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Sister Bars
Jim Hunt

Brick Store Pub
For six years I thought the Brick Store Pub in Decatur had it all. Knowledgeable staff; impossible-to-beat atmosphere; fantastic pub fare; even if the beers were a bit pricey, the selection of bottled and draught libations was so enormous, I considered the hit to my wallet forgivable. Yet the relationship with my local watering hole was starting to stagnate. I made the same jokes with the servers, ate the same food, and drank the same brews. Funky hipsters gave way to annoying college kids in designer jeans, and a ban on smoking inside led to an epidemic rise in young families and their rugrats. These weren’t catastrophic changes, but I was nostalgic for the old Brick Store, the slightly smelly pub that always had an open booth any night of the week. As things changed, I wasn’t even sure the Brick Store was the bar for me anymore. I decided I needed a little time away, a trial separation, if you will. The Brick Store would be fine—she had hundreds of new suitors to choose from. As for me, I needed to get back out there, find and approach new bars, but I didn’t have a clue where to start. And then I discovered the ten sister bars of Atlanta.

Universal Joint
A friend and I were at the Universal Joint in Oakhurst, having turned down a two-hour wait for a table at the Brick Store. Sitting on the fantastic outdoor patio, I turned the menu over in my hands to notice on the back a list of ‘sister bars.’ Some of the names were familiar—97 Estoria, Moe’s & Joe’s Tavern, U-Joint—fallbacks for when the Brick Store was too full, or alternatives when in the mood for something different.  The rest were a mystery, spread across various Atlanta neighborhoods. In a flash of inspiration, I decided to get to know this family of bars. I’d spent one week visiting each sister bar, starting with the U-Joint that very night. Curiosity piqued, I studied my surroundings a bit more closely. Once a gas station, U-Joint seemed a bit small on the inside, not in an uncomfortable way. The cozy L-shaped bar offered plenty of seats for regulars, the right half of the bar had tall tables with tall stools, and off to the left there were four shorter tables. The most attractive drawing point was the patio we were currently sitting on. Not much to shout at when it’s cold or rainy, this patio is heaven come spring, summer, and early fall. Attention back on the sister bar list, the address for Steinbeck’s Oyster Bar jumped out at me. “Is that Steinbeck’s right over there?” I asked our server, pointing to a small, dark building caddy cornered from the U-Joint. “And it’s this place’s sister bar?“Yep, common owner, don’t know his name though. Ever been there?” “Not yet, thinking about going over there after this beer.”“I’ll go ahead and bring your check.”

After paying, we crossed the street and walked into Steinbeck’s. If the U-Joint is one of the glamour girls of this family of bars, Steinbeck’s is the middle sister that everyone forgets about until you share a beer with her, and realize she’s pretty cool. Yet if the U-Joint felt a bit cramped inside, Steinbeck’s resembled an empty matchbox. We retreated to the small front patio, a handy escape hatch to avoid embarrassing claustrophobic breakdowns. Though charming and quaint, Steinbeck’s couldn’t hold a candle to the Brick Store.

The next afternoon, I drove to East Atlanta to check out my third sister bar, the Flatiron. Named after the famous building in New York, Flatiron sits at a similar street junction, giving it an eccentric, intriguing quality. Inside, the trapezoidal bar looked old but polished, as did the tall tables and benches to the right of the entrance, and a couple of booths tucked into the back left corner. A life-sized Bruce Lee mannequin wielding a Charlie Chaplin cane menaced a customer at the bar, and a foot-tall rat looking like it came straight from a Nutcracker production hung from the light over the bar. A bumper sticker above the mirror on the back wall read “Take Your SHIT Back to Buckhead”, which I personally took to be a good sign. Turn-of-the-century tattoos, like those you’d see on circus strongmen or clipper ship sailors adorned the walls in individual black frames. Admiring all the cool curios, cold Stella in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, I was reminded of an old bar with a similar smell, a similar feel.

Standard Bar
Sister bar four: The Standard Bar, off Memorial Blvd. Like U-Joint, the Standard used to be a gas station, and has a very similar setup. But where the U-Joint has an organic, natural feel to it, a color scheme of muted browns and reds and oranges, the Standard feels like an old classic. If they were real sisters, the U-Joint would be a casual folk guitarist, and the Standard a classy lounge singer. I couldn’t help but be attracted to it’s the clean, dark lines of the tables, and dramatic green and red accents. Nevertheless, there are two sides to every drama queen, and the sexy facade gave way to my gruff server, who barked a breathless, “Hey how are you,” and asked what I wanted to drink. I choked, ordered a coke, and got one with a surly glare instead of a smile. Soon, eating my sandwich and sipping my drink, I pondered the idea of a bar’s personality, good or bad. Monday I had a date with the furthest flung sister bar down in, the Brake Pad Bar. Like U-Joint and the Standard, Brake Pad also boasted a nice outdoor patio, though this one had a good-sized portion that was completed covered. Eating delicious fried chicken tacos, I watched the occasional approach of airplanes heading for Hartsfield-Jackson, making a mental note that the next time I had to pick a friend up at the airport, relax here for a couple hours before. Sadly, due to how far away it was, I knew it might not be until the next airport run that I returned. Though only 19 miles from my front door, in Atlanta such a distance seems as far as the other side of the world.

