Past Prime Time

Those old enough probably remember Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, a popular television series in which the hosts tracked hungry beasts roaming the savannah or crept up on skittish prey.

Well, consider the Burning Question crew literary heirs to Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler. Over the past few weeks we've dauntlessly stalked the elusive older crowd and their nocturnal habitats. We survived thrilling bouts with untamed vodka and ventured without hesitation to places others dread even approaching--meaning north of LBJ, of course. Crew members tried to blend in with the old folks, but oftentimes a slight miscue--calling for a round of Long Island iced teas at The Mansion, for instance--scattered the herd.

OK, enough of that.

It was actually a fairly mundane research tour. Bad jazz (Sullivan's), mismatched outfits (Carson's) and the bizarre desire to chomp on steaks while seated at the bar flirting with members of the opposite sex (Houston's in Addison) were minor annoyances. We expected bizarre habits from the pre-AARP set. And we faced real danger only once. Don't ever, in the middle of a pleasant conversation with an aging single drinker, blurt out, "I bet your daughter's a babe."

According to popular wisdom, older people--those 40 and beyond--have been marginalized by a culture focused on the free-spending 18-to-35 age group. Both nightlife and advertising shun mature Americans (the male-enhancement drug industry excepted). As a result, the older crowd is relegated to what trendy types consider the fringes of the party scene, congregating in unlikely settings such as steak houses and hotel bars.

"They usually want a place where you can sit and talk, a place with good scotch and a wine menu," explains David Liberto of Beau Nash.

Elegant establishments like Al Biernat's or The Mansion draw regulars who relax and mingle, and sometimes hook up--quietly. Pretty people cavort poolside at Dragonfly. Their elders gather inside for pretty much the same purposes. Just without all the noise.

"You come in, relax, have a nice glass of wine and still get lucky," says Danny Versfelt, bartender at Al Biernat's.

Strange as it may seem, the popular Oak Lawn restaurant provides plenty of opportunity for a casual encounter--particularly on weeknights. As a gentleman sitting at the bar explained to us: "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday--if you haven't done anything by then, you might as well give up."

Sullivan's and Carson's in North Dallas attract weekend crowds. That's the traditional weekend, mind you, not the expanded Thursday-through-Sunday period 20-somethings celebrate. We've never understood the appeal of Carson's, particularly for older patrons. On our visit we encountered guys in baseball hats and shorts, women apparently decked out for a fishing trip, that sort of thing. Must have something to do with the vast space, the variety of entertainment options and the dim lighting. Hides the wrinkles.

Perhaps it was the steady, soothing drone of bad soft jazz, the heady "closing time" rush (at 10:30) or maybe that we still managed to pound down enough martinis to cloud our thoughts, but something caused us to reconsider the passivity of older crowds. Few establishments wish to deflect the 40-plus set away from their doors, after all. The popularity of Carson's suggests that noise and crowds aren't deterrents. And even the bars along Lower Greenville generally carry at least one drinkable wine or decent scotch or whatever fogies prefer.

No, these aren't people forced to the margins of nightlife.

Once a person reaches a certain level of maturity, he actually seeks out establishments like Sevy's or Al Biernat's, and for good reason.

"They look for a little more sophistication and consistently good service," claims Mike Nichols of Houston's in Addison. Veteran drinkers understand the value of a bartender who reads their guests well, of a waitstaff that actively caters to their needs, of being recognized when they walk into a room. "With a young clientele, as long as you throw them drinks, they don't care," Liberto says. That's why they bounce from one hot spot to the next, following the crowds. "An older clientele likes to be known by the staff."

Which explains why Sense, a hot spot favored by the trendy set, also attracts a large following of 40-somethings. The members-only club offers a small but select wine list, a solid team of bartenders...just those lounge seats are hard on an old guy's knees.

So we could list all the places we visited during the course of our research, but somehow two weeks of mature behavior is just a bit more than the Burning Question crew could handle, and we answered the question well enough. While older crowds don't mind dance clubs or crowds, they choose to assemble where they find a comfortable combination of quality and service.

Now don't ask this question again. We've tried the "you're not bad for an old woman" line as often as we dare.


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