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ON THE ROAD AND AT THE BAR
By Chris Barnett
September 30, 2010 -- Do you really want to go downstairs to the lobby and have yet another plastic glass of free bad wine and giveaway wings at the manager's happy hour? Or do you want to sit around a piano in the lobby bar, staring into your beer, while the keyboard player belts out his 2,300th rendition of New York, New York?
Instead, reward yourself after a day of schlepping. Find a watering hole with some style, glad-to-see you friendliness, a well-made, generously poured drink and delicious munchies.
Here are a few places in the western hemisphere that will raise your spirits as you down theirs. Enjoy!
IN SAN ANTONIO, REMEMBER THE LATTE
Looking for a cozy place to dine, drink fine wines and beers, work online free, listen to live music with no cover charge and relax by candlelight? All at shockingly low prices in a setting that looks like your grandmother's house? It's a tall order, but you can do it in San Antonio at a combo wine bar, coffee house and café called, yes, Candlelight.
The owner and sommelier, Ken Sheppard, is hardly your granny. He's a retired Air Force officer and flight navigator with the charm of a seasoned saloonlord who might also moonlight as an innkeeper. Yet there are no cocktails or rooms for rent and no waiters, either. There is a bar staff that brews and pours the coffee. Otherwise, you serve yourself.
Candlelight is a great gathering place with sofas, clubby chairs, coffee tables, floor lamps and seating for meetings. Walls are decorated with works by San Antonio painters who lean toward bright colors and a Latin flair. For sun worshippers, glass doors open onto a sprawling patio. Candlelight has been a local hangout for 16 years, but first-timers and visitors feel instantly at home.
"Settle in and stay here as long as you want," encourages Sheppard, a welcoming sort in a business that makes money off turning tables.
A whopping 36 wines from around the world are served by the glass. (Sheppard charges just $6 to $9 each.) All 15 beers are just $3.50 a bottle. Four coffees are brewed daily. The price: $2.25 a cup with unlimited refills. Lattes and cappuccinos are $3.25. There's a wide range of affordable dining options, too. "Bottomless Mimosas" at $10 headline the à la carte Sunday brunch.
Even at these low prices, Sheppard shaves off costs during a Tuesday-Friday Happy Hour. Beers are just $2.50 and featured wines and appetizers are $2 off their regular price.
Want more? A singer-guitarist entertains on the second and fourth Wednesday. Live jazz fills the place on the first and third Friday. And here's a treat. The 16-stool bar doesn't have television.
"You can actually talk, read and relax without your brains being bashed by a blaring box," explains Sheppard.
A BAR IN A CASTLE IN QUEBEC CITY
If the name Fairmont didn't precede Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, you'd think the cozy St-Laurent Bar and Lounge was a magnificent private living room in a castle. Warmed by two fireplaces, an octagonal marble bar is ringed by 18 shiny mahogany chairs. It shields a centerpiece tower of fine liquors. If sitting at the bar isn't your scene, stake out a banquette that offers intoxicating views of the St. Lawrence River.
Once the hotel's "writing and reading room," the bar draws a cultured crowd of local lawyers, business people and artists who enjoy the clubby feel and unusual drinks. And St-Laurent has been the home of maestro mixologist Daniel Bernaba for 35 years. His cocktail repertoire sounds as if it was ripped from the pages of a world history book.
It's stirring to watch Bernaba take libational liberties and recreate drinks named for past guests. For Charles de Gaulle, it's gin or vodka with some shakes of Pineau des Charentes. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it's vodka or gin with a splash of bourbon. For Winston Churchill, it's gin with a splash of Scotch. Former Canadian prime minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau is remembered with vodka, Campari and a splash of triple sec. Prices range from C$12 to C$14.
If history-tinged mixed drinks won't do, Bernaba and his pals have a long list of customized cocktails. A trendy White Pear Cosmopolitan, for example, is crafted from pear vodka, Cointreau, simple syrup, fresh lime juice and cranberry juice. Or try hockey great Wayne Gretzky's Unoaked Chardonnay ($13 a glass) or Alexander Keith's Red Amber ale on tap ($10 for 20 ounces).
The St-Laurent has one of the most interesting and compact menus I've ever seen in a bar. Specialties range from smoked salmon with herb sauce and sweet red onions to a spinach salad with apricots and cranberries. For dessert, you can try a citrus fruit Crème Brûlée with chocolate chips.
HURRICANE ALERT IN CANCUN
Sane people dread hurricanes--unless you've sipped one at Pat O' Brien's in Cancun. The Caribbean outpost of the fabled Pat O'Brien's in New Orleans' French Quarter bar makes a Category 5 version of the tropical cocktail. It starts with four shots of 151 proof rum and ends with fruit juices in a shapely 22-ounce glass that you're welcome to take home. The tariff: $9.
But Pat O'Brien's Cancun is no one-trick pony. More than 100 cocktails are poured. One example: The Skylab, as blue as the sea, mixes Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi white rum, Blue Curacao, pineapple and orange juices. It's $6.50. Top-shelf beers like Pacifico and Negra Modelo (in bottles) and Corona on tap are $4. (Wine is rarely ordered here.) The menu includes a 9-ounce cheeseburger ($9); a slab of barbecued ribs ($15); or the 9-ounce "Big Easy" rib steak ($19).
Owner-host Alfredo Garduno throws a heckuva party every night. After all, he says, "We're the only Irish bar in Cancun." The 50-foot long bar is always packed and 500 revelers can celebrate under a 25-foot ceiling. About 3,000 more can party on an outside terrace.
Garduno loves music, so a DJ plays vintage rock and roll weekdays. On weekends, a live band belts out oldies but goodies. Pat O'Brien's has a circus act, too. Waiters move through the throngs balancing trays of drinks on their heads.
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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.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.
This column is Copyright © 2010 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.