Limerick Junction
There are four sister bars who make their homes in the Virginia Highland area. Blind Willie’s Blues Bar and the Limerick Junction Irish Pub are next door to one another, and in the mood for blues riffs or a good jig, I headed in their direction first. The pull of a silky Guinness called, and I sidled up to the bar in Limerick Junction. I noticed Limerick had fish and chips on the menu, thought about how that it my favorite meal at the Brick Store. Doubtful it would taste as good, I put in my order with the bartender. Presented in a traditional fare, one large, thickly coated fillet, on top of a mountain of fries, I couldn’t help but think it was merely a replacement, stand-in for the real thing. As participants of open mic began wailing away, I decided it was time to go next door. My mood was turning blue. Ironically, looking forward to gritty local blues, I was told my five-dollar cover purchased admittance to jazz night. Frowning, I walked through the sparsely populated room, purchased a Sweetwater at the bar, and found a seat in the back.  Jazz night was more appropriate than I thought, though, as the melancholy sounds of the standup bass, violin, drums and trumpet serenaded a simple message: no other bar could compare. Blind Willie’s was the sister bar I had no interest in, and she had none in me, her music playing on long after I finished my beer and stumbled off into the night.

The Cavern
I came back to the the next day to get acquainted with Moe’s & Joe’s and The Cavern Bar. I knew all about Moe’s & Joe’s before I began this bar-dating blitzkrieg. I’d gone there while in school for their weekly specials on PBR pitchers. Like an awkward catch-up session with a college fling, I sat at the bar and drank a single beer, the awful service and third world conditions of the bathroom reminding me why I would never be able to seriously consider hanging out at Moe’s regularly. The Cavern, right next door, is the invisible sister. Upon walking into the door, the bartender and I became best friends, having no one else to talk to. He told me about how they were going to fix things up, how the Cavern is going to be great, how people should really give it a chance. I think the Cavern might be the perfect dive bar, the next insider hangout in Atlanta, and I told him so. He gave me a complimentary shot of Jager. It made me think of the three shots of Jameson brought to me on my birthday at the Brick Store, when I was told I had 15 minutes to make them disappear.

97 Estoria
The next evening found me sitting at the bar of 97 Estoria. I’d been to Estoria several times before, and I swam in the strange deja vu that was going to a bar during daylight hours when you’ve only ever been there before during inky twilight; like waking up next to someone who looked much, much different a few hours earlier. She doesn’t look worse in the light, old Estoria, just different. Two cops sat across the bar, next to a grizzled looking ex-hippy. The guy next to him had slicked-back hair that further accentuated his receding widow’s peak, and several hipsters rounded out the small crowd. Everyone was asking the bartender how his new baby was, if he and his wife were getting any sleep, sarcastically offering to buy him a congratulatory shot. The bartender graciously turned them down, refilling their beers, bringing out the food, asking about their days. When he got to me, the new guy, he wasn’t mean, but not as friendly as he was with his regulars. A bit of longing for that familiarity stole into my heart. A few days later, after recovering from my full week of bar-dating, friends called my girlfriend and I up, asking if we wanted to meet them at the Brick Store. We agreed. The parking gods shone on us, and we found a spot right out front. Our friends were sitting in the usual comfortable booth with their two young daughters. I hugged the three year old, and my girlfriend took the infant in her arms and kissed the top of her downy head. We gave our friends hugs, as well as Samara, our server, a woman who has known us and taken care of us since the old days of the Brick Store; before these kids, before we were friends with their parents, before I slowed down on my smoking, before I was dating my girlfriend, before best friends left town, times that I thought of as the glory days. It’s easy to long for glory days, and to gloss over the fact that we came here so much because we were pretty unhappy people who drank and smoked too much. The Brick Store has grown up since I started coming here, but so have I. I’m glad I got to know all those other bars, and I look forward to visiting them from time to time, taking old friends and new to open mic night at Limerick Junction, or to Brake Pad after a long flight, or for late night adventures within 97 Estoria. The goal of my experimenting, to find a bar to replace my beloved Brick Store, turned out like many ill-conceived romantic forays. The grass often looks greener, but once you’re on the other side of the fence, you’d die to be back in your little patch of paradise.

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