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Bellingham by the Bay

One sip at a time The best of saloon culture

San Francisco has cultivated such a saloon culture over the years, yet there are very few bars open at 6 a.m. In the Marina, there used to be a few taverns that were open that early. Yes, Bachelors II, Danny’s on Chestnut, and over on Scott Street, Johnny Porter’s 007 & ½ Club. Johnny had to add the “½” to the name after the James Bond movie producers threatened to sue him. Amazing how lawyers get around.

This town was once described as an “open city.” Seems a shame in some ways that it closes before midnight these days. As Norm Howard once said, “The only things that are open 24 hours a day in San Francisco are the emergency rooms.” And yes, business is brisk.

The last time I was in the E.R. at St. Francis Hospital, the resident doctor on duty said to me sternly, “Go back to your room, Bruce, and do what you do best — talk to yourself.”

How does he know me so well? It was late. Dawn crept in unseen. Dr. Deborah Brown described me as “postmenopausal.” Ah, how I long for those menopausal days. Now I only get cold flashes.

Down Hyde Street,
near the hospital, is a bar called Aces. It’s open at 6 in the morning. A young barman named Jarrod Ingram likes to play music on the house system off his iPod. He loves Bob Dylan’s “Memphis Blues Again,” one of the great rockers. I love the smell of Bob Dylan
in the morning. …

Maurice Kanbar has developed a new brand of vodka called Blue Angel. It’s as smooth as silk.

“We’re reinventing the notion of mixed drinks,” says Maurice.

He offers the BAM, that’s the Blue Angel martini. I always loved the idea of drinking martinis. I think I got that from watching the Thin Man movies. William Powell and Myrna Loy in San Francisco looked so cool and elegant. No wonder I moved here when I was 18 years old. I wanted to smell the early morning mist on the waterfront, and I wanted to swim in the undercurrent of menace and crime.

In The Thin Man, Myrna Loy, as Nora Charles asks, “Nickie, How many drinks have you had?”

“This will make six martinis,” Nick shoots back with bravado.

Nora turns to the waiter: “All right. Will you bring me five more martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.”

The films were in black and white — but Maurice has introduced color to his cocktails. The Blue BAM has Blue Curacao in it. More color: the Cran BAM, with cranberry juice, and his pièce de résistance, the Angelrita. It’s a margarita with Blue Angel. This has picked
up some traction.

Is this a column about drinking? I guess so. It’s brought to you live from the landscape that produced Dashiell Hammett.
“Did I tell you that the most popular drink in America is the margarita?” Maurice poses. “But vodka is a lot smoother than tequila, which tends to be harsh on the throat.”

Most popular drink? Margarita? Gee, as an investigative reporter, I decided to check this out with a very unscientific survey of local saloons.

“Gawd, I love saloon humor,” Herb Caen used to say to me. Here’s one I pulled on Herb. I went into a bar in the Marina where a mob was shouting at the television sets because the 49ers were fighting for their lives in the fourth quarter.

“Excuse me,” I said to the bartender, “would you mind changing the channel? I hear Nova has a good show on.” The line was instantly stolen by many in attendance. That’s the sign of a good joke: Everyone wants to steal it.

Back to the investigation.

“We sell more vodka and tonics than anything else,” says Sofia Uddin, who pours drinks at the Hyde-Out on Nob Hill. Sofia, who’s from Georgia — that’s not Atlanta, that’s Tblisi — speaks five languages, and is an aspiring actress. Smart as a whip, she shames anyone who suggests we keep immigrants out of
this country.

Vodka and tonic is the winner at The Cinch, the gay bar on Polk Street. Same is true at Mark’s Place in Polk Gulch. Carlos Gallegos, longtime barman at Tommy’s Joynt, says the margarita is king there. Turkey is king too. Any San Fran person would know that.

Lindsay Vera, who always thinks independently, has a show at McTeague’s on Polk called “Manhattans & Motown.” Manhattans? That’s a drink from my mother’s generation. Can I get a witness?

“All those old drinks are now back in fashion,” says the Brit-born Lindsay. I’d take Manhattans, but I don’t drink whiskey. I can’t explain it, and my mother was from Scotland, too.

Herb Gold, Russian Hill’s most famous novelist, was reminiscing about the late Barney Rossett at The Crepe House. Barney, who started Grove Press, died in New York in February. He was 89. He brought so many forbidden tomes of literature to America, including D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, not without a fight with the authorities. I still miss Rossett’s Evergreen Review — also the wonderfully filthy works of the Marquis de Sade, and the S&M classic, The Story of O. Let’s not forget The Erotic Minorities, by the Danish doctor, Lars Ullerstam. Ah, what an education for a young and impressionable boy as I.

The new Henry Miller: that’s Lorraine Grassano, who just published her first book, With Vows Unspoken. It’s terrific. It’s funny, it’s astute, it’s a bit smutty, it’s agonizingly honest. Everything we like.

Lorraine’s yearning for her first love, a woman, is punctuated on the page with all sorts of literary references. For example, she likes Camus’s The Plague.

Does love conquer all?

No, (apologies, Virgil), it just conquers
the one who’s carrying the flame. Perhaps love is
a sort of plague. No vaccine available.

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Be sure to flog him, in the spirit of the Marquis de Sade, at bruce@marinatimes.com.