READERS' PICK: It's not much when you think about it, really -- a room 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, some booths along one wall and a dozen or so barstools; a bartender's liquids and some framed cowboy drawings on the walls. But over in the corner by the outside door is that old box full of vinyl that can make the place jump. That old box that with a jolt of electricity and vacuum gives you tunes when you really need them: 200 songs, from Louis Armstrong to War. It has the King of Swing and the Queen of Soul, and even the Seeds version of "Hey Joe." It has locals like Al Perry, River Roses, James Dead and Fish Karma; lots of Hank and Frank and rock-and-roll, old and not so. You can quaff a martini with Xavier Cugat and sleepwalk home with Johnny and Santo. Next time you're in the Congo Tap Room, drop a few quarters and make that vinyl spin. It'll do you good.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP -- TIE: 5 & Diner, 4330 E. Broadway Blvd.; 4520 N. Stone Ave. We think it's really funny how our kids go nuts over the jukebox at this joint. They have no real music of their own, apparently, no sense of juvenile rebelliousness pushing them to the edge of social acceptability, and so they rely on the rebels of a bygone era -- the King, The Killer, the Big Bopper. To us wizened ones, of course, they're comfort songs. The perfect complement to the comfort foods this place serves up pipin' warm. While the kids get into the songs, draining our pockets of quarters, we old-timers can gum a wide selection of soft foods, and remember.
The Buffet, 538 E. Ninth St. Okay, it's a tough old bar. There's nothing but Coors on tap, and hardly anything's been touched for about three decades. This is a working man's Americana, hand rolled and unfiltered. You wouldn't expect the jukebox to be any different, would you? So at first you're sure you don't need to look. You hardly need to look; you know what you're going to find: anthem rock 1970s style, by the likes of Lynrd Skynrd, the Allman Brothers...maybe a little Tom Petty. If there's anything from the '80s it'll be Garth Brooks, George Strait; Reba for certain.
So you push the buttons that flip the CD cases behind the glass. Yep, there's Alabama, just where you thought it would be, and there's...hang on. Tracy Chapman? Bob Seger, well naturally. But Big Head Todd and the Monsters? Sheryl Crow, Soul Asylum? Any more and this'll be downright eclectic. That Frank Sinatra's gotta be a fluke...but no, there's Tony Bennett, too. And just when you're thinking "retro," up pops Harry Connick Jr. and Louis Armstrong! And it can't possibly be, but yes, there's no mistaking that palindromic logo -- even those sequined Swedes, ABBA, rank among the dancing queens here!
We always wondered how The Buffet got its name -- who knew it might've been inspired by the all-you-can-eat jukebox, which is a mix of the good and the awful. But its twisted genius is that if you pick any two people at random, we'll bet they don't agree on which is which.