After Hours: The Soda Gallery / Second Helping: The Algonquin Wits

The Soda Gallery quenches a diverse spectrum of thirsts, and not just by virtue of the 155 flavors it stocks. The shotgun storefront, which opened this past July in the walkable small town that is Dallas' Bishop Arts District, satisfies a taste for something more intangible as well.

The Soda Gallery has taken over the space and the mantle of a quirky, much-loved soda-and-smokes shop called Ifs Ands & Butts, which closed in October 2005. Presided over by proprietor-cum-house philosopher Hamilton Rousseau, the shop gained a cult following for both its extensive and unusual wares and its role as unofficial neighborhood hangout. The mystique was so tenacious that customers begged to be let in as soon as the paper that had been hiding the Soda Gallery's remodeling came down from the windows, even though the planned opening was a week away. "I guess we're open," was the reaction of co-owner Robert Gutierrez, whose own link to the previous tenant - he'd worked in the past for three years at the shop - led him and partner Tony Font to resurrect the concept.

They've created a comfy conversation pit in the entryway, which contains sprawl-worthy couches and a collection of table games. The set-up spawned a spontaneous Chinese checker tournament among strangers, during the Soda Gallery's first weekend in business; the evening I visited in July, a friend of the owners was greeting each visitor with a card from a movie trivia game, which brought the act of entering the shop closer to that of walking into a party.

The promise of good times continues into the merchandise. The Soda Gallery carry sodas from far-flung spots on the time-space continuum. Nostalgia has heavy representation, such as Bubble Up, Moxie, Nehi, NuGrape, Squirt and original recipe Dr Pepper (and yes, there is a difference). Imports come from as far away as Brazil, France and Japan and include Dutch Coke, which uses the first formula that came about after cocaine was dropped from the drink. Regional favorites abound, among them Cheerwine (North Carolina), Blenheim Ginger Ale (South Carolina), Vernors (Detroit) and several flavors of Stewart's (New Jersey). Across all these categories, the soda style with the greatest presence is root beer, population: 28. The store has an anything-goes mix and match policy, which permits customers to put together any combination of sodas in six-packs and cases. It will also sell a "basket case" containing only fruit sodas.

The Soda Gallery also features case after case of specialty cigars and cigarettes, which are of special interest, Guiterrez says, to customers of the some dozen restaurants in walking distance. In the "coming soon" department are soda tastings (à la wine), a line of soda-related t-shirts, a mural of bottle caps that will be glued to the wall and an Internet storefront. In the meantime, phone orders to 866-946-SODA.

Second Helping: The Algonquin Wits

Reader response to the After Hours column about the Algonquin wits was so heartfelt and full of reminiscences that it justifies a second look at what the literary lunch bunch is currently inspiring.

The Algonquin Hotel continues to the epicenter of events and programs spotlighting the writers, journalists, actresses and hangers-on who turned the Oak Room into a lunchtime clubhouse during the Jazz Age. The Dorothy Parker Society uses the Round Table as a launching point for a two-hour walking tour of the neighborhood where the wits lived, worked and amused themselves. The tour, led by Society president Kevin Fitzpatrick, is an informative stroll through history - not merely of the famed writers, but also of the New Yorker, the theater district, speakeasies, architecture and more. Fitzpatrick has a wealth of juicy trivia of what went on in buildings that are still standing and photographs of ones that are not, which he displays on the spot of their former glory. After the tour, participants have the opportunity to lunch together at where else but the Round Table. The regular tour schedule has ended for 2006. Until the monthly tours resume next March, private tours are available for groups of two to 30.

The hotel itself sponsors a Monday night lecture series about its famous patrons. Two evenings are left on the schedule. On October 30, Art Simon, an associate professor of film studies in the English department of Montclair State University, explores the political activism in Hollywood of Dorothy Parker and Donald Ogden Stewart. On November 13, Publishers Weekly editor-in-chief Sara Nelson looks at the creative debt contemporary female writers owe to Dorothy Parker.

The Algonquin was also, until August, the theater space for a long-running musical about the wits, "The Talk of the Town," which was presented by the Peccadillo Theater Company at a round table in the Oak Room itself. The story took seven of the more prominent personalities (Parker, Benchley, Woollcott, Kaufman, Connelly, Ferber and Anderson) from a first luncheon in 1919 to a fictional reunion some 10 years later, with key partnerships first coming together, then fracturing, in between. Authors Ginny Redington and Tom Dawes, who have backgrounds in song, jingle and book writing, wove well-researched historically accurate detail into the script's reconstructed banter and fictionalized encounters and provided an engaging score with a variety of period-appropriate song styles. The casting managed the impressive feat of combining outstanding vocal ability with recognizable physical resemblances, across the board. It was high-spirited and charming, and I'm grateful to have seen it before it closed.

Copyright 2006 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.