At Home with the Regulars
Where there once was a bar, hidden in a seemingly abandoned basement corridor of the downtown mall, there now exists a crater under construction. The Pre-Flite Lounge was a 40-year-old time capsule, a quaint bar untouched by time, that perhaps lingered because it was forgotten. The Pre-Flite Lounge was lukewarm domestic beer served in frosted mugs to offset the tap temperature. A heavy hand poured no-nonsense cocktails like whiskey-water, gin-tonic and vodka-soda. When the craft-craze of artisanal beer and cocktails swept through Sacramento, the Pre-Flite didn’t balk and no one seemed to mind. Former regulars look back and their memories are unified by signifiers like “unpretentious” and “classic.” Everyone remembers their first time and becomes protective of who they tell out of respect for the bar.
That was the legacy of the original before it was demolished last year to build a new cathedral for our NBA franchise we fought desperately to keep. And even though owner Jason Yee purchased the establishment in 2010, he remained committed to its continuation by opening a new home mere blocks away in Jazz Alley.
“My goal was to take over and run it another 20 or 30 years,” Yee said regarding his acquisition of the bar. There were no arena talks in 2010 threatening Pre-Flite, only the impending sale by Heather Parisi, owner since 1982. When she vetted Yee on the purchase, it was done the old fashioned way, he recalls. He ran a yogurt cafe in the mall called Yummy Yogurt. Upon learning about the chance to purchase, he regularly patroned the bar for a few months, expressing interest in conversation. One afternoon the bartender casually slipped him a napkin with a phone number on it.
“He kinda slid it over to me and said, ‘hey, the owner wants to talk to you.’”
Yee drove to Parisi’s home in Carmichael soon after. They talked for four hours over whiskey-waters about everything except the bar, mostly “her family, [my] family, and life” he said. Eventually she disclosed that while she had many suitors eager to purchase, she liked him and trusted his intentions with the bar. That vote of confidence only goes so far, though. Yee still had to earn the trust of the regulars.
“As soon as I was taking over, a lot of the regulars were concerned I would change everything up,” he said. “I had always loved the Pre-Flite, so I wanted to keep it the same.”
That desire to not disrupt the natural order is inherent in a Pre-Flite regular. I never became one myself, but I respected the sanctity. It was never about exclusivity, just that cryptic “don’t ruin the bar” mentality.
My guide one night in 2009 was a former writer for this magazine, Vincent Girimonte, who deemed me worthy of entering the hallowed ground of the original Pre-Flite Lounge. That night we rode our bikes to a section of L Street that felt deserted at 7 p.m. It struck me as almost impossible to stumble in without guidance. Entering Pre-Flite for the first time was like past-life deja vu or checking into the Hotel California. Everything felt unchanged since before you were born, from the carpeted floors and the wood-paneled walls to the neon-lit jukebox in the back corner.
You even wondered if the patrons bellied up to the bar had been there for a few hours or a few decades. With repeat visits you learned names, like Russ behind the bar, and which day there’s free bean dip. You meet the dogs, too: the Jack Russell Terrier Louie that trots around with disinterest in attention unless food is involved, and the large white sheep dog named Babs that can stand with its paws on the bar like any other regular.
My experience is not unique. There are many who considered Pre-Flite Lounge their home or home-away-from-home. As a regular only to be referred to as Kevin told me, “A lot of people have lived and died there.”
Kevin started coming in 2011 after Yee took over, learning of the bar through a newspaper article. He called the old location “the perfect man cave.” He goes to the new location as well. It’s here around 4 p.m. he brings up the historical hearsay of past owners. Legend has it Parisi was mentioned in the will of original owner, Larry Bowa. After he died, his girlfriend ran the bar for a year before she passed away as well. It was then discovered that Parisi was in the will to purchase Pre-Flite. Any further insight as to what her relationship to Bowa might have been was taken to another lifetime upon her passing in November 2013.
Pete is a regular who still frequents the new Pre-Flite as well. His first trip to Pre-Flite was in 2008, in need of a pint on the way to a Rivercats baseball game. To Pete it’s that classic, unpretentious quality that allowed Pre-Flite to remain undisrupted.
“It calms down the atmosphere,” he said. “People came in regardless of their background, took in the ambiance and everyone got on the same wavelength.”
When Yee sought a new location, he pursued real estate much like the former—hidden and precarious. There is no signage, only a velvet rope to an open doorway in an alley. That door leads to a bank vault and within the vault are the faithful patrons of Pre-Flite Lounge 2.0 (as he calls it) carrying on the legacy. The jukebox is there, still functional and loaded with vintage tracks, some growing increasingly obscure with time. Yee salvaged the old doors with the outdated sign of “Happy Hour 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.: 65 cents.” Alice the comically busty mannequin is there as well. But like any new chapter, there are missing pieces that will fade into the history books.
“There’s stuff we have in storage we thought about bringing out,” Yee said. “But now that we’re here, we want our clients now and our friends to bring new stuff in to make it their own.”
The move has its growing pains. Bartender Bridget Lopez says Louie the terrier is uncomfortable with the cement floors and she tries to make him feel relaxed by bundling up sweaters on the floor. Some regulars like Larry and his dog Babs have yet to come by the new location. But, Pre-Flite 2.0 has neighbors like photographer Nicholas Wray, Omar Salazar’s skate collective Doom Sayers, and hundreds of industry servers and cooks in need of a secluded watering hole for a post-shift (or, more apropos) pre-shift drink. The afternoon I’m there interviewing regulars, Adam Pechal, local chef in flux, is there doing just that, raising awareness to his industry friends that a semi-hidden bar exists. His only complaint is that he no longer has storage space in the building from his former restaurant Thir13en.
“I wish it was here two years ago when I was in and out next door all the time,” he says. “I could pick up some catering equipment, stop in for quick beverage and move along with my day. I could have been drinking [Jason’s] booze instead of my booze.”
Jazz Alley between 10th and 11th downtown has no folklore nor history to the coinage. There was no infamous juke joint or speakeasy where Charles Mingus or Duke Ellington once played, therefore earning the title. Jazz Alley is Jazz Alley by mandate of the city. We had no say, much like we are at the mercy of K Street becoming The Kay, knowing that only tourists call it that. As much as developers and city planners might think you can invent districts, invent history, you can’t. History is earned.
Pre-Flite Lounge 2.0 cannot salvage the crock naming of Jazz Alley, just like Pre-Flite Lounge 2.0 will never fully recapture the essence of the original. But regulars like Kevin, Pete and Pechal agree that the spiritual calm that made the original a haven is not lost entirely. Pre-Flite is not the first bar in Sacramento to move and maintain its mythos. This is not a city deeply concerned with the historical protection of olive toothpicks. But steadfast are its barflies, relaying the oral history to the stool adjacent.