Riverside's Renaissance Still Hasn't Wiped Out the Dive Bars and Gritty Fun of Downtown

The Mission Inn has hosted about 3 trillion weddings since it opened in 1903
The Mission Inn has hosted about 3 trillion weddings since it opened in 1903
Joel Beers

Dad liked to say there wasn't a bar between San Bernardino and Fullerton that he hadn't hit at least 10 times. Considering the Sire Bar and Grill, with its horseshoe-emblazoned sign, was thisclose to Montgomery Ward in the Riverside Plaza, where Dad worked in the 1970s and 1980s, he must have drunk here.

Some 35 years later, Dad and Montgomery Ward are gone, but the Sire is still here (6440 Magnolia Ave., 951-683-7473; sirebarandgrill.com). It is the perfect start to Writer and Meezy's exploration of downtown Riverside. The mission: gauge the pulse of a downtown in six hours on a Tuesday—enough time before Meezy's girlfriend calls the cops to report he'd stolen her truck, which she had already threatened to do even though it wasn't.

Writer grew up across the river in Pedley, and while he left at age 18—hello, Fullerton College!—his familiarity with downtown runs deep. His mother hauled him to the library there every summer weekend for a few years so she could dig into the history of her Bailey family line by poring through books, microfiche and microfilm. When not rummaging through the stacks, 12-year-old Writer would prowl the streets, investigating as much as a preteen could.

Founded in 1955
Founded in 1955
Joel Beers

But just 2 miles south of downtown proper is the Sire. The instant Writer walks inside, it feels as if it's 1978—or at least what he imagines grown-up 1978 was like. It's 2 p.m., and the place's cracked, red, faux leather seats are crammed with people, most of whom are teetering on the other side of 50. Patsy Cline is on the box; Budweiser and cocktails in buckets are de rigueur; and the menu is reminiscent of old-school Vegas, with $12 10-ounce top sirloin steaks, $16.95 prime rib and $11.95 meatloaf. The only things missing are the ashtrays and cigs.

Writer and Meezy notice the equestrian-themed photos on the wall, coasters and menus. A well-lubricated regular, Jeff, relates that when it opened in 1955, the joint was run by an Italian mobster who owned a stable of racehorses. As late as the early 1980s, Jeff says, his girlfriend's parents would drop her off at the Riverside Plaza, and they'd race to the Sire to place illegal bets on whatever ponies were running across the country. Maybe it's an urban Riverside myth (although three people later corroborated the tale), but when departing, our duo hears an old white guy in a grizzled beard loudly proclaim, "You think we live in a democracy? We've never lived in a democracy. Take Meyer Lansky, the guy who put the hit on Bugsy Siegel . . ."

They venture into the 90-degree heat and head for the main drag: The Main Street Pedestrian Mall, a four-block stretch of fountains, statues of civil-rights leaders, restaurants, businesses, boutiques, and a shitload of jurisprudence-related buildings and offices, from the impressive 1903 Riverside County Courthouse to a bail bondsman that shares the same building as a taco place. It's a fitting metaphor for Riverside. Built in 1966, when the population was less than 140,000 but at the start of an influx from Los Angeles and Orange counties that would nearly double in size in 20 years, the mall reflected the breezy tranquility of a city that was, literally, founded on the side of a river. That was in 1870, when the river contained actual water and wasn't mostly treated wastewater that, today, supplies much of Orange County's drinking supply.

Yes, downtown has its own trolley
Yes, downtown has its own trolley
Joel Beers

As with much of the Inland Empire, things began spiraling in the 1990s, with the closure of the region's military bases. Gangs, homelessness and crime spiked, as did the population, and the cruelest joke of all came in 1992, when Riverside lost its longtime 714 area code, producing a most derisive "909er" nickname popularized by KROQ's Kevin & Bean.

