HAYWARD -- As I sat in a corner of a small, dark watering hole one recent weeknight, I glanced around and realized why it had become one of my favorite hangouts.
Groups of people -- even strangers -- were actually, you know, striking up conversations and showing no edge or attitude while talking to each other.
In 21st-century Bay Area, that's cause for a parade. It's also the subversive charm of The Dirty Bird Lounge, a low-slung tavern on a forlorn stretch of Mission Boulevard.
The bar's weathered exterior, featuring a noirish neon sign, conceals its true nature -- a warm, inviting place where customers can meet new friends. If "Cheers" was where everyone already knew your name, The Dirty Bird is where it's just a matter of time.
And here's the kicker: It's all by design.
Bar owner Aric Yeverino bills the joint as "Hayward's favorite dive bar," but that sells it short. He has taken a dive's basic ingredients -- pool tables and a jukebox in a dark modest building in a remote location -- and added a few subtle, smart touches. The end result? That happy rarity: a thinking man's dive bar, giving patrons a dash of wit at nearly every turn, as they down drinks in a 40-something-year-old booze hut.
I've always believed a true dive bar should make you a little uneasy. It should double as a "Boulevard of Bad Decisions," where regrettable choices either are hatched with beer-fueled enthusiasm or reflected upon in a sullen, boozy fog.
Fortunately, The Dirty Bird refuses to play by my rigid and quite arbitrary rules, offering a much more welcoming version.
The bar's moniker stems from a nickname co-workers gave Yeverino for his blue sense of humor while bartending years ago in Oakland. He enjoys the name, but doesn't take it literally.
"Not all dive bars have to be sketchy and filthy," said Yeverino, a Hayward resident. "I'd rather that you feel comfortable in your own skin when you come in."
The tavern's drink list offers the best example of Yeverino's stylings. It features cocktails with offbeat names such as "Tequila Mockingbird," "Hands Olive Her" and several other provocative puns we can't print in a newspaper.
"Sometimes a stupid little cocktail name gets people giggling, and then talking," Yeverino said. "We try to be more tongue-in-cheek."
A quote on the drink list from literary libertine, Oscar Wilde, suggests the bar's philosophy: "I can resist anything but temptation."
Another nice touch: the music. Bartenders almost always dial up an online station playing "A Tribe Called Quest" -- a 1990s hip hop group that boasted clever, witty lyrics and inventive beats. Plus, the speaker volume is low, allowing customers to bob their heads to the beat or talk over it, or both.
The decor, dominated by the color red, also stands out. Red lighting bathes the entire room and both restrooms, setting the mood somewhere between a Harlem jazz club and an Old West brothel. Red also covers sofas, bartops and two pool tables.
Drawings depicting a wide range of themes -- body tattoos, Day of the Dead skeletons and two Banksy prints among them -- hang on the walls.
The C-shaped bar features friendly bartenders who chat up customers, joining their tavern debates on everything from the A's bullpen woes to legalizing marijuana. They also don't mind cutting customers a friendly break.
"No problem," one bartender said to a regular, who was 50 cents short on his bill one recent night. "Get me next time."
Perhaps its less-than-glamorous location explains its big heart.
It adjoins a welding shop, an auto mechanic, a biker club, and an empty lot long covered by a pile of gravel. Among them, The Dirty Bird beckons like a neon oasis in south Hayward's commercial desert.
It attracts a clientele as eclectic as Alameda County, said Yeverino. "We get students from Cal State East Bay, but also tech workers and blue-collar guys," he said. "Hayward is a melting pot; you're not going to see one group dominate the bar."
Out & About is a monthly column that highlights the wildly underrated entertainment scene in the Tri-City and greater Hayward areas.
The Dirty Bird Lounge
The Hayward bar at 29308 Mission Blvd. is open every day from 2 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. For details, call 510-537-2201 or go to www.dirtybirdlounge.com.