A day at the dive bar - a parting ode to the Cotton Bottom
Jan 13, 2020 11:24AM
By Zak Sonntag
Cotton Bottom regulars shoot pool on a casual Monday afternoon. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)
Editor’s note: this is part two in a two-part series about the Cotton Bottom Inn. Part one considered the future of the establishment now that it’s been sold to new owners. For part two, our reporter went inside to see what makes the historic inn unique.
From the outside, the Cotton Bottom Inn, a divvy relic of a joint at the fringe of the Old Mill Valley, looks exactly the way it must have when it first went up in 1966 — just a block-laid box with a shingled roof and stove-pipe chimney, hidden behind pine trees, with nothing but a faded wooden sign to announce it.
Inside, you’ll find all the markings of a dive bar. It’s a warmly lit space where the ceilings are low and the laminate bar top is cracked and dented. Lighted beer signs serve as the plasterwork. And its centerpiece is a red felt-topped pool table beneath a Coors Original pendant lamp.
Yet despite the familiar presentation, the spot is not typical, as I learned on a quiet, wintery Monday afternoon hanging around the regulars. What I discovered is that the Cotton Bottom holds something special — a sort of intangible coziness and an ease among patrons that’s not often found.
The first thing to know is that when you come to the Cotton Bottom, you don’t walk in the front door — you come through the back.
“I can tell when people don’t know us and haven’t been here because they walk in the front door,” says Caty, a bartender with her hair pulled back in a jaunty bun.
Of course, that isn’t often because most patrons are in the know.
“I’ve been here over eight years, and I’d say about 80% of our customers are regulars,” Caty says, adjusting her square-rimmed spectacles.
Coming through the back, you immediately pass the open kitchen, where you’ll notice the cook, whose nametag reads “Rhino,” slapping patties down on the grill. You’ll hear the meat sizzling, and then the distinct scent of garlic will strike you like an open palm.
“They come here for the garlic burgers. Everybody loves them. Everybody,” Caty emphasized.
I pulled out a stool next to a man with a Fu Manchu and black cowboy hat. I ask him politely how his day was going.
He looked at me slowly. Nodded ever so slightly. Then returned his gaze to a football game on the television above the bar. He didn’t utter a word.
At first I wondered if he might not have heard me. But then I understood that this was just his way.
Admittedly, the initial impression can be intimidating. On my other side, a burly man with a stern look ordered a burger and beer. He threw his meaty forearms on the bar, and I noticed he was inked up from the knuckles to the neck.
“We get a lot of bikers in here. Harley guys,” Caty told me.
I hadn’t noticed any bikes in the parking lot, but I did notice pick-up trucks. Ten of them. Not a single sedan.
“We get a lot of construction workers here, too. They come in for lunch, and believe me, they’re all awesome people. I love the patrons here. They get it.”
The atmosphere on this Monday afternoon was not jubilant, exactly. In fact, you’d probably call it aloof, and still somehow appropriate in a spot where new faces like mine are not commonplace. But give it some time because the folks here tend to warm up.
Caty swept the air with her hand to indicate half a dozen patrons seated before her. “I know everyone at this bar by first name,” she said.
To which one man joked, “Yeah, but we keep changing our names on you, don’t we?” Then Caty slid him a bottle of beer down the bar like a hockey puck.
“I’ll always know exactly who you are,” she said.
That afternoon, I overheard much of the playful ribbing common around bar-tops. Yet the banter, notwithstanding the cowboy, felt like more than bar talk.
“I love it here because of the atmosphere. It’s homey and comfortable, which is exactly why I can come in looking like this,” said a woman named Nicole Smith, yanking on the collar of a loose cotton hoodie. Smith, a thirty-something realtor from the area, plopped a slice of orange into a pint of Blue Moon beer. She spoke about the unique comfort that drew her to the inn.
“This is the type of place where you can come for a relaxing lunch after a crazy birthday weekend like the one I just had,” Smith said.
Over Smith’s shoulder, Caty busted a cluster of pool balls with a crack. “Oh, come on,” Caty said.
“Well, what’d you expect?” asked her opponent, a man with a pocketknife dangling around a carabiner on his belt.
The burly fellow spun around on his stool to offer commentary. “We don’t count slop here,” he said, before bellowing out with a laugh.
Caty shuffled between the pool table and bar, refilling beers then hustling back to find a quick line on a pocket, singing along with the jukebox honky-tonk each time she sank a shot. I started to see why a place like this had a following.
“I love everyone here. The patrons and my co-workers. I have fun every-day that I work, six days a week,” Caty said.
At the heart of this community is a certain shared obsession.
“The garlic burgers are so good I do take-out all the time. You might see me riding home with a plastic grocery bag of burgers swinging off the handle bars of my Harley,” said Chantel, a project manager and reggae music enthusiast. “We love to stop in here after a canyon run. It’s the perfect place to recharge, with a garlic burger, obviously, because they’re incredible,” she said.
Chantel was pointing out something central to the Cotton Bottom’s lasting allure. At first it sounds like a paradox, but I saw it firsthand. They’re gaga for garlic: the small potent bulb cooked up just right sends patrons off with an un-concealable mark — the sour, almost lemony scent that can seep from your skin pores for days afterward; stiff and bright on the breath, it’s known to foreclose on many a husband’s hope for a welcome home kiss. But they wouldn’t keep coming if it wasn’t all worth it.
“I’ve been coming here since 2004, and I don’t think I’ve even read the full menu, because I know what I want every time I come in. They are amazing!” said Smith.
Some might hold the tomatoes or make it a double, but every order I witnessed that day was fundamentally the same.
“Garlic burger?” Caty would say, more a validation than a question.
But the bar is more than a lunch stop. It’s a community hub.
“Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights — this place gets packed. Every stool and chair is taken up, and you’ve got to maneuver between bodies to make a pool shot. Same community, but more people and higher energy. It’s a lot of fun,” Caty says.
For this community, however, a sense of uncertainty looms over the low-shingled roof of the inn, as new owners will be taking over the business in March.
“If it were up to me, we wouldn’t have sold,” Caty said. “I have no idea what the new owners are planning for the employees when they take over. Some of us are nervous. But we’ll just have to see."
The Cotton Bottom Inn has been in the same family for three generations. Its current owner, Ashley Chlepas, is the granddaughter of the original owner. She could not be reached for comment.
“I hope they don’t change a thing. Honestly, I think it’s perfect as it is,” Chantel said.
The new owners, the Bar X group, say they intend to maintain the historic character while also making refurbishments and additions to the property. The inn has built itself into a respected brand. But whether or not the new owners will effectively deliver the promise of that brand remains an open question.
Will the Cotton Bottom Inn remain a pit stop for the communities it has traditionally served? Or will the new era mark a signal for bikers to ride on through?