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8:09 p.m. Can you go wrong with a place whose entrance sign reads “No youngsters under the age of 8 after 5 p.m.” I think not. Which is why, welcomed by the soft glow of stained glass lights and the muted clink of forks and plates, I stomp a snowy trail between the rows of low club tables to belly up to the bar at Mode’s Bum Steer. The reason I love this place—besides being home to the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever inhaled—is its old-school vibe and classic clientele, usually a small clan of raspy-voiced old men sipping whiskey inside a cloud of smoke at the end of the bar. The place has gone nonsmoking, so unfortunately, the only thing I see past its prime tonight is a generously moussed 80’s era perm that appears to be eating a steak. I sigh and order up a Manhattan.
8:19 p.m. The 30-something couple seated at the table behind me is on a first date. I know this because I’m eavesdropping, and following a long silence she asks what no wife or girlfriend would care to: “So-o-o-o, what’s your biggest pet peeve?” He murmurs something inaudible. She prods. He murmurs again. She emits a long, forced laugh. They fall silent again. The date is not going well.
8:42 p.m. I stand corrected. They are making out over a half-eaten baked potato.
9:15 p.m. My pal Emily has joined me, and we scoot up the quiet street to Red Ginger at the east end of town. I love the chichi urban feel of this place. It’s minimalist, a Zenlike union of low lights, high ceilings, brick and glass—like a big city loft, only street level and with sushi. Fighting the urge to moonwalk Billy Jean–style over the two light box squares encased in the pavement at the entrance, I follow Emily inside.
9:17 p.m. We spend several minutes unwinding our scarves, peeling off our parkas, our mittens, our hats and stuffing the whole puffy affair into a pile on the stool beside us. Herein is the glitch with “going out” Up North in winter weather, at least for ladies: there is no gussying up. There is only hat hair. Boots shaped like dinner rolls. Earrings that snag on woolen scarves, and noses that turn bright, bulbously red. I suspect this is how push-up bras remain so popular.
9:21 p.m. Emily shoots me the big-eye head tilt. I turn, casually as possible, following her gaze to a blonde woman at the bar whose feet are encased in black leather stiletto boots. Impossibly chic ones. I gasp.
9:22 p.m. Our eyes dart around, taking inventory of the number of high-heeled shoes and boots tapping on the snow-puddled hardwood floor. I glance down at our own marshmallow-ey boots and vow the next time I step out for a night on the town, I’m stepping it up a notch—flats, hats and downy parka be damned.
9:42 p.m. Step, schmep. I care nothing for fashion; I have a nearly drained Red Dragon in my hand. It is a girl-a-rific concoction of raspberry vodka, pomegranate puree and O.J. in a pink—pink! I love it!—raspberry sugar–rimmed glass. Each time I sip I try to gnaw at the sugar without calling attention to myself. Emily’s sipping a passionfruit mojito. We’re toasting, gossipping, cackling at our good fortune to be out on a night so wonderful as this. We are in love with the world, we are in love with our drinks. We are feeling the love.
9:51 p.m. Our incredibly patient waiter, French—French! I love it!—consents to a picture with us. He doesn’t mind that it takes six tries before we get the flash figured out, so we love him, too. Soon, I’m kneeling on a stool and half of the people sitting at the bar below are grinning up at my viewfinder. And herein is the marvel of a small town like ours: no one questions a stranger with a camera. They simply squeeze in close and smile.