Sometimes Wilton Manors bars get a bit of a reputation as packed, low-lit meat markets where dancing, shirtless men slap skin and sip bitch drinks.
Well, I am here to tell you this is not the case. I've been drunk in the Manors more nights than I can count, and many of those nights were not spent amid crowded seas of sweaty man-abs. This week I've explored two Wilton Manors bars that go against the grain. Within the confines of the Island City, I met patrons who relished the sophisticated taste of wine at the Naked Grape, and then, five minutes away, at Red's Package, I got down with friendly Florida hillbillies to Hank Williams Jr. fans. All in your Wilton Manors backyard. Who knew, right?
Naked Grape Wine Bar: I descended into the swanky, dangerously dark wine bar, and the first thing my dilating eyes were able to focus upon was a remarkably artistic photo of a naked guy in leather bondage gear, holding a disco ball over his unmentionables. A very good sign, in my opinion.
In spite of the artwork, the place felt very straight-friendly. I settled into a big red couch and greeted my four assembled friends (my regular wingmen Beard and Fancy among them), and the server handed me a little flashlight with which to read the menu. Most amazing was the cheese page — handfuls of gourmet cheese, grouped together based on the type of animal's milk from which they were made. The rest of the menu consisted of rose, red, and white wines to fit any budget, celebrate any occasion, impress any date, and forget any problem. The last page boasted specialty beers and ales; I ordered a German beer called the Gaffel.
"We have beer for the gay guys who want to come in here, feel manly, and drink some beers," Jeremy, our good-looking, amiable server said.
"So... you have blueberry beer?" Beard asked.
The small, classy bar, with its industrial metal tables and smooth, clay-colored walls, was abuzz with a variety of ages and persuasions. An old man read a magazine and sipped wine. A pair of lesbians embraced and kissed lightly. Small pockets of light popped from behind stained-glass votive holders; photographs of buildings, and of clothes-less gentlemen, decorated the walls. An expansive row of wooden cubbies ran the length of a wall; in each of the cubbies — I estimated there were about 165 — sat three bottles of wine, all perfectly turned outward.
"All these wine companies are all family-owned type businesses," Jeremy said. He handed one of my buddies a tall glass of Aspall dry English cider. "Some have interesting stories, like the hippie who requires weed to discuss business and signs all his bottles with 'the insurrection continues...' "
"Cool," I said. "How'd you learn all this?"
"On the job," he said. "And this is just a gig for extra cash. I'm actually a teacher — I teach religion to little kids."
When Jeremy went to pick out some good cheeses for us to sample, I got up to get a closer look at the wine cubbies (as well as the special glasses on top of the cubbies, designated for wine club members only) and was distracted by a good-looking trio of young wine bargoers.
"Hey, why aren't you guys out partying at a club?" I asked them.
Spencer, 24, was good-looking in a borderline-pretty way: smooth jaw lines, closely cropped hair. His compatriot, Justin, was rugged and stubbly. Their 30-ish friend Evelyn was exotic and voluptuous. They were crowded around the bar, all sipping dark wines.
"Oh, I'm over that," said Justin. "I want to come somewhere where I can have intelligent conversation — and actually hear the person I'm talking to."
"This is a good place to decompress," said Spencer. "I've come here and had a glass of wine and did a crossword puzzle. They're not snobby here; you come in, tell them how much you want to spend, and they'll find you something delicious." He added, "Naked Grape is the Cheers of Wilton Manors." "I just came here because the word 'naked' is promising," I said. "At 11 p.m., everyone gets naked," Justin whispered conspiratorially. I fist-pumped despite his obvious sarcasm. When I got back to my friends, the liquid in their glasses had all disappeared and Fancy was proposing that he had found the cure for alcoholism (I can't tell you what it is because he hasn't patented it yet and would kick my ass). Besides that, the four of them were rooting through a gorgeous platter of crackers, a pepper-infused goat cheese, and a soft, creamy cow cheese.
I'm not much of a wine connoisseur, but I'll skip the hip-hop clubs any day in favor of a plate of cheese and some good conversation. Pictures of hot, beefy, naked men don't hurt, either.
Red's Bar & Package: "You don't have to call me darlin', darlin'... You never even called me by my name!" David Allan Coe was blasting from the jukebox and my friends Beard and Brooklyn (nicknamed thusly because he's so hip) were belting out the lyrics, along with Robert, a somewhat inebriated good ol' boy who had sauntered over to us at some point because he believed we were in a band. (Profiled yet again by Beard's unkempt facial hair!)
"You know, this is a straight bar, but the girls from our [Friday evening] lingerie show are all lesbians," Robert told me, slurring slightly. "Though, they're hot and they know how to work it."
"That's all that counts," I said.
"Hell, if I could work it like that...," Robert paused. "Damn, I'd do it too, if I could."
The problem with Red's Package ("package" meaning bottled booze sales, NOT Red's naughty bits) is that the drinks are too damn cheap. You could get the entire New Times staff liquored up and barely break the bank, even taking into consideration that we're all seasoned deadline drinkers and many of us are borderline alcoholics (Kidding, boss!... kinda).
I flipped my notebook shut and tried to siphon out what was left in Beard's bourbon glass. Even if you don't count the cheap drinks and plentiful microwave popcorn, Red's is an enigma. It's one of the few straight bars in the Manors, delightfully rednecky and constantly packed with a long-haired, blue-collar bunch. The décor includes dartboards, trophies, a pair of mounted fake boobs in a pink brassiere (think like a novelty mounted singing Big Mouth Billy Bass — except it's tits), a wooden moose wearing Mardi Gras beads, and floral curtains like you'd find in a country cottage. King, the owner of Red's, has whipped the place into shape since he bought it a few years back.
"Did you know King used to be the mayor?" asked Paula, the adorable, pixyish bartender.
"Really?" I asked, as I eyed the stuff on the wall near my seat — a cabinet full of autographed baseballs and photos of important-looking men in suits.
"Yup. This place will be 61 years old in August," Paula said.
"King used to be my boss," said Richard, a big dude in a ball cap. "I'm a retired fire chief. Lived here for over 30 years." "Wow, what was Wilton Manors like back then?" I asked. "A shithole," he said. "This bar was a shithole till King fixed it up. He made it beautiful." "So, how crazy does it get here?" I asked. "Well, this is a neighborhood bar," Richard said. "So, yeah, girls take off their tops."
Hank Williams Jr. was now blaring from the speakers. Beard and Brooklyn were still belting out lyrics and tossing back drinks, having cleared out our side of the bar with their general obnoxiousness. I pulled out a dollar and prepared to make my journey to the jukebox. I only hoped that it offered Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar." Because I really do; Red's is nothing but pure redneck magic.