Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Cellar Full of Noise

Where was I ten years ago? Celebrating Ipanema's tenth anniversary.

Where was I tonight? Celebrating Ipanema's 20th anniversary. Are you seeing a pattern?

When I went to the tenth anniversary party, I had no real connection to the place. But that night, I met the owner and the first words out of her mouth were about how much she loved my blog and its positivity. I was, of course, smitten with her immediately and we became friends soon after. I called her my girl crush right up until she found the man of her dreams.

If you want to get personal about it, it's where I learned how to drink without getting trashed over the course of an evening, a skill set taught to me by my new friend, often on Ipanema's patio (the same patio where she threw me a birthday celebration).

Reasons enough to say that Ipanema is central to my history over the past decade. But every bit as important, Ipanema's anniversary coincides with our friend-iversary, so we were celebrating tonight, too.

Over the years, I've become an Ipanema semi-regular. I attended nearly every Live at Ipanema to hear new and familiar bands enliven a Sunday evening. Many a night I went for the DJ, especially if it was the Blood Brothers playing '60s and '70s music. I went for dessert after seeing movies at the Grace Street Cinema and sneaked over from Strange Matter during band breaks to get a decent glass of wine. I spent hours on conversation while sharing a bottle of wine off the Secret Stash wine list. I celebrated New Year's Eve at parties there and had a second Thannksgiving dinner after my own at home.

How could I not be part of the celebration of their longevity?

Mac and I walked over and found seats at the two-top against the dividing wall, out of the fray but with stellar views of the crowd back and front. It was bound to be an interesting view given how many people have sentimental attachment to Ipanema. Within no time, I spotted the urban planer whose weekly series of charettes I'd attended to give input about J-Ward. In the back was the bookseller and author who'd lived in my apartment before I did. The record collector and scene stalwart.

Our server turned out to be a familiar face from Balliceaux and from Gallery 5 and he was happy to bring me a glass of Garciarevalo Casamaro Verdejo and a tequila-laced La Casa Pacifica for Mac.

With the place getting more crowded by the minute, we scanned the anniversary menu dedicated to picnic food that was tacked to the usual menu chalkboard. For me, that meant a chicken of the wood "lobster roll," meaning fungi dressed with mayo and full of celery, along with sides of seeded cornbread (a combination I'd never had and adored) and killer baked beans, while Mac went with the mushroom and onion fajitas with broccoli salad, vegan mac and cheese and corn on the cob.

They may have all been vegan, but there wasn't a stinker in the bunch.

By the time we'd cleaned our plates, every seat and bar stool was taken and there was a waiting list for a seat. Our timing had been impeccable and completely accidental.

And while I don't know if the hordes were there for the anniversary, I tend to think they were. As the woman nearest me said to her friends, "Can we just stop and appreciate how long this place has been here?" When you're 23 or 24, it must be truly impressive to think of a favorite restaurant as having been around since you were a toddler, just waiting for you to be legal to indulge in its pleasures.

In no hurry to vacate, Mac and I ordered another round of drinks (her poison of choice this time was the Sweet Revenge, a yummy but not cloying coconut-based cocktail) and shared a slice of blueberry pie a la mode while the owner pulled up a chair to our table and sat down to dish. Or, more accurately get the scoop on my life since we'd last talked, the news of which made her very happy.

Eventually, Mac had to go (early morning travel plans) so I walked her back to my place to claim her car and returned to the anniversary party. The thing is, Ipanema won't have another 20th anniversary celebration. Hell, any day now a developer is going to swoop in and buy that building to erect a tower of student apartments. After that, it's only going to be the former regulars and barflies who even recall the subterranean spot that attracted generations of VCU students and neighbors like me.

It wasn't long after I returned that the manager grabbed me for the cutting of the birthday cake in the back of the restaurant. When I asked what flavor the cake was, he told me it was "cake flavor," although the flavor of the cake didn't matter because the icing was so good. Requesting a corner piece didn't hurt, either.

Music arrived shortly after in the form of DJ Bad Daughter and DJ Sad Boi, both carrying by the handles the same kind of colorful boxes of 45s I had in my youth.

When I asked a blond next to me if she'd come for the anniversary, she looked confused. She'd come for a beer to forget the stalker boyfriend she'd left behind in another city, but she was open-minded enough to jump on board with the occasion.

Ensconced at the bar with my girl crush and another glass of Verdejo, we talked about some of the good times we'd had there over the years. About whether or not a counter-culture even exists anymore (seems unlikely) like it did when she opened Ipanema. About how possessive people feel about Ipanema because of spending their formative years there discussing life and love over a grilled Gouda sandwich.

When we finally left, she walked me home before calling Lyft to get her home to Southside. Along the way, we talked about our trip to Memphis and Oxford, Mississippi a few years back, reminiscing about how much we'd seen, eaten and experienced that week. How neither of us had any interest in seeing Graceland. How much we'd laughed.

But mostly what I was thinking about was how fortunate I was to have ended up at Ipanema in 2008 to celebrate a decade in business. It not only introduced me to one of my favorite people, but taught me how lucky I was to have such a charming spot a half mile walk from home and open every night. Cue Petula Clark.

I know a place where the music is fine
And the lights are always low
I know a place where we can go

At the door there's a man who will greet you
Then you go downstairs to some tables and chairs
Soon, I'm sure, you'll be tapping your feet
Cause the beat is the greatest there

Congrats to the woman not only capable of creating such a place, but of keeping it going for 20 years. It's got an atmosphere of its own somehow because of the countless people whose lives have been lived partly in the low light of Ipanema.

I'm thrilled to have been one of them...and hoping for 20 more.


  1. I like Ipanema. glad it's been 'round for as long as it has. secretly I have a fondness for semi-underground places. besides it somewhat reminds me of the "old' Grace Street environs. (hate the new)...that's progress. besides I used to buy cases of beer there back in '83. however though I've met friends at Ipanema, had fun at Ipanema, will go back to Ipanema, I've never had a really good meal at Ipanema. Nevertheless it exists & i'm glad....


  2. cw,
    As Grace Street becomes more and more of a VCU concrete canyon, I find myself really appreciating the small businesses that hang on there. Places like Ipanema.

    Every component of last night's picnic-style meal was stellar...and I say that as a carnivore. Vegetarian food has come so far since Ipanema opened its door, so maybe you should give it another try.

    Nice to hear from you, cw. It's been a while!