Tasting: At BBJ's, check pretensions at the door

When I was still in the dating scene -before wisps of grey appeared -I used to conduct a test on first dates. After dinner at a fine restaurant I would suggest grabbing a beer at the (in)famous Big Bad John's (BBJ's) in the Strathcona Hotel on Douglas Street.

This tactic helped me suss out my date in several respects: If she shuddered an emphatic "no," I knew she was either high-maintenance or worse, humourless; if she agreed, I knew there was the possibility of a second date.

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With the benefit of hindsight, my litmus test now seems churlish. There are plenty of great women in Victoria who don't relish the thought of swilling beer on burlap-covered bar stools in a closet-sized bar strewn with peanut shells and hillbilly paraphernalia. Still, it's a safe bet that those who get a kick out of Big Bad John's don't take themselves too seriously.

That's largely because pretensions and class divisions get left at the door. Patrons come from all walks of life, and the small, intimate space forces everyone to rub shoulders. On any given night it's common to see interactions among blue-and white-collar types, as well as students, tourists and those weathered souls living on the margins of society. Invariably, the tie that binds all is a sense of humour -everyone gets the gag behind Big Bad John's.

I recently returned to my old watering hole on a Saturday night to see if much had changed since I last darkened its door. I was relieved to feel the familiar crunch of peanut shells underfoot, smell the draft beer in the narrow room, and see the dizzying cornucopia of junk and memorabilia littered on the rafters and walls.

Most importantly, the brassieres were still there. Dozens of them. Some big, some small, blue ones, red ones and, of course, pink ones -many lovingly signed by their owners. It was reassuring to see them again, dangling from the rafters or pinned to the walls, splayed between old washboards, farm implements, chamber pots and yellowed photos. It all felt so sentimental.

Before my trip down memory lane, I asked Grant Olson, co-owner of the Strathcona Hotel, how Big Bad John's became a cultural landmark and tourist destination. He explained that his uncle, John, who coowned the hotel with Olson's father, Keith, cooked up the idea of converting the hotel's Strathcona Room into a hillbilly/logger-theme bar to capitalize on tourist traffic from the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.

Something of an outdoorsman, John added items he found in the bush and soon customers started adding their own paraphernalia -water buffalo horns, dollar bills, trophies, wagon wheels, life preservers, etc. Over the years, the decor took on a life of its own.

"Big Bad John's was a hit from day one," Olson said. "We regularly cull [the memorabilia] out when it gets to be too much, then it grows in again. It's an evolving landscape." With a philosophical smile he added, "We've provided a canvas for our patrons to express themselves."

On this Saturday night a young woman named "Holls" in the booth next to me was making her own mark. To the dismay of her mother seated beside me, and the delight of every warm-blooded male in the room, Holls affixed her own bra to the rafters of Big Bad John's. But there were no hoots, whistles and catcalls as she pinned it up. Rather, there was a collective sense of mirth in the bar -everyone is in on the joke.

When she sat down, I leaned over and asked why she hung it up.

"You can do what you dare here and nobody cares," said Holls. With a wry grin she added, "and it's a memorable way to shock people."

The mortified look on her mom's face suggested the exercise was a success.

Indeed, shocking mothers is something of a tradition at BBJ's. People just love the reactions, especially when bartender Gerry Laing uses a system of pulleys to lower plastic snakes, spiders, bats and rubber chickens onto unsuspecting victims.

So far, Holls's slightly nervous mom had had several shocks. She had been dive-bombed by a rubber chicken, had been chatted up by a slightly sozzled sailor and had watched her daughter pin a bra on the ceiling. But as the evening wore on it was hard not to notice mom's smile soften and broaden as she enjoyed a memorable and fun-filled night out.

garthe@shaw.ca

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