Bar Rescue reviewed: Can a sad sports bar be saved?

Bar Rescue reviewed: Can a sad sports bar be saved?

Bar Rescue reviewed: Can a sad sports bar be saved?

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July 22 2011 6:46 PM

One Less Sad Sports Bar

A makeover show for dodgy drinking establishments.

Bar Rescue. Click image to expand.
Jon Taffer of Bar Rescue

Bar Rescue (Spike, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) is to taprooms as Kitchen Nightmares is to hash houses. On each episode, a hospitality expert named Jon Taffer plunges into a diseased watering hole and administers the disinfecting agent of his professional expertise. It elevates the tone of the proceedings that Taffer is witty, direct, and constitutionally inclined to promote himself as a consultant rather than as a paroxysm-prone pseudo-celebrity. Incidentally, I wonder if there's room out there for a theme bar on the theme of bars that need makeovers, with its drinks menu offering "troubleshooters" and its waitresses always on break.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

Taffer's first task is to reform Angel's Sport Bar, which is located in the Inland Empire, an area identified by some as "the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metropolitan area" and by others as "the region of California that any travel agencies or colleges just don't want the rest of the world to know about." Incidentally, the recent news that David Lynch is opening a Mulholland Drive-style nightclub in Paris encourages us to wonder whether he'd considering launching an Inland Empire-themed joint in Indio, with a completely incomprehensible drinks menu and waitresses doing the Loco-motion at irregular intervals.

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Bar Rescue euphemizes Corona, the particular town where Angel's makes its Bud-guzzling home, as "blue collar," but Angel's has fallen into barely subsisting as a no-collar establishment. It is a poor excuse for a biker bar. Early on, one regular explains his attitude-adjustment-hour plan by paraphrasing Lita Ford: "You don't get laid on Friday night, you get in a fight." It ain't no big thing, you might think, but Taffer's statistics say otherwise. He claims that if there are six or more motorcycles parked in front of a bar, then 88 percent of women over the age of 34 will refuse to cross its threshold. Keep your eye on the bottom line and disregard those studies demonstrating that the other 12 percent are kind of fun to have around.

On a related note, Angel's stands adjacent to a strip club, which is also called Angel's and is also owned by the week's saved soul, whose name is Renée. When Taffer and his wife, Nicole—who also serves as his "recon specialist"—make an initial incognito visit to the bar, they are displeased that there is little to distinguish it from its neighbor. Both are windowless and neon-riddled, and with the bar's credit-card machine always down, patrons are directed to an ATM that charges a $6 fee. Nicole doesn't know if she'd be comfortable getting out of here safely by herself or even finding the exit. But the host sees an opportunity to make Angel's more female-friendly. Reimagining it as a scalably upscale whiskey bar, he envisions it attaining "a level of respectability where at least you can come in here and your wife won't kill you."

The morning after that first visit, Taffer tours the place with Renée, noting the staples dotting the wall by the front door, the squirrel damage out back, and the thick miasma of apathy all over. In one of very few resorts to profanity, he calls her place a shithole, and she cries. "When her eyes filled up with tears, it showed me embarrassment, it showed me pride," he says. It showed me that very few of Renée's facial muscles are mobile, but Taffer is the motivational type, and that is not his concern. Rather, her distress is "the beginning of an emotion I can build on."

Everything proceeds quite briskly from here, from physical renovation to spiritual rebuilding. The shiftless general manager, Wayne, in fact proves so shiftless that he cannot even be bothered to frown when getting fired, but most of the waitstaff is impressed that Taffer is seeking its input. "They're actually asking us what we think," says someone, maybe DeeDee, perhaps misreading the situation. In fact, Taffer is operating on the assumption, not ungenerous, that the waitstaff is capable of thought.

The staff's mixological lessons come from a guy who used to be a big deal at Milk & Honey, which is a bit like sending John Maynard Keynes to teach them how to use the cash register. "What's a cocktail?" inquires one of his charges; the dear thing learns how to make a Gold Rush and, more importantly, how to pour a drink to make it look stiffer than it is. Meanwhile, a nightlife expert teaches the waitresses how to make proper eye contact, a skill they'd never had a chance to develop, as their customers' eyes were generally otherwise occupied. As one of the girls says when questioned about her attire: "The management actually said that they wanted to gear it more toward bikini."

With its relaunch, Angel's is rechristened, in a nod to its illustrious heritage, as Racks, and its signage boasts of billiards and bourbon in colors alleged to stimulate the appetite. "It looks so classy!" says a waitress, naturally. Taffer is proud. Renée is smiling, or would be if she could. And the mixologist is as pleased as planter's punch at the way the floor staff is handling the top-shelf stuff: "They upsold really well."