Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Shift Change

A stout building on Santa Clara Street holds several chapters of San Jose's past
COVER IT UP: Underneath the layers of paint inside San Jose's 3rd & Bourbon at 93 E. Santa Clara St. are memories—and a mural of Byblos. Photo by Gary Singh

The first time I saw the ancient Lebanese city of Byblos was on the wall at 93 E. Santa Clara St. in downtown San Jose. That was 2002.

Last week, when I returned to the same room, now a bar called 3rd & Bourbon, I saw elegant decor instead of the mural of Byblos. Instead of Middle Eastern music, Stevie Ray Vaughan cranked over the house system while the kitchen prepared for a night of burgers, pasta and specialty cocktails for customers in swank velvety booths.

This is not a complaint—not at all. I didn't feel alienated in the least bit, primarily because my eyes went straight to a 1927 copy of Edgar Allan Poe's Complete Works on the shelf right next to a candle. I also saw Mark Twain. Any place with old books and candles is a keeper.

Since I slithered in just after opening time, the place was empty and the overall vibe was Louisiana Gothic enough for me to stay and order some Cajun pasta while conjuring up visions of everything at this address that didn't exist anymore. I felt transported into the film Angel Heart, with me as Mickey Rourke, the slovenly beat-up detective stumbling into dark legends of businesses gone by.

So I slumped down into the corner booth and remembered when this place was Falafel House, just before the owners of Mission Ale House next door bought it out and painted over the mural of Byblos. This is not a complaint either. In fact, sitting in the velvety booth brought back basement ghosts from Mission Ale House years earlier.

At nighttime, Mission Ale (1996-2009) was a stereotypical jock bar on the corner of Third and Santa Clara streets. It was a bad frat party at best, a place filled with dozens of chest-thumping slobs that didn't have a combined I.Q. between them, but the lunchtime scene was great. The tri-tip sandwiches on Thursdays were killer.

Before Mission Ale, the corner business was a nefarious dive called Dot's Bar & Grill, operated by a woman named Dot Singh (no relation—fortunately or unfortunately). Dot was also somehow involved with the rundown apartments above Allen's Furniture, which later became the fixed-up apartments above Zanotto's.

Before Dot's, the bar went through numerous incarnations, including a solid 20-year run as the Interlude, from approximately 1960-1980. Throughout Mission Ale's existence, a sign from the Interlude remained painted on the back of the building, leftover from decades earlier. The philistine who later bought the property and painted it the bile color it is today also painted over the Interlude sign, thus ruining the whole building. But again, why complain? What's done is done.

Downstairs, beneath Mission Ale, was a labyrinth of hidden rooms, nooks and crannies ripe for exploration. Maybe it was a speakeasy in the old days, I don't know, but it appeared as if all the now-subdivided businesses on the street level were once connected underground 100 years earlier.

One Mission Ale employee even claimed to have seen the ghost of a woman in a blue dress down there. She apparently appeared one day as the employee descended down the metal stairway into the cavernous basement.

Even better, just as the employee was telling us this story, the lights in the whole building suddenly went out. No one knew what happened, not even PG&E. The bartenders distributed candles along the bar, and an eerie silence gripped the place as the customers continued to drink on the house because the entire point-of-sale system was down. The owners were nowhere to be found.

One of the bartenders gave us a candlelight ghost tour of the forbidden areas downstairs, all in near pitch-black conditions with nothing but the candle illuminating the scene. It was eerie. The only thing missing was Vincent Price emerging from around the corner, like in that one Brady Bunch episode.

In the end, I did not let the endless charade of painting over murals depress me. Things change. That's life in the big suburb.

With Vincent Price, Mission Ale, Byblos and the Interlude stuck in my head, there was no other choice but to enjoy my Cajun pasta with Edgar Allan Poe and the candles. I had no complaints.