Published: Aug. 23, 1991

IT GIVES me great pleasure to report that romance is not dead.

A generation of disaffected young songwriters spent the last decade trying to poison it with bitter irony. And the hipper- than-thou urban nightclub scene tried to snuff it with a cold new aesthetic of illusion and insincerity. But still it lives.

There is a place out on the ancient King's Highway -- El Camino Real -- where they keep the love light burning seven nights a week. A place where the martinis are dry, the torch songs are steamy and Frank Sinatra is still the boss. A refuge for sentimental fools, shower-stall crooners and lovers who can remember when Ella Fitzgerald was a mere wisp of a girl. Romance may be on the lam in the '90s, but it's found a safe haven at the Carlos Club.

The place is not hard to find. There's a three-story-tall sign with neon letters and flashing lights that dates back to the days when El Camino was the Route 66 of the Peninsula. And there's an Art Deco exterior that mirrors a more elegant era. A pedestrian strolling by would almost expect to see William Powell and Myrna Loy sipping highballs on the other side of those tinted fishbowl windows.

The Carlos Club is no place for insolent youth. When we rolled in at 9:30 on a recent Thursday night, we guessed the median age of the 25 patrons to be about 55. A few T-shirts, a few suits, lots of middle-age bellies tucked into Palm Beach leisure shirts and polyester Sans-a-belt slacks -- and one old dame in a spangled tube top that made her look like a Mylar balloon.

This is a clean, well-lighted place done over in suburban rumpus-room style -- lots of mirrors and fake rock on the walls, a fireplace and a long couch that's probably been slept on more than a few times. In the back there's a jukebox loaded with Sinatra, Count Basie, Bobby Darin, Lena Horne and Glenn Miller. It doesn't get much of a workout -- not with Jimmy Diamond holding court at the piano bar on the other side of the room.

Nothing fazes Diamond. He indulges off-key singers, people who drop the microphone and even people who wave ten-spots in his face and demand to hear "My Way" just one more time.

There is only one way to acquit yourself honorably at the Carlos Club -- pull up a stool, grab that mike when it comes your way and sing your heart out. There's no room at an eight- stool piano bar for excuses or fear. Maybe the Tom Bosley look-alike on the other side of the piano was really a mild- mannered wallpaper salesman by day. But when he got up to croon "I'll Be Seeing You" he became a different man -- a bigger man.

As the night wore on, we began to look upon the regulars as a musical clan that had welcomed us into their parlor. Sort of like spending a night with the Von Trapps and a big pitcher of vodka gimlets. Jan, a dead ringer for the great chanteuse Julie London, was frequently called out to sing the tough numbers. She had a sultry voice that sounded like it had been mellowed by a few decades of Pall Malls and Bombay gin. When she hit the first notes of "I'm in the Mood for Love," the chatter at the bar died and the two older couples by the front windows traded wise little smiles. And when she purred the Patsy Cline hit "Crazy," the couple by the fireplace began to nuzzle tentatively and another twosome began turning languid circles on the tiny six- by-six dance floor. They looked like they'd done that dance a few times before.

There was comedy (Homer Simpson singing "The Girl From Ipanema") and tragedy (an aching, basso profundo rendition of "Old Man River").

We ordered more martinis and decided it was a good thing we were in the correct frame of mind for this. Had we been in a blue mood, we'd probably be reduced to a puddle of tears and Tanqueray in five songs flat.

When we left at midnight, Shirley was singing "Good Morning Heartache." A 60-ish gent at the bar was singing along in a bare whisper and staring off into the distance. You don't need a lot of talent to cut it at the Carlos Club -- just a lot of heart.

The Carlos Club
612 El Camino Real,
San Carlos
Details: Piano bar, 9 p.m.
karaoke sing-along, 9 p.m.
(415) 593-8985

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