311 E. Congress St.
READERS' PICK: Some places just have more life in them than others. If you want an environment socioengineered by MBAs in the Midwest so as to guarantee nary an eyebrow, pulse, or off-color thought will be raised in the course of an evening, don't even think of parking your Camry outside The Buffet.
The oldest bar in Tucson is a steamy, stogie-friendly stewpot where a fern couldn't survive more than a minute and a half: the atmosphere might be better described as a miasma. It extends some meters beyond the bar itself; you plunge into it while you're still a fair distance away. It's the only bar we know of with a corner table (and only one, as far from the door as possible) permanently dedicated to slumming frat kids spending their allowance on a bender.
And there's a lot to see for the keen ruffian-spotter. Anyone whose nicotine stains don't go up to the elbow is apt to be viewed with suspicion, but lose a few games of pool or shuffleboard for reasonable stakes and you'll be more or less accepted into the fold. Among our favorite characters here: the Johnny Reb whose anthem is "Sweet Home Alabama," and for whom the South Will Rise Again; apocalyptic bikers straight from your favorite nuclear aftermath flick; and pretty much anyone else whose had a few too many...which is pretty much everyone. If you're not prepared to participate in the collective insanity, best to take your drinking buddies elsewhere. This ain't no cocktail lounge. But if your motto is "Drink up, you're behind," you'll fit right in at the Buffet counter. They open at 6 a.m. if you need a head start.
Let's see, where do we begin with Club Congress? Walk in on a Friday night and you won't make it through the lobby without a snaggle-toothed Boo Radley or Haggemeier Deluxe training you in the sight of his or her love gun. The hippest night spot in town is also, at times, the Tucson equivalent of the Star Wars cantina. Curious about the guy doing the "I'm in love with my beer" dance? Want to get to know the know the girl who's arguing with the newsstand and hitting it with her Cat in the Hat purse?Remember that snappy candy bar jingle, "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't"? When you visit Congo, it's best if your sentiments lean toward the former. If they run toward the latter, just keep your eyes on the stage...unless, of course, there's one of them in the band. In that event we don't know what to tell you. Just sit back and enjoy the freak show.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Berky's Bar, 5769 E. Speedway Blvd. First of all, when we say "nut" we don't mean a serious or dangerous wacko, but rather a somewhat peculiar, non-threatening person, as likely as not of the opposite sex, who'll engage you as if you two went way back, even if you've never met before...Like the gal who pulled down her overalls to show us her new belly-button piercing. Berky's is great for that; a friendly, homey kind of place that includes you in the conversation as soon as you walk in the door. The patrons may have their quirks and kinks, but yours are welcome too. Like the guy who stuck his head through a little window in the wall and asked us who the band was (Berky's has live rock and blues seven nights a week), and we talked for a while with his head before he popped back to shooting pool in the other room. If you're tired of the uptight and pretentious, and just want to relax and have some fun with like-minded people, try Berky's. If you fit right in, you'll know you're as nutty as the rest of 'em.