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Parallel Universe: Thursday Nights at Garf's

Features
posted: 12/01/1999

11 o'clock on a dark, snowy night. The lineup at Garfinkel's Nightclub in Whistler extends out the front door. Inside the club's dark depths, against a backdrop of moose heads and vintage cola signs, "Brown-Eyed Girl" blares. The crush of people is dense. One girl stands up on a bench, doing a whole-body shimmy and howling like a demented cat in heat. Her escort, a portly snowboarder sporting big sideburns, smiles appreciatively and shrugs. A man and woman wearing ski boots (eight hours after the lifts have closed) toss back fizzing green shots, fall against each other, and laugh. Nearby, under framed photos of past drunken escapades, someone slouches and sleeps. When the DJ plays AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," people on the dance floor go nuts, playing air guitar, shaking it like there's no tomorrow, and screaming into invisible mikes. Inside his booth the longhaired DJ peels off his shirt and dances like a wild man, outdoing them all. On the sidelines, guys in baseball caps hold pints and stare open-mouthed at hockey on TV. Someone I don't know hands me a drink, pointing at the bartender, who catches my eye, mimes "bottoms up," and grins. This is Garfinkel's on a Thursday night.

The oversized-rumpus-room feel and nonstop fraternity-party vibe are, in large part, the doing of Andy Flynn, who's been head bartender since Garf's opened a decade ago. Andy is a short, barrel-chested Aussie with the magnanimity of Santa Claus and a voice that's permanently hoarse from years of shouting over the din. Inspired by Kitzbühel's famed Londoner Pub, where he had once worked, Flynn and friends decided to open an unpretentious dance-on-the-tables-and-pound-your-beer sort of bar as an alternative to Whistler's prevailing boom-boom rooms. In January 1990, with backing from Florida lawyer Mitch Garfinkel, they took over divey Club 10 and reopened it as Garf's.

11 o'clock on another Thursday night. My friend Kristy, a regular since 1991, is showing me how to work Garfinkel's back door. She weaves expertly to the head of the line, whispers to the doorman, then grabs my arm and we're in. "Cecilia, you're breaking my heart" thumps through the room.

Kristy knows everyone clustered in the farthest corner of the sunken, five-sided bar; it's a local's zone, a small island in the vacationers-on-a-spree madness. "It's a family -- a really big family -- and this is our home. It's like Cheers," Kristy says. She disappears into a throng of handsome guys. Later, Kristy returns with an impish look and a ski instructor I first met when I was in a less warm, fuzzy state. Mr. Iron Bod and I stand close together and flirt for the rest of the night. Across the room, above the sweaty mosh of the dance floor, revelers strut like rock stars in the spotlights on the edge of the stage.

In the early days, Thursday night -- dubbed locals' night -- featured Kokanee Gold on tap at a low C$3.50 a pint. Frequent visitors earned their own beer stein, which hung above the bar and was filled the first time each night for free. The narrow space on the bar's back side became known as skid row, a wild and crazy locals-only zone where shots were consumed out of belly buttons and the party raged six nights a week. (Olympic aerialist Jean-Luc Brassard reportedly performed naked back flips one night off the picnic table.) "Andy's energy was contagious," says Canadian ski hero Rob Boyd. "He was the life of that bar." Blond, blue-eyed Ted Low -- Flynn's partner in slinging -- seemed buttoned-down and mellow by comparison. But like Laurel and Hardy, they made a perfect pair. In its first year, Garf's blew through 80 kegs a week, setting a valley record that still stands.

1 a.m. at Garf's. Whistler is having a record season and so, it seems, is Garf's. I sit in my favorite corner, talking to Eddie, a strapping guy who says he's a former major league baseball player, and watching wild abandon rage through the room. Jägermeister is the order of the night. Behiind the bar, Andy and Ted lean their heads together and laugh as they pour shots. Eddie asks if I'll go back to his hotel but seems incapable of comprehending "no." Suddenly a pack of my ski buddies from San Francisco arrive in a swarm and slather me with love. "We knew we'd find you here," they say. Soon we're well into another round. Tomorrow we all will ski.

In 1997, Garf's moved from its original dingy digs (capacity 210) into a newer, lusher space (capacity 320), which is nonetheless SRO four or five nights a week. It still feels like a clubhouse, but something essential has changed. Skid row, such as it was, is gone. And Garf's is so popular that there's often no room in the house for those who made it popular in the first place.

More changes are coming. In the new millennium, Garf's is importing fresh, hip DJs to nurture the next crop of skid row bums. Ted Low will still be behind the bar, but it will be rare to hear Don McLean crooning "American Pie." Still, it's not exactly tragic: Just down the street in Whistler Village, Andy Flynn is pouring at MoeJoe's, a new bar that just happens to feel a lot like someone's very nice basement rumpus room. At either place, you're in a parallel universe every Thursday night.

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