Next to Neiman’s Last Call and around the corner from a souffle restaurant in the highfalutin expanse of Inwood and Lovers stands the 1947-vintage Inwood Theatre. Red mosaic tiles swirl in shaky lines on the ground, waving you in, and the art deco interior curves in ways that make it seem the building is in Fair Park rather than the edge of University Park. The theater is rife with history—the rumored ghost of a projectionist, the patron who casually mentions he spent good times in the ’70s tripping and staring at the ceiling mural.
The Inwood Lounge, neon-lit and redolent with popcorn and real butter, is the bar alongside the theater. Beer, wine, and cocktails—bar. Some swear by the chocolate martini (one made with Stoli Vanil and the other orange flavored), and others by the classic martini (“This is good,” exclaimed the woman next to me, sipping hers). And still others swear when a martini doesn’t stand up to a beloved memory of an Inwood Lounge martini.
Music comes from the record player shaped like a ’50s radio—irony wrapped in kitsch elevated to cool. Women’s hair gets disheveled by the opening and closing of the portholed front door. The back room is a wonder of deco divineness, a room with dim lights, purple as a giant octopus. A black banquette rounds the length of the room, and man, does the space beg for parties. Big, intimate parties of 15 or 20 people. And a hookah. Or a feast, Babette style. (The Lounge doesn’t serve food. But remember: gumdrops are just steps away.)
If “swanky” didn’t sound so smarmy, so avant-hipster-literate, it might be the right word for the bar, provided you could also work in the word “dive.” Because it’s more than one or the other and something akin to both. The Mad Men guys would like it, as would the Jon Favreau/Vince Vaughn characters of Swingers. And judging by the crowds I saw, so would Highland Park women on girls’ nights, youthful middle-aged people on dates, and younguns fresh from college. People have drinks in the bar as they wait for their movies to start—and then take the drinks into the theaters as they watch Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys or whichever film is playing (in 2005, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner bought the parent company, Landmark Theatres; gone are the days of art-house-only flicks).
But the bar is more than swank. The Inwood Lounge is comfortable in its own skin. It’s not fancy, but it has that most enviable quality: style. And that’s style in the French sense, putting yourself together in a distinct way that utterly suits you and has individual flair. The right jaunt to a scarf, if you will. Part of the reason to love the Inwood is the way that, over the years, as the neighborhood has evolved, the bar has become more itself, sometimes burnishing and renovating its best qualities and yet still feeling like itself.
And its very best quality, hands down, is water, the sound of which is at least as intoxicating as martini fumes. Water pours down a waist-high wall, streams down metal sheeting and into a lazy brook at the bottom, all beneath neon light. Tables for two run the length of the brook, and few places are better suited to the free-form conversations possible only among intimates. Glass bricks complete the wall that separates the bar from the theater. They distort the view ever so slightly, like looking at the world from the bottom of a pool. Sea creatures abound—etched on glass, colored in on the chalkboard.
Under the sea, despite what Disney would have you believe, is less a place for singing than breathlessness. Breathless: the only appropriate response to the wonder and adventure of another world. Which is what the Inwood has given me—other worlds. The first films I saw in French and in Danish. The first cartoons for adults (thanks, Spike and Mike). A documentary on Robert Crumb. The first film I chose not to see, even though I was legally old enough and the film was meant to be art, because I didn’t want to see the violence (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). I can recall many of the films I’ve seen at the Inwood with near perfect clarity because they were so often my firsts. They spoke to my 17-year-old hunger for the world and everything in it.
Sitting in the bar last week, my friend said that her martini did not stand up to the memory of Inwood martinis. I have no memory of Inwood martinis. Last week was my first.
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