But you see none of that in the walkway. The mall received a $10 million infusion in 2008, part of something called the Riverside Renaissance, for a much-needed facelift. That was also the beginning of the Great Recession, and downtown hasn't exactly thrived since. Some businesses seem closed or barely hanging on, and the kind of retail establishments that are usually exiled when an area "improves" (re: gentrifies), such as antique stores and pawnshops, are scattered throughout. But while the first loft complex is under construction (hello, Santa Ana!), there's also something refreshing about the lack of corporate businesses. Everything down here, whether mom-and-pop or hipster and foodie, seems authentic and legit, if a bit tattered around the edges.

Including the people. Writer and Meezy have parked by the Mission Inn (3649 Mission Ave., 951-784-3000; www.missioninn.com), which is the REAL metaphor for Riverside. It's a visually stunning, historic building that opened in 1903. It's where the Reagans honeymooned, the Nixons married, and Teddy Roosevelt (as well as eight other presidents) stayed or visited. Beginning in the 1970s, it cycled through booms and busts and bankruptcies and closures, but its gardens, towers and arches make it a stately anchor. It also appeals to the well-heeled and the out-of-towners.

However, our duo is looking for the real people of Riverside. Or at least the places where they eat and drink.

The Salted Pig is Riverside’s first gastropub
The Salted Pig is Riverside’s first gastropub
Joel Beers

At the Sire, they'd drilled a couple of regulars on their favorite eateries, and the Salted Pig (3700 12th St., 951-848-4020, www.thesaltedpig.com) was a consensus. It was the city's first gastropub, opening in 2011. Writer hates eating somewhere that bills itself as a "craft kitchen" and where "supper" starts at 5 p.m. They ask the bartender what the most popular happy hour items are—the bacon-fat popcorn ($5) and the mac and cheese ($7)—but each orders the short rib tacos with kumquat and peach pico de gallo ($7).

While waiting, Writer asks for the "supper menu." He sees chicken and waffles are $25 and bacon and eggs are $21.

Writer and Meezy are back on the mall, looking for the Hideway Café (3700 Main St., 951-686-0950), located in the basement of a former Sears built in the 1930s. The top three floors resemble a Midwestern flea market: people emptying out their garages and selling their junk (er, stuff) on consignment. But walk downstairs, and you're in a combination of a food court with pulsing signs and pictures of food and a three-bar ride akin to Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean, with pirates dangling overhead, tropical landscapes painted on the walls and fake trees seemingly growing through the ceiling.

Domestic bottles are $2 on Tuesday, so they stayed a bit.

The Hideaway Café is in the basement of a former Sears built in the 1930s
The Hideaway Café is in the basement of a former Sears built in the 1930s
Joel Beers

Next up was the Mission Tobacco Lounge (3630 University Ave., 951-682-4427; go2mtl.com), one of the few places on the mall with live entertainment nearly every night. Meezy strikes up a conversation with a family law attorney having marital difficulties who did an 8-ball of cocaine by himself last weekend. He has engineered a pool game between Meezy and an old black guy who came into the bar via a wheelchair but can wobbily stand up to shoot a cue. Writer is interrogating a beguiling lass named Minnie. She's apparently downtown Riverside's ambassador, as well as a go-go dancer, magician's assistant and incessant promoter who loves downtown and is not bashful about hawking it. Meezy loses the first game but wins the second, and he's about to play a third when Writer says, "Discretion is the better part of valor."

It's now close to 8. The six-hour window is closing, and it's time to eat for real. That means one thing: prime rib. They travel back to the Sire, where it's as packed as it was in the afternoon, but about 30 years have been shaved off each face. And Minnie is here! And she's looking as beguiling as ever. She says something like "We're kind of a small bunch down here," referring to the artistic, creative, drinking kind. "But we all know each other. And we stick together. Some of us have left and come back. Some of us have just stayed. But we're not going anywhere. Why should we? Downtown Riverside rocks. It's not going anywhere. And neither are we. It's home." (Disclaimer: It was hard to write notes at this point, even harder to read them the next day.)

Meezy claims the prime rib was the best he'd ever had.


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