Redeye January 22 2004

Steel Yourself: GQ magazine recently rated a Southeastern bar as one of the Top 10 bars in the world worth flying to. The bar: The Garage Cafe. The location: our nestled neighbors Birmingham, Ala. (Trust me, I understand the shock you're feeling.) So I decided to fly down I-20 in my little Honda Civic and see how the Southeast's redheaded stepchild of former industry and fledgling metropolitan culture had eclipsed Atlanta.

On Friday night, the evening started off catching Louisville, Ky.'s My Morning Jacket at WorkPlay, a state-of-the-art entertainment complex opened by founding MTV VJ Alan Hunter. The converted warehouse offers full production soundstage/recording facilities, and more importantly, a reasonably priced martini bar leading to a multi-tiered cabaret with impressive acoustics for a 250-capacity venue.

After hearing walls rain diamonds, it was time to catch some bootys shaking. I stopped by Sobo, a restaurant that converts to a performance space by night. DJ Carlos Otalora of Latinsoul Productions was keeping the Southside caliente with the sounds of salsa, meringue and cumbia. Outside, directly above, a girl dances in silhouette, indicating Club Red, Birmingham's newly opened "upscale nightclub." On this night, it attempts to be as crunk as Chaos, ending up as "fashionably" decorated/populated as Uranus.

Saturday night I ventured deep into the slowly redeveloping warehouse district to scope out The Juniper, a post-industrial watering hole with a vibe closest to Commune's Onyx Bar. Looking out onto the historic, ghostly pig iron plant Sloss Furnaces while getting sloshed on impeccably concocted inebriants, the feeling was of both intimacy and isolation.

You're probably wondering about The Garage Cafe still, though. A small bar serves as the entranceway into this equally intimate and isolated nightspot. That opens in to a courtyard, where English garden-style statuaries are placed haphazardly with tables set between them. The courtyard is lined with glass doors that provide portals into old locked storage sheds filled with decades-spanning jumbles of junk.

If only The Garage Cafe it could bottle its stock in trade: escapism. For all the unfortunate similarities between Birmingham and Atlanta, subtleties exist that point to a valuable lesson. Atlanta's clubs may offer escape, but for all the fantasy marketed, one harsh reality remains. Atlanta struggles so hard to fabricate what people think constitutes Miami or New York nightlife.

Birmingham's most inspiring venues felt like nowhere and nowhere else at the same time. If we settled into, but not for, a unique identity, Atlanta could very well draw more people for an experience outside the norm.

Keep one RedEye open. And send all comments, questions, observations and invitations to redeye@creativeloafing.com.