Hitting the Sauce

When it comes to variations on classic products, the results can be dubious. Take ESPN, which rocks. But ESPN the Magazine? Well, not so much. (Give us Gary Smith’s articles in Sports Illustrated any day.) So, when we noticed that the Gates Barbecue at Main and Linwood had converted its outdoor patio into a bar area, we were curious. After all, we are All About the Gates, and the notion of a bar there was as enticing as a sloppy, sauce-laden beef on bun with fries. Research Assistant Scott agreed. “How could I pass it up? I didn’t know that it existed! The fact that there’s a bar at Gates is intriguing enough to get people out.”

Sadly, other people weren’t so like-minded on a recent Saturday. Just a few bar patrons filtered in during the evening, which made for a low-key atmosphere. “I like how it wasn’t crowded, because we could talk,” RA Tony said. Decorated in dark colors, the “lounge,” as Gates calls it, is a rectangular space that opens onto a small patio with a couple of tables and black-leather booths at one end and a granite-countered bar at the other. Above the shelves of alcohol, four TVs are tuned to sports. With the mirrors behind the bar reflecting a wall of windows looking out onto Main Street, it feels a little like being in the club car of a train, albeit a swankier, nonmoving version with smooth jazz playing in the background. A bonus is that those who are over 21 can sit and order food in the bar — a plus if the line is too long. (In our opinion, though, the “Hi, may I help you?” makes a Gates excursion complete.)

We sat at the bar. Gates didn’t have any specialty drinks, but Nina, our incredibly cool bartender, offered to concoct something based on what we usually liked. We said we prefer juice-based drinks, and she whipped up a tropical libation made of banana-flavored, light and Malibu rums, grenadine, pineapple juice and a splash of 7-Up. Shaken and served in a margarita glass, it definitely fell into the girl-drink category: It was pink, frothy and garnished with three kinds of fruit. “I call it one of them CEsneak up on you’ drinks,” Nina said. “Most ladies like it.” This lady (and we use the term loosely) certainly did; there was a nice balance between the coconut flavor of the Malibu rum and the banana rum.

“Get that away from me,” RA Brett said when we offered him a sip from the straw. He watched in mock disgust. “I’ll have no part of that. You’re a candy-ass.” He was drinking an Old Fashioned, which calls for muddling sugar, a cherry and a lemon wedge at the bottom of a glass, then adding ice and whiskey. (Traditionally, it also calls for bitters, but Nina didn’t have any.) The muddling released the oil in the lemon peel, adding a flavorful scent to the drink.

Nina later told us that the hot items at Gates are cognac and vodka drinks. She also said she makes a lot of apple martinis (with Apple Pucker), cosmopolitans (thanks to Sex and the City) and Cadillac margaritas, which are regular margs topped with Grand Marnier. Boulevard is also popular; the place draws a lot of out-of-towners who want to try the local beer. However, she informed us, it’s not much of a bar scene. “People basically come for the food,” she said. She added that the two-year-old lounge combines three of Mr. Gates’ passions: barbecue, sports and smooth jazz.

We weren’t sure if it was one of those passions that had lured a regular named Pye, and he wasn’t much help in elucidating. The interview went something like this:

How often do you come here? “Every day. Every morning. Every night.” What do you usually drink? “Every damn thing. What I can get.” We heard you come here because of the bartender. Is that true? “I ain’t here because you here … must be because she’s here.” He admitted he liked the atmosphere, then said, “Everyone’s nice — even you,” while giving us the eye. He asked us to guess his age and seemed mildly insulted when we said 63. (We were trying to pick up on context clues, and he’d told us he was retired.) “I retired early,” he huffed.

We were ready to retire as well. After our NBF (new best friend) Pye gave us his phone number and left, we finished our drinks while watching the end of the Florida-Miami game, the air redolent with the smell of barbecue. Mr. Gates got that right.

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