Gimme Somethin' Real

Like an African-themed neighborhood bar with leopard upholstery?

Thursday night. A muggy, rainy South Florida night, and I was feeling particularly grouchy. It had been a long, punishing mini-Friday, the air around me was veering toward triple-digit humidity, and I had just gotten one of those wish-you-were-here calls from my family in Texas. Everybody fine, and, oh, yeah, the weather is absolutely beautiful. Autumn had tiptoed in on dainty feet. Leaves were changing colors and falling off trees, and the air was as crisp as new money.

In truth, I needed to ship my unproductive, unpleasant disposition to a strange, faraway land — but who likes driving long distances in the rain? So I opted for a bar in my neighborhood, one I'd seen but never had cause to enter. I knew nothing about Kalahari Bar (4446 NE 20th Ave., Oakland Park), though I had a vague sense that the name stood for a place in Africa. By the time this dreary evening came to an end, though, I had met new friends, heard some interesting tales, and found a pretty cool place to hang out when life slips a full nelson around your neck.

The original owners of Kalahari were a South African couple— Hal and Dee Hofmeyr. They had sailed around the world for 13 years before joining the landlubbers of South Florida and establishing what they dubbed "the first authentic South African bar in the USA." They decorated the interior with South African paraphernalia and drew a large group of South African regulars. Hal was an adventurer who could regale customers with tales of the open ocean and life back home. When he turned 80, the couple decided to live out their golden years back home. The new owner, Lou —not South African but with enough imagination to envision that exotic country — bought the bar, décor and all. He decided to keep it as the Hofmeyrs had left it.

Ambiance: As I got near the door, a couple was just leaving, grinning and laughing. Very good sign. I walked in, shook off the rain, and took a seat at the bar — a few spots down from the only other patron in the building. The place was red-walled and low-lit, with dark furniture and Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" playing softly in the background.

Rugby club hats and lanterns hung over the bar; I looked up, and found cloth maps and flags tacked directly over my head. There was enough stuff on the ceiling to give me a crick in my neck. Photos, T-shirts from regions in South Africa, zebra skins, wooden tribal masks, straw hats, and pieces of old yachts had all been carefully fit together, like interlocking puzzle pieces, to transform the building into a jolting display of South African pride and heritage. One side of the room boasted dartboards and a pool table, plus three tables with chairs upholstered in leopard-print.

Reflecting back all that heritage — plus some carefully assembled bottles of booze and, of course, yours truly — was the mirror behind the bar. Which reminded me: Before I became distracted by animal skins, witchy looking cooking pots, gaping-mouthed masks, and leather-covered drums, I'd come with a very clear mission: procure booze and imbibe it.

Bartender: The woman serving drinks was a blond named Vicki, an older woman who enjoyed bobbing to AC/DC and anything else that came on the digital jukebox. Friendly, and probably bored out of her skull just now, she told us that the cash register was about 60 years old.

"So, do you still get a lot of South Africans in here?" I asked, glancing around.

"Sometimes, like when we show rugby games," she said. "Once in a while we get people here on vacation from South Africa who actually know the old owners." Indeed, she told me the couple leaving just as I came in were old friends of the Hofmeyrs. "Since Dee and Hal left, they mostly stay away. I guess it's more a neighborhood bar now."

"What's Kalahari refer to?" I asked, quick to reveal my ignorance, as usual.

"It's a desert in South Africa," Vicki and my companion said in unison.

"Yeah, well, I almost failed high school geography," I said. "I haven't been much better at it since."

Patrons: I eyed an older blond woman at the end of the bar, who sat methodically downing beer and puffing on cigarettes. By the way she was swaying, I decided I'd better talk to her now, because she looked like she was (or should be) about done drinking for the night.

Lori was thin, pretty, and wore a clean white sweater and a silver headband. After a quick introduction, she smiled genuinely and talked like we were girlfriends dishing. Yeah, she was piss-drunk, but it seemed to lend a hearthlike warmth to her personality, making me feel kind of good.

"My son would love you, honey," she said, after laughing and calling me "adorable." "He's single — really big and strong; does construction work. But he lives in Michigan." She took a long drink.

"Oh, you must miss him," I said. Then, as is my way when real emotion rears its sticky head, I tried to change the subject quickly. "What do you do for a living?"

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