Have Mercy, or how I learned to love the brand

I had the chance to check out the new El Cortez – Have Mercy – this Saturday.
It’s the upstairs that used to be Suite 69 just off Whyte Ave. The moment you set foot in the room you almost forget you’re in Edmonton. Then you see a table of four Serena Ryder lookalikes and their neck beard boyfriends with pastel, above the knee shorts and you remember you are smack dab in Katztonia.

It strikes a person who is looking, instantly, how much expensive and “clean” work went into making this place look dirty. Sign of the times. This place feels like buying distressed jeans. I am going to sit and take it all in before I take any judgements further. We have been trained to be in critique mode, which is gross to begin with and even more of a personal handicap when eating. The transformation of the space is great though.

Service staff are interchangeable Millennials and a bartender who looks like a roadie for the fucking Allman Brothers Band. Must be someone’s cool cousin they flew in from Windsor to help open up while he’s on his seasonal downtime from being the Sheepdogs Rick Rubin. My server was wonderful and kind and honest. Like a leprechaun, she is a rare and magical find. Earnest and nice and not yet hit by the bitter edge of service. I felt like I was in an after school special and I wanted to talk her out of it all before she gets weathered and thinks being drunk midday Sunday afternoon is commonplace.
Then I check out the other servers and see someone in corporate musta put “WEAR A GODDAM BAND SHIRT FROM OLD NAVY PEOPLE” at the top of the orientation guide. There is a RUSH guy and a “Appetite for Destruction” shirt girl and I think about how if Axl Rose himself came in here he may never get served.

So service was solid. Pleasantly surprised as El Cortez always sucks worse than the Netflix version of “From Dusk Till Dawn” for service. Drinks were out fast and topped up on the regular, so kudos on that, people. Finding service staff that aren’t indifferent hipsters is increasingly hard to come across.

So some pros:
– with the kind of dead on creepiness that makes your neck hair stand on end, they nailed the look. I’ve been in some Deep South highway bars and it’s almost disturbing how it resembles a Honky Tonk Bar.
– The appetizers are white trash gold. You can actually taste the processed cheese in the dip (anyone else independently verify this?) The hush puppies were good and the buttermilk ranch was a nice touch instead of some bullshit jam or overly sweet dip. The Shrimp and grits was solid as well, the Grits were cooked right and had just the right amount of cheese, the shrimp were IQF out of a bag but the red sauce was tasty and the portion size was perfect.

– Old Fashioned was one of the best I’ve had in Edmonton. Balanced and simple. You can judge a bartender by how this drink is done. Subsequently the three other drinks I tried were of the same quality.

 

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Some cons:
– the band never loads in during dinner time. In the south that would be sacrilege.
Then we were all treated to min long sound check, while the house music was playing. Edmonton is having a love/hate thing with live bands right now and now is not the time to fuck around people. Patience is thin.
– Have the staff wear the old buck Owens shirt tucked in. Of all the aesthetic stuff you could pull off in this place. I mean Christ, even the bathrooms have a planned color scheme and look. Tsk
– Holy shit, open a window. 9:30 at night and it was getting gamey up there. That room has always been an armpit and the heat doesn’t couple well with all the Pabst and pretzel farts.

The thing is, this ownership group is good. Good for somehow making the look of a focused music video set into an Edmonton cottage industry. You can see the level of work that went into looking like they don’t care. Which is enormous. It takes time and $$$ and balls to commit to a look nowadays and on that alone, I will always check out what they drum up.
Begs the question of what kitschy ideas are left to draw upon?
“Appropriation” is a term everyone is throwing around now and it’s a fuckstick remark to summarize everything from misguided rip offs, all the way to stealing a culture. However I can say that when the initial wave of amusement washes over you. Especially if you’ve grown up in a small town with a bad bar. You kind of get pissed off they are reselling 1970’s velvet country paintings of Dolly Partonesque chic. Like how do they come to these concepts? I imagine the owners see something on VICE and once the erection subsides, book a flight to the gutted out remnants on that initial dream. Like some fucked up cultural scavenging trip. Down to using stock graphic designer art of smiling country singers in ten gallon hats and black juke joint piano players in the posters, its a calculated look that I have to commend for the execution and accuracy and loathe for the complete lack of soul.

It caters to a crowd of people that don’t travel much. They don’t know no better so the appearance of authenticity is such a Pinterest boner fest they could care less about all the things wrong with the room.
As per usual The Chef at these locations is one of Edmonton’s hidden gems (not anymore really, she is rightfully so, gaining awards and exposure). The food took a noticeable step back into the real when she took over the kitchen @  El Cortez and has since maintained the same high level.  So it’s no surprise that although the food is distinctly copied from the southern source. The proper ingredients, dishes and approach, gives off more of an homage than rip off.  I can’t say the same for the decor or staff or anything else.
But the food can carry a place as we all know.

I love the honest places in Edmonton. The places doing their own thing. The brave proprietary few. The no nonsense bars and restaurants (for which there are thankfully plenty now popping up)
At least they dump their savings and burn off all their nerves for their own thing. If you step into their dream, it’s actually theirs. If you step into a nightmare, I gotta respect its their own undoing, not something they hired a designer for.
These culture in a box places are fun for one night, then when you look around the room and see the glazed-over eyes of a thousand customers who are essentially in a human zoo, it pisses you off.  Especially when you’ve dived into the worst of worse bars.
Those aren’t the places to copy and set up shop. Those are the ones you waste your life away in. Not make reservations for.

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