Restaurant News & Reviews

Diving into the Fishtank scene

What business, I asked myself, does an AARP-eligible wine lover have intruding on a 20-something bar on a busy Wednesday at 10.30 p.m.? Well, mainly, I was curious, because the Fishtank's reputation preceded it: rowdy University of Kentucky students, sourpuss bouncers and a glaring absence of snacks to balance the booze — in spite of "grill" being in its name.

What I found, however, besides two massive aquariums, was a friendly college crowd, their faces illuminated by the lights of cell phones and BlackBerrys. Everyone was drinking, laughing, talking and, of course, texting. Not a shove or attitude in sight. I'm sure, as the night wears on and the inexpensive beer and "Fishtank love" cocktails (see recipe at right) take effect, the mood gets wilder, but my pre-midnight experience was hardly the stuff of dives or mosh pits.

It's really not all UK students, either. Employees from downtown restaurants might turn up to chill out after a long shift in the kitchen, or even former regulars, now married to people they met here one night, might stop by to revisit the memories.

As for bouncers, the guy watching the door cracked me up when he commented that there was no need to stamp my hand, because my gray hair stood out "in a sea of blonde." LOL! And, should anyone need a sobering bite to eat, across the street are the reliable sandwiches at Subway and the locally famous burgers at Lynagh's, whose focus on country rock is a compatible rather than competitive presence.

"If we can bring people to this corner, it's better for everybody," Fishtank owner John Tresaloni says.

You also get the sense that things are under control. Because 90 percent of these patrons live within walking distance, you don't find the lethal mix of drinking and driving, but a cab will be called for those who live farther away. In addition, the bar is compliant with all state rules and regulations, paying for its bartenders to go through S.T.A.R., a training program required by the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

In short, Tresaloni and general manager Matt Pope have created the quintessentially successful neighborhood hangout.

What really struck me, though, was the well-kept secret of the diverse demographic appeal of this ramshackle little place.

For children of the '60s, there are touches of tie-dye and posters from head shops. From time to time, a disco ball lights up and twirls around on the ceiling for those who remember the '70s fondly. I am sure that those whose defining decades were the '80s and '90s immediately spot something heart-warming and familiar in the mishmash of memorabilia.

And that same eclecticism applies to the music, which is the main draw here. As Pope puts it, "The music thrives us." Many local bands perform, but out-of-town bands do, too. They hear about The Fishtank, post or tweet them on one of the online social networks, hook up with Pope and travel miles for a gig and the proceeds from the door.

Check out Kentucky's Grateful Dead-inspired band Born Cross-Eyed. Closer to jazz, funk and fusion is Sexual Disaster Quartet. The Other Brothers, who describe themselves as "rockabilly" (although their roots are reliably rock) are regulars here, as are the serious rockers Moon Taxi, who drive all the way from Nashville. In this select sampling, "jamgrass" is played by the Rumpke Mountain Boys.

And, as if this weren't enough, on May 23, the bar will have a tribute to Tom Petty — talk about spanning generations!

So, although I admit that I didn't close the place, I intend to pop by some other time to catch these groups I have heard only on MySpace, and to remind myself what goes down at 3 in the morning.

After all, as Pope said: "No matter where you started out, you finish the night at The Fishtank."

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