Life is providence, and providence is life. You can debate the specifics of how it works, but it’s as true as gravity or death that the Universe and the Good Lord dole out what they think you need. Pain and loss, gain and glorious fortune, the machinations of fate turn, grind and seem to dispense what is necessary when you need it, whether you like it or not.
So, more than two decades ago, circumstance hands me my own ass and delivers me via Amtrak to the Fresno station, waiting on a pickup from my friend Stony O’Neill to run me up the hill to my summer spot in the High Sierra. Stony was a gem and one of my favorites; he sort of symbolized the Fresno legacy. Nephew to Jack O’Neill, a famous Fresno business and cattleman, Stony was a bronco-riding, Coors-swilling kid who turned into a tough-as-nails local cowboy with fists the size of canned hams. My favorite story about him was when he punched a Clovis cop outside the infamous 500 Club and had to leave the state. He quickly turned into my guide for all things Fresno.
That city is a curious beast. A mix of California history, tweakers, old money and yuppies, it is worth a visit, despite what you might hear. There are a lot of great dive bars and places to grab a bite, although, as with everywhere else, a lot of the old-school charm is fading away to be replaced with gentrified versions. The Shepherd’s Inn (35 Santa Fe Ave., 559-266-2228; shepherdsinnfresno.com) across from the train station is still there with cold beer and the boarder’s table, although it is the last of the Basque holdouts. The bar scene is great—from shitholes to brewpubs, you’ll find what you want. If you are in the mood for a steak, Joe’s Steakhouse (831 Van Ness, 559-486-3536; www.joessteakhouse.com) is a worthy contender, with a cool vibe and decent prices. In fact, that whole stretch along Van Ness has many stops worth perusing. In the mood for Mexican? Taqueria Don Pepe (4582 N. Blackstone, 559-224-1431; taqueriadonpepes.com) is my favorite; akin to La Posta in San Diego, it has those paper-thin flour tortillas that let light though like stained glass. The asada is spot-on, and the carnitas is amazing.
The Tower District (www.towerdistrict.org) is a great stroll, sort of the downtown Santa Ana of Fresno, although the epic Landmark recently shuttered its doors. Jack Parker was a gentle host, and the regulars posted up at the bar throwing dice was great. I’ll never forget the tinging of the tiny, brass bell calling guests to the boarder’s table for lunch.
Those were the days. I miss the Silver Dollar, Landmark and, even more, the Old Fresno Haufbrau, with longtime bartender Harry McTarrian at the wheel and a 4-pound prime rib sandwich served with enough au jus to drown a sea otter and three of her pups. Don’t even get me started on the corned beef. But Fresno does have a strange charm that is hard to get your head around. Walking its streets, thinking about the ladies of the night, cowboys, Gold Rush hopefuls, moneymen and all the others that helped to build our great state makes me wax sentimental. It’s like San Francisco in the Central Valley, with some great architecture along its main drag and a pretty impressive skyline, all things considered. It’s not quite a garden spot, but if you keep your eyes and ears open, there are some gems to be found.
As for Stony? Well, he’s long gone. Gone but not forgotten, not in my mind at least.
And Fresno? On a 112-degree afternoon midsummer, I’ll drive off for pickled tongue and a cold Budweiser to toast O’Neill and my decades clawing the sidewalks from one bar to another. As with all urban sprawl, the old joints are closing—but get it while you can, folks.
Chef, writer, bartender, photographer and overall bearer of mirth.