Mercury in Retrofit: The Red Lady Gets a Shave

It started off as the dream bar of Andrew Bugreyev, a California native who wanted to open a spot in a place he loved with the themes he wanted. Away from the bustle of Hotel Street and situated in a narrow alley, Mercury seemed like an out-of-the-way joint—more of a speakeasy. But this turned out to be one of the bar’s better traits as it acted like an oasis from the tacked-on chicanery and loutish braggadocio found in Waikiki. Like a heiau for a certain kind of crowd with Guinness on tap.

With the temporary renovation and changing of shares of Mercury Bar, I’ve come to reflect on what this fringe element of Honolulu’s Chinatown has meant to others as well as myself.

The story of my first time at Merc goes something like this: I found my way into the door—after accidentally slamming into the clear glass window right next to it.

It was just another wrong step in what was already a bad night in DJ-land, and I wanted a drink. At the bar stood young, pouting Margot Seeto, serving drinks to other members of the indie rock scene with such virile monikers as Hacky, Matt Ratt, and Vagina. We drank whiskey and engaged in crass conversation. It was just the escape I needed.

Mercury had a quiet ambience and somber lighting, with paintings lining the walls and Doves coming from the sound system. A stained-glass mural hung with a light behind it, draping the entire area under it in hues of blue and red. Mercury’s was the kind of atmosphere that respected the main point of any bar—drinking. Mercury knew what it was. I quickly found myself becoming a regular and, eventually, a resident DJ.

That story was told many times over before I had my first tab closed. Acts such as The Cherry Blossom Cabaret, Gnarwhal, Mano Kane, the 86 List, and even Will Oldham have found themselves welcomed into the community, comfortably sipping their drinks and being themselves. That these local acts who made a name for themselves on the radio and playing to sold out crowds at Hawaii Theatre down the street gave Mercury a leg-up on lesser known acts who would return to pack the house.

It’s one of the reasons that so many of us—artists and performers—reacted with such emotional disbelief that Bugreyev had sold the majority of his share earlier this year to Anthony Carll of Rakuen and Black Cat Tattoo, a sponsor of many charities held at Mercury Bar. A string of shows that marked the last days before beginning renovations featured performances by favorite bands, presents given to regulars, and more than a few tears as Burgreyev took his final bow.

But, as Carll finishes up the interiors of Mercury, the regulars have already begun to clamor for seats at the bar, as certain spots are impossible to stay away from.

“It’s like the musician’s version of Cheers,” said Robert Bidigare, bartender and promoter for Mercury Bar. “It’s a place where everyone from the musical community comes to play.”

With a revamped stage and a completely overhauled sound system, the venue has inspired one question from a lot Mercury regulars: “What else has changed?”

“It’s pretty much the same,” Bidigare said. “It just has a nicer interior with a higher quality of drinks and food.”

The soft opening was last night, and a good amount of people rambled in to check out the updates. There’s a little more floor space, a more geometrically sound bar design and a redux of wiring. The stage is more feng shui, hugging the corner and giving the crowd more space to amble, the bar is definitely easier to get a drink from, and—yes—the bathrooms have been vastly improved: There are wooden floors now and improved plumbing (no squealing faucet, not chortling toilet). The bar has a smaller outer area, meaning you HAVE to form a line, as opposed to creating a battle royale for a Stella.

The walls are lighter, there’s a few new strands of lights hung around, but otherwise, all the basics are in place—a bar, a stage, and room to have conversation in.

We can either piss in our own pockets over the passing of time or accept the changes as good and make the bar our own again. What matters the most is that Mercury Bar retains its name and patronage. It is very rare to have a place become The Place to go. That place could have no event, no special price, no gimmicks. It is neither ritzy nor is it particularly divey. There’s booze, there’s beer, and, most importantly, there’s us.

The song goes, “Don’t you wanna go where everybody knows your name?” It might seem exclusive, but that assumes you haven’t introduced yourself.

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