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Photograph by Eric A. Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Hard Work Cafe

"Water taken in moderation cannot hurt anybody."

--Mark Twain

By Eric A. Carlson

GRITTY DAVID TOMS ended up kissing the coveted Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA Championship last Sunday, and Phil Mickelson and I chalked up yet another year without winning a major golf tournament. Phil waxed philosophic (again), and I drowned my sorrows in a country breakfast at the Hard Work Cafe--located on atmospheric Almaden Road in an industrial-strength corner of Willow Glen. (Willow Glen has lots of industrial strength corners.)

Hard Work Cafe, 1620 Almaden Rd., is far enough away from downtown San Jose to be safe from eminent domain-wielding redevelopers. It is situated in a neighborhood of modest dwellings, cantinas and automobile-related businesses. The place has a history. In the 1940s it was called Virginia's Rendezvous--possibly dealing in products of a military connection. In the 1950s (probably) it became the Latin Palace. And in the 1960s it was named El Tropical (owned by Danny Ramos--El Tortuga). David and Nanette Barron bought the business in 1993--and the present incarnation was born.

Hard Work Cafe is a diner-bar with a unique style and no pretensions whatsoever. When I inquired if I could eat at the bar, a young whippersnapper cracked sarcastic at such a foolish question. You can eat at the bar (and I placed a curse on the lad's head). I ordered what turned out to be the best country breakfast in stubby San Jose--or darn close. Claudia, the bartender/waitress, is as friendly and helpful as an angel. She told me I should write a column about Hard Work Cafe. And why not? It has everything. A quixotic name, great food (thank you, Nanette), music, bar stools rooted into car wheels that look as good as anything found in the San Jose Museum of Art, and a striking mural behind the bandstand depicting working types: carpenters, electricians, plumbers, columnists.

In addition to the wheeled bar stools and mural, David has constructed an ingenious contraption that allows smokers to enjoy the inside ambience of Hard Work without violating San Jose's no-smoking commandment. The device consists of a cutout in the back wall with a slab of bar inserted belly-high for smokers to lean on and peer inside from. A potent fan in the overhead shuttles bar vapors outside to a small patio--and the smokers. In addition to keeping smoke out of the bar, the fan-generated zephyr rebuffs insects--or most of them. "Only the larger flies make it in," Nanette told me. Richard Germer walked outside, lit up a cigarette, and posed at the smoker-bar for a photograph--looking more Hemingway than Hemingway. Nanette added that television is projected onto the outside wall in the evenings, and that Monday Night Football is especially well-received. My bitter Willow Glen friends--hard smokers all--please take note.

I asked Nanette if Hard Work was doing okay in the current business climate, and she said it was. Neighborhood competition comes in the form of the Bears Cocktail Lounge on Alma, and Marmist Cocktail Lounge at a nearby mall. I don't think those places have breakfast or lunch--but they do have great names. As I finished my plate of country potatoes, a bearded patron suggested that Bloody Marys--in quantity--contained all the nourishment anyone could ask for in a breakfast. (Though he did break down a few minutes later to devour a plate of real food.)

Hard Work Cafe is more than just a pretty name--it has substance. And I grant it high marks for artistic merit, good chow, and Mxyztplkian playfulness. Claudia summed up her feelings about the place, "We're like family here." Forget the Fairmont; eat breakfast here. The food is better and you can support a local business--not fancy pants millionaires. (Live music on Friday and Saturday nights--oldies, cumbia, salsa, and other. A Latin flavor pervades.)

Final Note: Who is vandalizing San Jose's fiberglass sharks? Could it be the mentally ill roaming the downtown streets--cursing to themselves between park and soup kitchen? Misunderstood yoots? Drug dealers from Frisco? Or perhaps rival artists?

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From the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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