They took the real piano out of the Turf Club and replaced it with a cheesy Yamaha keyboard.
"Yeah, but that piano was a dog," says Gilbert Castellanos, San Diego's brilliant jazz trumpeter, winner of the San Diego Music Awards' 2013 Artist of the Year, who's been instrumental in helping keep San Diego's underdog jazz scene alive for the past couple decades.
We're tucked into one of those immutable vinyl booths under the ancient, faded, horse-track-motif wallpaper, inside the legendary Golden Hill dive founded in 1950, where everyone goes to cook their own dinner at the grill island and add some chatter to the eternally gregarious atmosphere.
Castellanos' talented singer-and-guitarist wife, Lorraine Castellanos, is crooning a laid-back version of a Kansas Joe McCoy blues, accompanied by the solid Ed Kornhauser, who's, unfortunately, playing the piano-ish device that's bugging me. Castellanos chose the Turf Club because: Lorraine. I get it, but isn't this a bar for straight booze and wifelessness, not mixed drinks and making googly eyes?
Well, it's a drink issue, so what the hell—we order a couple Manhattans, a reasonable gauge of any bar's mettle. This one's thrown together with cheap vermouth from the well and not from a trough of ice. (Vermouth is wine, folks! Chill it for freshness!) But the amiable bartender has no problem using Beam Rye in our drinks, and he does a good job of stirring thoroughly, until they're cold enough to mellow the vinegary vermouth. I ask him to skip the neon cherries, as fake as the piano. You can't blame a bartender for the bar program unless you know how much power he's got to elevate it.
"This is good," Castellanos says. He's a little bit sick with a cold. Alcohol is bad for you when you're under the weather. It dehydrates you, but it also makes you not mind being sick as much.
I wouldn't say the Manhattan is good, exactly, but it's good enough—boozy, icy and cheap.
Most people are talking loud and aren't listening. You can barely here Lorraine. But it's not a listening bar. She's there to provide atmosphere, and she and Kornhauser are obviously having fun.
After the song, I ask Castellanos: "You play some high-concentration music in bars—how do you deal with the noise?"
"I like playing the Westgate. Everyone's there to listen. A few weeks ago, this drunk jerk was talking super-loud to his friends during a tune, and I finally couldn't take it. In the middle of the song, I went, 'SSSSSHHHHHH,' and he says, 'This is a bar; I can talk!' And then everyone in the room turned around and said, 'No. Actually, you can't.' And they drove him out of there."
"What's some of the craziest shit you've seen go down in a bar?" I ask.
"One night after a gig at this one place," he says, "after the place is closed and everyone's gone and I'm packing up, these two cocktail waitresses start having sex in the middle of the restaurant right in front of me."
"You didn't join in?"
"They wouldn't let me."
Here's the thing about the Turf Club: I don't know if Castellanos would've told me this story in another bar. There's something about the timeless insouciance of the joint that makes you feel at home. It's nearly impossible to have a bad time here, even if you're sick, or the piano isn't real, or you're not the award-winner with the gorgeous songbird wife, or the Manhattan isn't the best one you ever had in your life.
"If I'm feeling better, let's do this again Tuesday, only this time you pick the bar," Castellanos says.
I'm thinking Turf Club.
Only this time it'll be tequila. Straight, no chaser.