It was true; he had. He’d flirted with her so artlessly that what we remember now is the goofiness of it. It was like watching an SNL sketch of a horny pirate. Chelsea laughed in his face, and he didn’t mind a bit. I think he may have even said, “Arrrr.” The flirtation was amped up to levels of parody, demonstrating its lack of threat, which, now that I think about it, could’ve been the whole thesis statement for the Piratz Tavern experience. Staff made suggestive wisecracks, but always with a wink and a raucous laugh. Breasts were uniformly semi-exposed and super-high, but the effect was campy, Renaissance Festival-like. As Chelsea once charitably said of the place, it wasn’t for everybody.
Bars excel at making memories like Chelsea’s torrid love affair with Blackjack possible. This stuff can only be brewed in a perfect cauldron of bonhomie, intoxication, and loosened inhibitions. It’s not limited to a group of friends goofing off, either. I remember the day I finished writing my book and celebrated at Birdy’s. Jackie, the bartender, remembered that I’d been trying to find an agent for it, and did a shot with me to celebrate—a night I spent alone, but briefly in community with Jackie, soaking up the ambient spirit of all the happy people chattering around me, not really alone at all.
I worked a decade’s worth of front-of-house jobs in bars, coffee shops, and restaurants myself—a decade during which my coworkers and I were constantly exploited by our bosses, tormented by nasty customers, aching in every joint with pains that should have belonged to bodies decades older than ours. And yet, it felt like a powerful thing, to be the gears that turned other people’s happy nights for them. For all that I hated most of those jobs, I was always proud when regular customers asked to be seated in my section or bantered with me to impress their dates. On a good night, when I was in the zone and didn’t have jerk customers or a boss breathing down my neck, I felt like a part of humanity in a way that an office job doesn’t allow, even though most office jobs pay so much more.
But “feeling like a part of humanity” doesn’t pay the bills in a capitalist society. When bar and restaurant owners on these makeover shows express shock at the state of their finances, what I hear them saying is that they’ve built these great places to hang out, and somehow people aren’t hanging out there. They’ve put out stools and bar snacks in the hopes that the public will show up. When failed bars shutter, the people who loved them remember them; others notice the ‘For Lease’ sign in the window and ask themselves what used to be there. If we pity these myopic business owners on shows like Bar Rescue, it’s because we see them wondering, in effect, why nobody wanted to come play with them.
I can’t tell you how many sentences I’ve begun over the years with “Remember when we were at Piratz Tavern, and . . . ?” Piratz was a rousing success as a place for my friends and I to drink hangover-inducing grog. As a conversation-starter of a first date spot, it was peerless. It fostered an abandon in us that I’ve never found at any other place, made us self-conscious punks feel pleasantly like tourists being tourist-trapped. And it closed anyway.
But what about the version of Piratz Tavern that supposedly “worked”? Piratz may have closed eventually, but Jon Taffer’s Corporate Bar & Grill didn’t last a month before its staff re-pirate-ized the place. As my friend Chelsea (or, if you will, Mrs. Blackjack) said of the remodel, “It was the most dipshit thing I have ever seen. At least a pirate theme has kitsch value.”
Piratz Tavern really was special, one-of-a-kind. It was special in an unprofitable way that fewer and fewer places have space to be—thrilling and eccentric. I can’t imagine that the people who worked there made much money, and I wish they had, and more than that I wish it was possible for more people to live financially secure lives while still having as much fun as Blackjack and the gang always seemed to be having. Piratz made creative choices and didn’t care if you laughed at them. It asked its customers to sign a literal waiver (written in pirate-speak, of course) before permitting them to order an especially spicy dish. Imagine the conversations that tables full of people must have had about those waivers, conversations that have since become memories beginning with “Hey, remember that time at Piratz Tavern . . . ?”
When restaurant makeover shows force such establishments to reject their creativity, they make a profound statement about what success looks like for businesses that famously run on thin margins even when they are successful. Jon Taffer told Piratz Tavern that fixing its finances meant ditching the pirate accents and embracing the tenets of mixology rather than throwing a delightfully random assortment of liqueurs into a tankard and calling it “grog.” He was almost certainly right. But who cares? When I imagine a fun night, I don’t see myself at a place where everything is done the right way. I imagine messy times with goofy people in places like Piratz Tavern, where the drinks tasted bad and were a pleasure to swig anyway.
Rax King is a James Beard Award-nominated bitch. Her work can also be found in Glamour, MEL Magazine, Catapult, and elsewhere. Look out for her monthly column Store-Bought Is Fine for hot takes about the Food Network, and her essay collection Tacky (Vintage 2021).