I have never before asked a bartender for permission to buy a drink. Why would I? Bars, taverns, saloons — they exist for the sole purpose of selling alcohol. Yet my first few seconds inside Scoreboard Restaurant & Lounge (3940 York Street) are so straight out of a movie — that scene where three white guys walk into a loud bar inhabited solely by black folks, and everybody stops what they're doing to stare (record-scratch sound effect optional) — that my principal instinct is to make sure I'm welcome. "Can we get a drink?" I ask the bartendress.
"I don't see why not!" is her almost indignant reply. So we settle in, bellies up, bottles of Bud and Bud Light in hand.
Silvia, our bartendress, has been behind the bar since it took over this space twelve years ago. We ask if it'll be busy later and she nods, explaining in her own sweet time that some nights the crowd starts at Marion's and Mr. A's (down the street and around the corner) and sometimes it starts here. Since at 9 p.m. fewer than ten people are hanging around, she thinks tonight will be the former.
I finish my first beer in no time and order another, even though my friends are only halfway through theirs (a sign behind the cash register says there's a two-drink minimum to sit at the bar). One friend comments to Silvia that I'm some sort of professional drinker, but she doesn't buy it. "No, he ain't," she mutters matter-of-factly. "We got some serious drinkers who come in here." End of discussion.
Things slow down considerably before the Scoreboard picks up for good around 10:30 p.m. During the lull, Silvia sits with us at the end of the bar and reminisces about the heyday of Five Points — people everywhere, falling in the streets; the lights and the noise and the way she just knew it was the place to be. I live in the neighborhood, so I take a special interest in her insider knowledge about what happened to B.J.'s Port (it's been boarded up for months), one of the first bars I ever visited for this column. She also complains about the light rail D line ruining everything on Welton, and dishes about her favorite fried chicken and soul food.
The kitchen at the Scoreboard serves chicken, pork chops, catfish and hot links from open to close. A DJ (tonight just a guy in the back with an overflowing case of compact discs) spins on weekends, karaoke draws a rabble on Tuesday nights, and a dusty old jukebox packed with R&B and soul classics handles the vibe every other night. Long, though not especially narrow, the space is arranged much like a VFW or American Legion hall — a few four-tops toward the front and a low-rise in the back, but mostly rectangular tables with metal-framed padded chairs set up on both sides, cafeteria style. The liquor selection is immense, with an entire section devoted to wells, frou-frou flavors and obscure liqueurs available for $3 a shot.
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SHOW ME HOW
Sometime around beer four or five — and with a good twenty or thirty people gathered near the front of the bar — Silvia's seat is suddenly occupied by Willy, the owner. He drinks Crown, neat, from a large shot glass and picks up where Silvia left off, telling us about his days as a union rep and admitting that the only reason he still owns this joint is because one of his business partners died and the other went broke. He speaks with an almost melodic cadence, his tales salted liberally with one-liners and offbeat jokes. When he's concentrating, his eyes are closed; when he finds something especially funny, he leans way back in his chair, sticks out his tongue and slaps his left leg repeatedly. Female employees walk by, and he vehemently denies having just poked them even though they watched him do it.
For thirty minutes, maybe more, we bullshit with Willy. He worries about traditionally black neighborhoods being culturally whitewashed, but he's thrilled we're here. "I don't care whetha ya tall, short, fat, skinny, black, white, gray or green," he says while staring at his own eyelids, "so long as ya got money to help me pay the mortgage, you're welcome here!" He invites us to a free lunch the next afternoon: Bring three canned goods and eat pig's ears, pig's feet and chili for free. When we finally decide to bail, he shakes our hands and says goodnight. As we slide through the crowd and head into the cold — past a Bud Light banner announcing management's right to search for weapons — we still feel like three white guys leaving an all-black bar, but at least we now feel welcome.
"Be good, y'all," we hear Willy holler at our backs. "And don't stay gone for so long!"