'Hey, does anyone else smell that? It really smells like wood varnish in here!"
The well-heeled patrons are trickling into the crowded bar at a steady pace, and as they appear, one by one through the hostess area, they all exclaim the exact same thing: This bar smells strongly of varnish. They are right, though. The entire place does indeed smell of wood varnish.
We are at the soft reopening for Marfreless, the hallowed River Oaks make-out bar, and not even the heavy perfume that settles like clouds amid that varnish scent can detract from it. That varnish smell is to be expected, though. After all, the contractors who are charged with remodeling the dark old bar packed up and left only about an hour ago.
"The walls, they're red! Oh, and the old mural is still up!"
The folks scattered about the bar have overcome the scent of varnish and are now taking a group checklist of the renovations that have been made to the place over the past year, which lends a strange, "I Spy" atmosphere to the night. As each new feature is spotted — from the white marble bar to the back-lit, stair-stepped stage for the liquor — the changes are met with collective approval. Check, check and check.
Long after Marfreless closed its legendary blue door, in March 2013, the rumblings about a resurrection remained. The first reopening date was expected to be during the summer, but that came and went, as did the one slated for mid-January. Updates from the new, "silent" owners dropped sporadically on the bar's social media channels, adding occasional fuel to the fire, but those tidbits came few and far between. Given the previous false alarms, we had to wonder, at least at first, if this opening, with its lack of public fanfare, wasn't also a false alarm as well.
But the bar is indeed open, and 100 or so patrons, dressed in cleavage-baring business attire or dark suits, are packed like fancy sardines against the bright red walls. They have come to experience the new Marfreless, and it is easy to spot the newcomers in the crowd. They are bright-eyed and awestruck, a handful of twentysomethings in their Sunday best. And the old-timers? Well, they're dressed to the nines and making out.
Those regulars will have to wait if they intend to take their affections much further than quick pecks, however. The notorious upstairs — Marfreless's lover's paradise — is not open yet, and it's too crowded for outward displays of affection in the downstairs space. The bar opened the doors this evening only to quell the pesky rumors of bottle service and doormen, leaving the upstairs in mid-renovation. The couple next to us is groping one another despite this, and they nearly mistake us for their other half in the process.
The dimly lit bar, tucked away out of sight, was pocked with the proof of its hushed past, and the mismatched, speakeasy vibe was relished by its patrons. The imperfections — vinyl couches, damaged by the high heels of eager lovers, and the carpet, worn threadbare — were Marfreless's badges of honor. When the new owners began to drop hints about an overhauled Marfreless on social media, their communiqués exploded like bombs, leaving nothing but skepticism in their wake.
It appears that, even in its unfinished state, the changes to Marfreless, though significant enough to cause a stir, are nicely appointed, and we have to wonder what all the fuss was about. A white marble bar now caresses our sidecar, the original bar's specialty, but it does so without feeling intrusive or out of place. The walls, now blood-red in color, still flank that wise old scenic mural above the bar, which is protected and illuminated in an homage to the establishment's former life. The changes, though quite eye-catching, fall quietly in line with the bits of the bar that have been preserved.
Not only are the stairs roped off, but the bathrooms, much needed in a bar this crowded, are also closed. They have gone awry, acting the way that one would expect of ancient plumbing on opening night, and they are completely out of order. The lack of facilities has led Dave, the pleasantly accented Aussie manager, to stand outside giving patrons fair warning.
It seems odd that the sound of jackhammers provided the background noise only hours earlier and shall do so again in a matter of hours, once the chattering patrons clear out, but perhaps that's the way it goes when you're a bar under as much pressure to reopen as Marfreless is.
The remaining construction work is slated to be completed just before opening weekend, which was scheduled for this past weekend, and will address the finishing touches on that elusive make-out haven upstairs. In its former inception, the upper level was almost exclusively the home of the legendary public displays of affection that gave the bar its reputation. The new owners have no plan to change that aspect of it, but everything else will enjoy an overhaul.
Gone are those old vinyl sofas, with their stories of olde, and in their place stand their upscale replacements, a glaring beacon of the miles Marfreless has come. The second floor has been wiped clean of the remnants of its former life, and has even been upgraded with individual curtains, meant to give the old make-out areas some much-needed privacy. The owners have also knocked out storage area to expand the upstairs space, which has multiplied in spades, and will soon be offering up special quarters that will fit even more couples — or groups — seeking a little public alone time.
Perhaps that increase in space was a good call, though. Marfreless was hardly prepared for the crowd it is seeing tonight, and the rapidly multiplying bodies have the tiny room downstairs nearly bursting at the seams. We sure could use an upstairs respite as our personal space grows ever thinner. The shiny blue door to freedom beckons us well before midnight, as lack of facilities and breathing space has fatigued us.
We are content to go, though, free to seek out a respite from the chaos, armed with the comfortable knowledge that Marfreless, our old friend, gussied up with a bit of red nail polish and some much-needed new clothes, will be there to greet us once again.