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Modesto’s Magnetism

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POSTED August 15, 2014 8:02 p.m.

It sounds like a restaurant.

Glasses clink. Laughs permeate the air. The subtle hum lingers as wine swirls and the grill flames and people shuffle through the door, eager for their reservation on the recommendation of a friend.

It’s simple cuisine, and it changes daily. No fancy, embossed, ornate menus. Just what the owner feels like making available to his customers that day – farm-to-table vegetables and unique additions you aren’t going to find at TGI Fridays.

And it’s right in the heart of Downtown Modesto.

For the record, I publicly state that I don’t like the City of Modesto for a myriad of reasons, none of them justifiable. I dislike Modesto the same way that I dislike Los Angeles – for some reason in my mind it represents something other than my core, but every time that I’m there I’m compelled to stay. It has drawing power. It has that charm that doesn’t want to let you go.

I drive past the Doubletree and yawn the same way that I pass Chavez Ravine and curse under my breath, but for some reason I can’t take my eyes off of that ridge – or in this case, the monstrous building that rises on the horizon like an unexpected mountain. It’s the Mount Shasta of Stanislaus County.

With all of that vitriol out of the way, there’s something to be said about a town that can claim to be the birthplace of the Graffiti movement and the mind of the man that gave us Star Wars. I mean, Luke Skywalker was essentially born right here. How do you beat that?

When George Lucas came back for the American Graffiti Parade last year, his first major public appearance in Modesto in four decades, it garnered national attention. The New York Times covered it – “The Gray Lady.” The newspaper of record. There’s a draw there that can’t be denied.

Don’t believe me that there’s something to be said about Modesto and a downtown revival that has made it a destination for people looking for a true nightlife experience? Try it on a Friday night. It doesn’t matter if you start on McHenry before the curve – grabbing a drink at The Running Iron – or sitting down for a plate of pasta at Galleto Ristiorante. It’s packed. Bars are full of people. The same dilapidated buildings that were once an eyesore have been renovated, restored and rekindled into glorious watering holes or upscale eateries or charming shops. The State Theater underwent a massive overhaul and now hosts live acts, events and independent movies – the only theater that constantly has something that isn’t a major studio release.

No, I never liked Modesto. It lacked the charm and sophistication of it’s northerly neighbor, I said – which just so happened to be armed with a university that drew students from throughout the country and hosted a unique and flourishing art scene.

But I never liked Modesto while I was spending all of my time there – sitting on a barstool at The Copper Rhino and talking about how this bar on Pacific Avenue was so much better.

Why wasn’t I there instead? There’s that Central Valley magnetism – alive and well.

So there I sit, the sound of idle chatter and silverware on plates filling the room that has now grown to capacity. It’s a Tuesday night in a poorly marked restaurant in the heart of the city, and you need a reservation just to get a table.

That says something about not only the restaurant, but also where your city is as a whole.

Modesto doesn’t have much water, and I’m still working on the wealth part. But if I sit there long enough, enjoying my health and my company, contentment is possible.

It sounds like a restaurant. And that’s the sound of a resurgence.

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