The bartender’s sweat shirt was sunny with hope and optimism. “Aloha Hawaii,” it sang out in floral patterns and colors reminiscent of a tropical summer, while outside a frozen-faced kid in an Eskimo coat worked to shovel a path through the waist-deep ice and snow the street plows had just dumped on the sidewalks of Midtown.
“Aloha Hawaii” on a day when even the icicles have icicles and penguins practically waddle through town. I’m not sure if her fashion choice was meant as a bold statement of irony or just a happy accident, but either way it was somewhat symptomatic of the many uncommon charms found within the wood-paneled walls of The Office Bar and Grill on North Fourth Street in Coeur d’Alene.
“Where the Elite Meet” is the motto painted in large letters across the back wall of the long, skinny tavern, and when Q and I ducked in from the cold one recent early afternoon, “the elite” consisted of exactly three neighborhood regulars, animatedly chatting it up and chain-smoking over pitchers of Pabst. We picked a tall table close to the action under a vintage sign featuring a leggy, winking Mae West beer mug and the slogan “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder.”
The selection of miscellany that decorates the Office is entertainingly random. There’s the broken-down bicycle for some reason glued to the back wall next to the pool table; a couple of gorgeous wall murals vividly depicting classic hot rods like huge works of pop art; a miniaturized vintage airplane of some kind hovers overhead; and the walls are hung with plaques proclaiming a variety of cutesy notions. A couple of honest-to-goodness live plants even manage to survive within this realm of merciless smokers.
Yet despite the collection of mish-mash, nothing seems cluttered or claustrophobic. For a tavern of its age and history, it’s remarkably clean and well kept and offers a warm and inviting getaway from more common haunts. I’m not certain if this was always the case, or if current owners Laurie Schaefer and husband Dwight Hill have done some beautification work since taking over the place in August. Despite its long-standing location right in my very own neighborhood, the Office just wasn’t on my radar until Q persuaded me to slink in with him that afternoon. He’d eaten lunch there for the first time a few weeks ago on the recommendation of our friends at the neighboring Inkworld Tattoo shop, who have been heralding Office food for years.
The menu is a masterpiece of bar chow minimalism. Presented on one side of a two-sided table tent, its small enough you could write it on the back of your hand if for some reason the need arose, or you could memorize it and recite it at a post-modern poetry slam. “O Breaded North Atlantic Clam Strips! O Inferno Hot Crunchy Wings! O Tater Tots and Mozzarella Sticks!”
Obsessive cholesterol-watchers probably ought to just steer clear of the place, as nearly everything here becomes intimately acquainted with hot grease before it arrives sizzling at your table. The selection of fried foods is impressive and all-inclusive, from giant, homemade onion rings and chicken strips to off-kilter snacks like breaded calamari and even gizzards. I’m sure there are plenty of gizzard lovers out there, but choking down a chicken’s chewy gastric mill is not my idea of a fine lunch.
Amazingly, nearly everything they have on offer can be had for less than a five spot. The bartender broke away from the confab happening up at the bar and directed her attention to our table. For some gross reason, Q likes to always mispronounce the word cheeseburger by leaving off the first “r,” but our waitress didn’t even bat an eye, asking “What kind of cheese do you want, honey?” Wow, you get your choice of cheese!
Q was lauding the Office burger as one of the very best in town, but I had to go for the finger steaks and fries because really, how often do you see finger steaks on the menu these days?
“You want sour cream with your jo-jo’s?” she suggested. Brilliant. I don’t know if it would have ever occurred to me to even ask for sour cream with my jo-jo’s, but suddenly the idea seemed so meant-to-be.
She disappeared back into the kitchen to change from her bartender hat into her chef hat and prepare our lunches herself. A few minutes before our food arrived, our hostess/chef brought out a wonderful six-pack of condiments. Literally, an old cardboard six-bottle beer holder had been given a new lease on life holding squeeze bottles of ketchup, mustard, tartar sauce, pink fry sauce, horseradish sauce and spicy ketchup. “You’ll need some barbecue sauce, too,” she suddenly decided and returned with a bottle of the brown stuff. Q had to take the condiment insanity to its highest level with a request for some ranch dressing. I had a lot of fun experimenting with the different food/condiment combinations, and my favorite was the horseradishy ketchup, simply labeled “mild hot.”
The presentation of our meals in red plastic baskets lined with red and white checked paper was a visual delight and a catalyst for warm fuzzy feelings. The steak bites were tender and addictive, breaded to perfection and fried gorgeously. The potato wedges were enormous, hot and steamy and superb with the cool sour cream.
The front door swooshed open, pulling us back to reality from our food-induced trance and ushering in a cool burst of winter air. It was another bar regular, an older woman dressed in a sky blue floor-length puffy jacket. She pulled a stool up to the bar and before she could sit the bartender already had her favorite beer poured and ready. She lit a cigarette and her cell phone rang to the tune of “California Dreaming.” She let us listen for a few moments then answered, squawking to whoever was on the other end “Hey, I bought you a crab!” Just like our hostess with the unseasonably summery top, she wasn’t going to let any extreme winter conditions ruin the sunshine in her head.
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