During the Romantic period in the 19th century (if this opening sentence scares you, now's the time to move on to the sex ads), rich people tried to keep it real by hiring "hermits" to live on their property and appear humble and tattered. They were given a hermitage, which was usually a charmingly ramshackle little cottage on the grounds with vines growing up it and smoke puffing out of the chimney. The men were required to wear a long beard and were supposed to sit in the yard and look contemplative. I suppose the modern-day equivalent to these land barons' employment of poor people would be celebrities who surround themselves with the less fortunate in photo ops today.
It all comes down to the idea of the noble savage, man in his purest state, unfettered by want or materialism. The Haight embodies this for San Francisco. It is our hermitage. Bands of wandering scruffians with dogs tied to ropes live hand-to-mouth with a "hallelujah, I'm a bum!" attitude. Old hippies settle into their golden years by applying new velvet patches to their jeans and adding new notches to their braided belts, and busloads of tourists roll past and snap their pictures of them.
Alembic sprang up in this morass as a place that would bring a high-dining touch to the Haight. The liquor it serves is generally small-batch and good quality. Instead of chicken dishes, it has duck. The cheese plate is presented with an introduction, the server moving his or her hand around the plate in a clockwise fashion and telling you which animal's lactose you will be ingesting and in which part of the world it squirted out. It's a bar, first and foremost, and the drinks are muddled, shaken, and measured. But unlike other places like this in S.F., the staff doesn't bend over backward to kiss your ass. This is the Haight, and you are not supposed to care about such things. Customer service is bourgeoisie.
As a result, I sat at the bar for a bit before anyone seemed to acknowledge my presence. There were two bartenders, and both were kind enough, but removed from the overall experience, man. It was sort of a relief; I would rather be ignored than fawned over. But still, the whole place had the feeling of air slowly being let out of a balloon. The place was bedecked with a bunting of ennui (now there's a metaphor).
The bartender stood in front of me and made a drink for another customer. He was heavily tattooed, with "keep" written on the knuckles of one hand, and "calm" on the other's. "You don't strike me as someone who needs to be reminded to keep calm," I said to him.
"You should've seen me before I got these," he replied, with a slight smile. I liked this dude.
The Doors came on the sound system. I fucking hate the Doors. The only song of theirs I like is "The End," and only because it's in Apocalypse Now. There should be a rule that if you are trying to have an establishment that is an anomaly in the Haight, the first commandment is Thou Shalt Not Play '60s Music. A Stones song played after the Doors, and I can hang with that, but then Santana came on, and there really is never cause for such a thing in a civilized society. Good thing I was at 8 o'clock in my cheese plate rotation, working toward the final selection at 11.
The waitresses were also a bit low in the mood department. I kept making eye contact with one of them, and then immediately looking away, neither of us smiling. The chefs in the back carried vats and chafing dishes of this and that into the walk-ins or back areas or whatever places cooks go, their mouths turned down in deep thought. I put some quince paste on my bread toast and slathered on the last of the artisanal cheese.
I think I know what part of the problem is. I used to work on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and when you have a job on streets such as these, you get really effin' sick of people. You get spare-changed by the same dipshits day after day. You get overrun with annoying tourists who don't know the customs and wouldn't care even if they did. You see the 1960s as one big stink bomb with gutter punk detritus that continues to expand through the universe like a tie-dyed supernova. You get snot-nosed journalists with smile charts, who plot your facial expressions and politeness in a log and then publish it for the entire city to read. The truth is, you are probably the only real people in an otherwise showboatin' town. You are the hired hermits living on the estate.
The other bartender refilled my drink. The waitress came and took my plate. Neither was effusive or cold — just somewhere in the middle. You know, like how normal people are.
So Alembic, I actually salute you for responding sanely to an insane world.
I'm not ready to forgive you for the Santana, though.