“Who do these people think they are?” I pondered this question as a metallic pearl BMW sped away from the black Isetta I was piloting down Almaden Expressway. I’d borrowed the gorgeous compact vehicle from a friend and decided to slip below the belt of San Jose and head to the South Side.
The Isetta is arguably the best designed BMW of all time, and I assumed a fellow Beemer would appreciate the camaraderie; so, when I spotted the pearly 5-series in the next lane I gazed at the driver until he looked over and I gave a hearty greeting. In classic BMW style, I waved with my fingers in a fashion resembling an agitated cuttlefish.
The driver’s retort: a cold stare before speeding away. I watched the “CH” bumper sticker disappear into traffic as the 300cc engine of the Isetta pushed itself to the outer limits. This Chekoslovakian was obviously a very rude individual, and at that moment I considered the difference between emigrants and immigrants. One is tied to their homeland and forced to leave, while the other is tied to their new home.
The thought weighed heavily on my constitution. I needed respite. I pulled into the Robertsville shopping center, located at Branham Lane and Almaden. The Branham Lounge has occupied the quaint space for a long time. It’s been serving cocktails, wine and brews since long before highways 85 and 87 existed. It’s been around since IBM was Silicon Valley.
Stopping at The Branham Lounge, with this emigrant/immigrant question rattling in my head, felt fitting due to the dive’s heritage. A long time ago, I would sneak into this humble institution for beverages. Back in the 1990s, the septuagenarian owner would work day and night to serve lead-hand pours. The crowd was comprised of working-class suburbanites. What made the spot especially special was an Easter egg hidden in the jukebox. A few times a night, someone would drop a quarter into the music machine and request “Coming to America,” by Neil Diamond.
The aged owner would run back into the storeroom and emerge in a sequined red, white and blue top hat, with a sparkler in each hand. He’d dance to the song and the bar would elevate into a moment of jubilant bliss I have never experienced since. This was a time when the emigrant/immigrant question was moot. We had emerged from under the weight of the Cold War and the borders were entrances to sanctuary.
I pondered this while I tucked the Isetta into my backpack and headed into the Branham Lounge. The place has been renovated and feigned since my first visit, but it still retains the floor plan and vibe I remember.
Classy Victorian velvet wallpaper frames an outfit of comfortable seating facing the original bar.
I sat down and ordered an Aurora Hoppyalis by Karl Strauss and was cheered to find a fellow traveler next to me: Mr. Harada. His eyes squinted into a smile that said, “Hello, old friend.” Our glasses clinked a greeting to our health, INXS came on the juke, and for a moment I could see the sequined top-hat reflecting sparklers.
You can reinvent a place to your liking, but good old ghosts will always chime in during times of need. Here’s to tomorrow and those that came before to pave the way. Here’s to the South Side, and the best bar in Robertsville Square.
Barfly is aware that the bumper sticker “CH” actually stands for Switzerland. —Editor
The Branham Lounge
1116 Branham Ln, San Jose.