As a college student in New York, my first job was at the Penny Whistle, a high-end toy store in SoHo. Something I’d read while researching Andy Warhol lingered in my head a lot in those days — “Success is a job in New York.” Warhol fans might know this as the title of an article Katherine Sontag wrote for Glamour in 1949, giving Warhol his first assignment as an illustrator (his illustration shows a blonde in a little black dress sitting high above the city on the top rung of a ladder). My boss at the Penny Whistle was a gay man in his 30s who often shared colorful stories about late nights on the town. Once he explained that the 1965 Petula Clark song “Downtown” was his secret weapon, the ultimate cure for apathy. “If I’m not feeling it,” he explained, “all I have to do is blast ‘Downtown’ and I snap out of it. And then I have to go out.”
Assembling our downtown issue, Petula’s voice has been chirping away in the back of my head. “When you’re alone/ And life is making you lonely/ You can always go downtown.” So, with Petula as my spirit guide, I set off to discover something new in good old downtown.
9 p.m. Saturday: I reserved two (of the five) seats at the handsome bar at Bella on the River (106 River Walk), a cozy Mediterranean-inspired restaurant and live-music venue specializing in jazz and pop. Bella’s team has done wonders with the space previously occupied by Dolores del Rio, a cinematic cave of an Italian restaurant so dark that the waiters often handed diners flashlights to read the menu while belly dancers upped the bohemian ante. A redesign brought the restrooms out of the kitchen, excavated a set of mossy-green steps believed to be part of the original River Walk, and opened up the space with lots of warm lighting. My date and I shared a bottle of Côtes du Rhône ($32) while Luvine Elias Jr. played everything from Norah Jones tunes to “Linus and Lucy” (the Peanuts theme) on the piano. Über-romantic and determined to cater to locals, Bella has been open for a mere 46 days and has already made a sizeable splash.
10:45 p.m. Saturday: Having passed discreet-looking McLeod’s (205 E Houston) several hundred times in the last couple of years, I convinced my date it would be an ideal spot for an after-dinner drink. This gem of a pub is tucked away in the Sheraton Gunter Hotel, which dates back to 1909. Polished wood and brass give the place vintage appeal and a decent selection of wines by the glass came as a nice surprise. We shared a glass of Louis M. Martini cabernet ($8), briefly discussed the concept of having a child together, and then chatted up a lively foursome from Austin who’d returned to McLeod’s after finding their favorite Southtown spot closed for the night.
11:30 p.m. Saturday: The way I see it, the Current’s offices on Dallas Street are downtown (or close enough). Only a few blocks away is Club Rain (516 Brooklyn), a nightspot known to reinvent itself on a dime. Lesbian oil wrestling, niche DJ parties, and a rare concert by Argentina’s Chancha Via Circuito are but a few reasons Rain has been on my short list for visitation. Rain’s weekend forecast? Thumping urban grooves, cheap drinks ($3 wells on the weekend are hard to beat), and a deluge of miniskirts.
“Maybe you know/ Some little places to go to/ Where they never close downtown/ Just listen to the rhythm of a gentle bossa nova.”
9 p.m. Sunday: Every week, the salsa trio Albert & Extasy turns up the heat at the Mariachi Bar at Mi Tierra Café Y Panaderia (218 Produce Row). I considered sampling one of the 180 tequilas (the most expensive being Gran Patrón Burdeos at $55 a shot) protected by a giant wooden eagle, but a michelada ($4.75) made more sense. In the crowd, I found Shirley, proud mother of lead singer Stacey Mazuca (who’s also a member of Vanessa del Fierro’s 12-piece, all-female Mariachi Las Coronelas). “I have to get here at 5:15 to get a table,” she said. In stark contrast to the perpetual daylight offered at Mi Tierra, the Mariachi Bar buzzes Sunday night away in full-blown party mode.
10: 45 p.m. Sunday: Unless someone’s smoking one of the four varieties of cigars you can purchase there, walking into the Menger Bar (204 Alamo Plaza) can feel like a breath of fresh air. A giant, allegedly nameless moose presides over a charming assortment of conventioneers, service industry types, tourists, and regulars while jazz calms the room. Here, cocktails ($5-$6 for well drinks) and ghost stories flow freely. When prompted, Jeff the bartender shared such paranormal activity as an elevator that routinely predicts his destination as well as a walkie-talkie that “flew” off the belt of a security guard and landed five feet away. “We’re celebrating!” a bubbly woman at the bar exclaimed. Ordering shots of Patrón ($9 each) for herself and her gentleman friend, she explained she’d won more than $300 on a quick-pick.
11:30 p.m. Sunday: Nothing quite says “downtown” like The Bonham Exchange (411 Bonham), one of the few places I’ll willingly sip a Grey Goose martini ($7.50) from a plastic Budweiser cup. Sundays offer a pared-down version of peak nights, with a small crowd savoring the last shreds of the weekend over old-school music videos. This Saturday, however, the 1890s-era pleasure palace will celebrate 30 fabulous years as SA’s finest discotheque. But if drink specials galore ($2 wells and $3 domestics all night), male dancers “for your viewing pleasure,” and two performances (at midnight and 1 a.m.) by bodybuilder/porn star Zeb Atlas (billed as “America’s Boyfriend”) aren’t enough to get you dolled up and aimed for downtown, I suggest you obey Petula — and Dolly Parton, who took “Downtown” to new heights in 1984 — and go “Downtown, things’ll be great when you’re / Downtown, no finer place for sure / Downtown, everything’s waiting for you.” •