Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bourbon & Branch

It’s still bright as we emerge from the BART tunnel, but the tall Financial District buildings dispel any hope of any view of the sun setting. Moving up Powell we are pressed solidly by people carry bags saying Gap or Nordstrom’s or a chrome Apple logo.

Snippets of German, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish swirl around us as the press of people flow in all directions. The two girls in my group follow me as I turn left on O’Farrell trying to put some distance between us and the main vein of tourist excitement.

Block after block the scene slowly changes to a grittier feel with people milling about in front of a corner liquor store or a closed nail salon. One of the girls asks me “You aren’t going to take us to a massage parlor, are you?”

I see the sign for our destination which reads “Anti-Saloon League. San Francisco Branch. Est 1920.” There is a single door with a speaker and buzzer next to it. There is a man speaking to a woman at the door in hushed tones in the doorway, she motions him to come in, and shuts the door as we approach. After it becomes apparent that she’s not coming back, I press the buzzer and a young man in a pin-stripe suit opens the door and asks “Password?” I give him the password and we walk inside.

The transition from daylight to the dim interior is drastic and we struggle to watch our steps. We can barely make out the booths of people eating dinner talking to each other in whisper tones. The doorman leads us up to a bookshelf which, after he presses a button, swings open to reveal a passage to another room. He motions us through and closes the bookcase behind us.

Our eyes adjust and can take in the rows of bookshelves filled with ancient looking books from the hardwood floor up to the high ceiling. There are a few couples filling the scattered tables but it is obvious we have beaten the evening rush and proceed to the bar.

There are two bartenders in 20s style clothing trimming garnish and preparing for the rush sure to come later. We ask for a minute to peruse the chalkboard behind them for ideas on cocktails. I’ve already informed my group of some of the House Rules, one of which is “Don’t even think of ordering a Cosmopolitan.” The girls take their time drink shopping knowing that their order is going to be a reflection on their personality. I take a moment to pick a book of the bookshelf to determine if all of these books are cheap filler from a local used bookstore. I am pleasantly surprised to be holding Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.

I look up at the bartender and ask for an Anchor Steam ($4). One of the girls orders an Aviation ($8). Our last party member starts talking to the bartender about her inability to choose and he notes that there’s only one thing you can do, “Grin and bear it.”

She says, “I’ll have one of those.”

He says, “A what?”

“A Grin and Bear It. Surprise me.”

They are known for being Mixologists here and he seems to relish in the idea of experimenting. A flurry of bottles pass over a chilled martini glass followed by a flash of light as he lights the concoction on fire. He slides an orange rind around the rim, drops a cherry into it and passes it across the bar. She sips and as her expression changes to one of concentration and surprise she hands it to me to taste. I sip and immediately identify a syrupy orange flavor to be followed by a distinct bite of smoke and lemon. The bartender asks “Well?” We both nod in amazement and watch as he types in the name of the drink manually into the register – Grin And Bare It.

The girls turn to me and ask “How did you find this place? How did you know the password?” I look at them straight faced and keep my lips sealed. Explaining that you can find anything on the Internet if you look long enough would destroy the mystery – and mystery and secrets are what embodies where we are at : an old-fashioned Speakeasy.

1 comment:

Sabrina said...

that was an excellently told tale. And a great night to boot. Where did that phrase come from anyway??? Bootleggers? heh