On a busy stretch of Hampton Avenue sat not-so-busy China 1 Buffet, a narrow white building that never seemed to have more than one car parked in its lot, despite the thriving businesses that surrounded it. It eventually shuttered, rather unceremoniously, surprising pretty much no one.
Since then the smell of fried won tons and sweet-and-sour chicken has been replaced with that of low-hanging smoke. A ficus tree looks like it might have been a holdover from China 1 Buffet; the neon sign for Panama Red's Cafe & Saloon does not. Bruno's American Grill is largely utilitarian in its appearance: Wood paneling is everywhere and the art and neon signs don't unite to suggest any sort of overarching theme except for "vaguely basement something." We are fine with all of this.
We'd just visited a nearby bar that opened at roughly the same time as two-month-old Bruno's. The other place did swift business, even on a nondescript Tuesday. Their food, mostly bar staples, was solidly above average. But their service, ambiance and mixed drinks were solidly below. We left feeling dejected — which is no way to feel after leaving a bar in our book — and drove up the street to give Bruno's a go. So say what you will about wood paneling; at least this place has character.
It's got a lot of it, actually: The menu's seafood selections are set off by the heading "Caught@fish.net"; some of its appetizers are labeled "Snacks 5th Ave." The menu also refers to "Classy Cocktails" and "Fancy Martinis" in a way that we suspect is self-depreciating humor, especially when we glimpse off-brand liquors like Outrigger Rum and Don Quixote Tequila behind the bar (though they've got plenty of top-shelf options, too). It might not be highbrow, but by God, it's something.
The bartender's name is Jayme. We know this because she stuck her hand out and introduced herself like a politician who's trying to earn our vote. Except, you know, she's genuine. She asks what we're drinking and we're indecisive. "Sweet or sour?" "Sour." "OK." She gets mixing. Jayme's worked at restaurants and bars all over the city. She's gained a knack for making drinks that mimic candy flavors, and she rattles off the names of them like a cashier taking inventory at Ben Franklin: Pixy Stix, Bomb Pops, cotton candy, cookie dough: "I want to figure out Juicy Fruit," she muses, "but I think we'd need banana."
Jayme combines Bacardi Limón, Pepsi, Smirnoff Citrus and sour mix. She calls it a Citrus Plunge (a name she makes up on the spot), and says that if she'd add peach schnapps, it'd taste like a Capri Sun. As it is, though, it looks and tastes like lemon-flavored soda, but without an overwhelming amount of fizz or the disagreeable smack that's characteristic of drinks poured with too much sour mix. It's dangerously easy to drink.
Conversation flows, The Office is on TV and nobody suggests that we leave even though we're the last ones in here. We catch the back of another bartender's T-shirt: It's a picture of an olive skewered with a toothpick followed by the words "This Bar." Yep — we totally get it.