This week our Tenderloin correspondent returns from a brief hiatus to return to our regularly scheduled programming, digging out the finer points of city lore on individual street corners. This week: corner bar standoffs, British sweets, and which corner store has the least frost-bitten creamsicles at Jones & Ellis.
Were we the sort to write school papers--tidily thematic essays with grandiose titles and easy, punchy arguments--this week’s corners would merit the legend, “Jones and Ellis: A Study in Contrasts.” But far be it from us to phone in a sophomore term paper, as lazy as we have proven ourselves to be with regard to the project at hand (hello, day job). That said, we're pleased for this opportunity to compare and contrast in the hopes of meriting a respectable B+: well organized, if a little repetitive; good use of literary allusion; minimal grammar errors.
In retrospect, it seems strange that we've not come upon this situation before--a pair of bars and markets on opposing corners, seemingly poised for a battle royale. It goes against our sense of neighborliness to play them against one another, to announce, “In this corner, a former Irish bar and current welter-weight dive...” Competition wants for a winner, and by the bout’s end there must be a loser. There can be only one. Or, maybe there can be two?
There’s a line in Kurt Vonnegut’s great Bluebeard, the fictional autobiography of an equally fictional abstract expressionist, wherein a character asks a painter how to tell a good painting from a bad one. The reply is just about as good an argument for fundamental aesthetics and criticism as any, and for this writer represents law: “All you have to do, my dear...is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.”
And so it stands to reason that by this juncture, while we’ve not quite patronized a strict million bodegas, corner stores, and markets in the Tenderloin, we know a good one when we see it. On the intersection's northern corners, two rivals vie for the neighborhood’s affections, and even that fickle website agrees: to the east, the prize goes to Young Ellis Market, while on the western corner Starlight earns much disdain. But we would be poor students to base an argument solely on information found on the internet. Young Ellis wins on the value of a number of criteria, chiefly an excessive selection of exotic (read: British) sweets, and the friendliness of the young gentleman behind the counter. Fans of antiquated taffy will be pleased to note that Annabelle’s products are well represented.
Meanwhile, to the west: we dislike speaking ill, but there’s a not-quite-there quality to the Starlight. Perhaps the forbidding exterior, the brooding of a man pushed too far by the local population intent on seeing how far a man can be pushed...We all have bad days, and sometimes those bad days last weeks at a time. Our Creamsicles from Starlight have been minimally touched by frostbite, but we’re still calling this bout for Young Ellis. The winner!
Bars are trickier. Any number of components can determine the difference between a good, bad, or merely adequate experience, as bartender, patrons, music, and timing represent highly unstable elements. Add to the mixture a soupçon of sport and result may delight like top-shelf tipple or curdle like bad cream in a poorly-mixed Irish coffee.
Urbanites enjoy remarking upon block-by-block disparities, and we can’t fail to note that a bottle of domestic beer at a Jones and Ellis bar will set you back four or five bucks with tip--multiply that by three, and you’ve purchased a single cocktail at one of the three Bourbon & Branch dispensaries due north. Such cocktail economics inspire one to find frugal succor in the Tenderloin's more modest joints.
There’s nothing overtly wrong with Cinnabar, the long bar on the southeastern side of our intersection. It underwent a fairly significant operation, having been Korean, but before that, Irish. Prior to serving liquid bread, evidence remains of its having served the neighborhood as a bakery, although our history books are coming up short on exactly which bakery. The neighborhood once hosted a sizable Greek community, so offer conjecture as you wish until an old-timer speaks up.
The current iteration of Cinnabar is airy, surprisingly so, and when we stepped in, the bar had just opened. Quiet but for the occasional Hi-NRG dance song favored by the very kind, very petite bartender just beginning her long shift, the place possesses a malleable quality about it that ought to be appreciated, given that so many bars of recent vintage have a decided schtick about them. Cinnabar is bar as tabla rasa: it wears its mantle lightly, but perhaps it leaves us wanting.
Walk into Jonell’s Cocktail Lounge, however, and you’ll rue how much of your life you’ve wasted anywhere else. Low-ceilinged and snug, the horseshoe-shaped bar engenders conversation and verily ensures that you won't stay lonely for long. Sit yourself down and your new name is sweetheart, and we have a Giants game on here would you like the sound turned up? Perfection. We get chatted up, introduced around (used to live in the neighborhood, now just work here, end up apologizing for not coming in sooner).
One of the regulars is chided by the bartender: “Don’t drink too much, I’m worried about your health.”
These bars are two houses alike in dignity--if by dignity one means bona-fide dive--but it's Jonell’s in TKO.