grub: Bar None 

Tie-breaking a four-way dead heat for the best bar in Richmond — as voted by readers in Style last week — is a terribly difficult task.

Our first stop was Sidewalk Cafe, which in so many ways is the consummate neighborhood bar. When you're on the outside looking in, the place just oozes that eternal, lighthearted vibe, and you almost can't help but take a peek to see who's in there having so much fun. The dim lights, dark wainscoting and old tile floor give Sidewalk its character, which must be part of the reason nearly every table was taken by 10:30 on a Monday night.

Still, waitress Tiffanie Mitchell seemed unimpressed. "Some Mondays are crazy," she said, frowning, "and some are like this." If this was a dead night, it wasn't bad at all. We ordered a round of PBRs in the bottle ($2.50) — my own personal addition to the "best bar" criteria — and were out of there with a tab and tip under 10 bucks.

Avalon, not six blocks away, smacks of trying just a little bit harder. Christmas lights on the ficus trees at the entrance and a crisp paint job make for a handsome place, but here was "Lou Dobbs Moneyline" on the tube rather than the hockey game that Sidewalk had been airing. The PBRs came cheap enough ($2.50 a pop), but the clean look and cleaner clientele made our crowd just a little less comfortable. Cleanliness, after all, is often directly proportional to cost, and though the beer selection is excellent (Spaten, McHenry's and Culpepper City IPA, et. al.), you pay through the nose for the stuff.

Buddy's, on the other hand, thrives off its own chaotic thrum. Why is it that there always seems to be someone standing on one of the tables in the back? Even at 11:30 on Monday night we found eternal lines to the can, and that inch-by-inch shuffle-step through the labyrinth of bodies to get there. A ragged sign on the wall says "Max Occupancy: 64," but I swear it always feels like there are 500 people in the house.

But this is the draw, the eternal frat-house feel of the place, where everyone is an extrovert, where post-grads come to reminisce about their college days, and thirty-somethings come to reminisce about the good old days at Buddy's. That said, demand is high, which surely explains the PBRs coming in at $3.00 apiece. This is no place to just chill out, and if you're not into the Buddy's scene, you find reasons to get out of there fast.

To complete the tour, we hauled it over to Cabo's but were slapped with the palm of reality: The place was closed. Tuesday through Saturday Cabo's is hopping, helped along by excellent jazz and folk acts. Some residents even blame the Cabo's bustle for the lively local prostitution trade, keeping Grace Street on the map as the only place in America where you can drop $350,000 on a house and have hookers kicking around in your front yard.

We were loitering outside the place, wondering what to do next when by sheer coincidence one of Cabo's waiters, Bryan Hileman, happened by, returning from a cig run to 7-Eleven.

"Can you open the place up?" we asked, looking to complete our Best Bar tour. Hileman looked off in the direction of Lee's Chicken. "That would involve a brick," he said, "and that wouldn't be a very good idea." It seemed we might have to come back, until I put to him a very revealing question: "How much are PBRs in there?"

"PBRs?" he said. "Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. No PBRs at Cabo's." For me, that did it right there. You can have Cabo's. I'll take Sidewalk any day of the week. S


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