By Chris Barnett
January 7, 2010 -- After surfing nearly three hours on a recent Saturday, bronzed Sean O'Rourke swaps his baggies for a black dress shirt and starts a real balancing act: handling a constant wave of drink orders as head bartender of Croce's jazz saloon and restaurant in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter.

His fast hands whip up cocktails like the "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" (a shot of gold tequila and Jim Beam); "Time in a Bottle" (a Cosmopolitan fashioned out of Ketel One vodka, Cointreau, fresh lime juice and a splash of cranberry juice); and "New York's Not My Home," a Jim Beam Manhattan with sweet vermouth that's spiked with cherry juice.

If the names of these drinks have a vaguely familiar ring, it's no surprise. They are libational versions of hit records by Jim Croce, the singer-songwriter who had a genius for telling the stories of everyday people in witty, lyrical yarns and heartbreaking ballads. His talent was snuffed out at just 30 years of age in a 1973 plane crash. But his spirit lives on at Croce's, a virtual museum for the musician.

The "curator" of Croce's is the singer's spirited, entrepreneurial widow, Ingrid. In 1985, she rolled the dice and opened a fine food and drink emporium with live music when the Gaslamp was San Diego's skid row. Her only neighbors then were a spaghetti joint and a whips-and-boots emporium. Now she competes with more than 200 bars and restaurants, a remarkable rebirth for a neighborhood that in the 1880s was home to 120 brothels, 71 saloons and 350 "ladies of the evening."

At Croce's today, the singer's guitar, leather jacket and 1973 American Music Award are on display. Photos, framed lyrics, memorabilia and a 20-foot-high mural of the singer hang on the dark rustic red walls. You can tour it all from your barstool. Eighteen of them line the polished mahogany bar with its comfortable brass foot rail. It's roomy, too. The sculpted ceiling soars 20 feet above the dark charcoal flooring.

Few bars offer 50 wines by the glass, but Croce's pours 30 reds and 20 whites. Offerings start at $7 for a Coppola Merlot from California's Sonoma Valley and go up to $14 a glass for a Newton Claret from Northern California's Valley of the Moon. Prefer a flute of bubbly? A Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling wine from Washington State is $7 while a split of Moet & Chandon White Star Champagne is $18. Five beers, including two local microbrews, are on tap for $5 a pint. But the bottled suds include just one Mexican brew, Corona. That's a disappointment given San Diego's proximity to Mexico.

Croce's doesn't shortchange its clientele on drinks or good times. "Before I bartended, I cooked," says head bartender O'Rourke, "so I mix ingredients for taste and presentation."

O'Rourke's personal creation is the $10 Island Sunset. It layers shots of Vox Raspberry vodka and Malibu Coconut rum with pineapple, cranberry and coconut juices. A cherry on the bottom represents the fiery sun slipping into the horizon. All of Croce's barkeeps also make $10 Lemon Drops and Cosmopolitans with Hawaii's rare Kai Lychee-flavored rice vodka. Well cocktails using premium liquors (Johnny Walker Red Scotch, SKYY vodka) begin at $8. And appetizers and anything on the dinner menu can be served at the bar.

Jim Croce and Croce's built their reputations on live music and Ingrid books bands and singers seven nights a week. The repertoire is R&B, mellow and Latin jazz, folk and pop. There is no formal dance floor, but no one minds if the spirit moves you.

ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

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