
Well, the good news is that Grasslands is no longer closed and is open daily for business. The bad news is that it is under new management, and these newbies seem to think that cleanliness, digital jukeboxes, flatscreen TVs, and friendly bar staff are what people want. Curses!
I began muttering to myself before I even stepped over the threshold. The sign out front has been redone. Now it just says Grasslands in a sleek font with a stylized martini glass; you and your good friends are now on your own if you want to meet girls. Grasslands will no longer be facilitating.
I peered inside, and the pretty young bartender waved at me. I waved back sheepishly, eyeing the decor with suspicion. I couldn't seem to get my foot in the door. I teetered.
A few doors down there was a line outside of the foodie-drone House of Nanking. The food there is just okay, people. Its staff treats you like cattle, shuttling you in and plunking down dishes they make over and over again until all the flavors start to blur. No one from Chinatown actually eats there. I wanted to hand out pamphlets to Yuet Lee on Stockton. Then it hit me. Good gravy, would Grasslands become the House of Nanking of bars? Was it trying to?
I braced myself and went inside. "Hello!" said the bartender, taking my order. She had just turned the TV to The Next Food Network Star, which further endeared her to me. Hating this new Grasslands would be harder than I thought.
I looked around. I couldn't decide if I should despise the generic, plain interior, or feel blessed that it wasn't trying too hard to be hip. The walls are bare and the seating is black metal stools (no, not ones that emit Goatwhore songs, but chairs made of darkened steel). The only clues that this was a bar at the edge of Chinatown were a small gong in one corner and a colorful Chinese doll in another.
As soon as I got settled, four tourists traipsed in, and I realized, duh, tourism would be the bread 'n' butter of this new incarnation. The group ordered tequila shots and I looked them over: three girls and one flamboyant guy wearing his sunglasses indoors. One woman was dressed in thigh-high boots and a skin-tight black minidress. She was caked in makeup. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, has anyone noticed the new prostitute look many women have adopted? Sometimes it is thigh-highs and short-shorts. I don't really care so much, but I wonder what real hookers are dressing like now to set themselves apart. If what used to be hoochie wear is now fashion, what are the streetwalkers donning? Everything old is indeed new again.
That brings me back to Grasslands. The tourists downed their shots and then scooted out, only to be replaced by another gaggle of gawkers who needed a break from wandering Chinatown. "More bar snacks?" the bartender asked, refilling my Goldfish supply. Okay, okay, so I love a good bar snack. Grasslands was scoring with me.
I decided to ask the bartender whether she knew anything about the old incarnation. "Sort of," she said, washing glasses. "It was, like, dirty ... there was trash on the walls." I tried to steer the conversation toward the much-fabled former debauchery, but she wasn't going there, so I flat-out asked her. "I heard there were hookers," I added.
"Oh!" She sounded genuinely surprised. "I didn't know about that." Shoot. If this gal hadn't heard about it, maybe it wasn't true. Either that, or the new owners are professionals who aren't talkin' smack about the former management. Nah.
The bartender began writing the drink specials on a sandwich board, all the better to catch the eyes of the Nanking diners. Most of the people in line at the restaurant had probably read about it in a guidebook. In about a year, I bet Grasslands will also be mentioned. Soon its former glory will be all but forgotten.
I do have one last über-dive hope in Chinatown: L'Amour, around the corner from Grasslands. Rumor has it that there are ladies of the evening in attendance. It is also grubby, dark, and perpetually closed. Let us all pray that the ownership has simply gone on an extended sabbatical. We cannot afford to lose another one.