Jeremy Ogul | Raising the Bar
Less than a day before deadline, I frantically dialed the phone number for Cheers, the University Heights bar where I had been hanging out the last few days.
After five or six rings, a voice answered: “This is Cheers — hey girl hey!”
It was Jen, the tall lady bartender I had met a few nights earlier. The audio from the bar’s cordless phone flickered, perforated by the sounds of boisterous background conversation, laughter and clinking glasses.
I asked Jen if she had seen a small yellow spiral-bound notebook. It contained my notes, my quotes, everything I collected during my time doing “research” for this column. I last remembered it in my hands as I was getting ready to leave the bar the night before, but that memory is hazy, no doubt clouded by the buzz from the drinks my new friends insisted on buying for me.
I could hear Jen ask everyone around her if they had seen it. No luck.
“Sorry girl sorry,” she said, with an audible frown.
I have never lost a notebook before, and certainly not the day before an assignment was due. There was no way I could write the story without my notes, right?
Then again, this was no regular assignment. Unlike a City Council meeting or a court case, drinking here was not only allowed but encouraged. While that may or may not have been a factor in the case of the missing notebook, Cheers actually turned out to be one of the most memorable bar experiences I have had in San Diego.
What makes Cheers special is its exceptionally casual, come-as-you-are atmosphere. In a gay culture that too often prizes youth, beauty, fashion and money above all else, it’s refreshing to be in a place where none of that makes you special.
“Anyone can come here and they will be welcomed,” said Frankie, a 51-year-old member of the bar’s staff who grills burgers for everyone on the back patio every Sunday afternoon. “Young, old, black, white, gay, straight. It’s not pretentious.”
The age range of the patrons is diverse as well. Most patrons seem to be in their 30s, 40s or 50s, but one regular is 94 years old, and twenty-somethings aren’t shy about dropping in on their way to or from Bourbon Street just around the corner.
Age is isn’t the only source of diversity. Cheers thinks of itself as more of a “friendly neighborhood bar” than a gay bar, so more than a few of the patrons are straight women and men. Staff from nearby food and drink establishments have a habit of stopping in for a drink after their shift, too.
The friendly vibe is enhanced by the cozy space, which is probably not much more than 500 or 600 square feet, decorated in a dim 1980s version of island décor. It’s small enough that you could be forgiven for feeling like you’re hanging out in a friend’s basement.
Cheers of San Diego opened in 1983, around the same time the sitcom of the same name was taking off. Surprisingly, our local Cheers does a pretty good job of living up to the television ideal. There’s no Ted Danson, and as far as I can tell, none of the regulars are named Norm, but quite a few are greeted by name by half the bar when they walk through the door.
Nicknames are common. There’s Teacher Bob, Black Bob, Crazy Bob — and that’s not even all the Bobs. There’s One-L-Michele and Two-L-Michelle. There’s Nurse Frankie. There’s Day Val, and then there’s Night Val. Altogether, bar manager Lukas Dupus counts a rotating cast of about 100 regulars (not all of whom have nicknames).
A couple reviewers on Yelp and in other places have complained about feeling out of place on their first visit. The solution to that, Dupus said, is to not be shy when you walk in.
Introduce yourself to the bartender and a couple people at the bar, and before you know it you’ll be one of them.
That’s what happened to me, and now they know my name.
“You wanna go where the people know people are all the same. You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”
Now if I can just get that damn song out of my head.
—Jeremy Ogul can be reached at Jeremy@sdcnn.com.