The holiday tourists who stream into San Francisco at this time of year are strangely enjoyable. Entirely predictable, they wander around all big-eyed and camcordered, in pairs, families, or busloads, settling around the cable car stop at the foot of Powell Street like the soapy white sediment at the bottom of a snow globe. Each trolley loads its cargo and reverses its course back up the hill, scattering passengers far and wide through downtown, while the next wave of flakes gathers at the base of the street to await its turn. But these crowds are generally damn glad to be here, and that's an energy worth tapping into.
I like to get off at the Powell BART station and pass through these tourist clumps before making my way toward Union Square, where people are generally staring myopically at the street signs and pointing. (If you are lost and trying to find your way, there is something comforting in at least pointing at whatever sign you are reading. It makes you feel you are on the right track.)
The only thing I don't like about this part of town is the presence of aggressive panhandlers. "You came outta yo' mama one color, but look at you now!" one man yelled at an interracial couple who passed him without putting money in his cup. Then there are the almsmen trying desperately to get your attention by singing toothless doo-wop, standing stock-still without benefit of being painted up like a robot, or banging on overturned plastic buckets instead of drums. They remind me of that old Avis slogan, "We're number two: We try harder."
But I like an underdog. That's why I found myself drifting into the Chancellor Hotel, a "boutique" inn that exists in the heart of all the high-end lodging in San Francisco. You need only see the sign on the door that reads "Visitors welcome" (well, duhhhh) and an interior decoration seemingly provided by the Golden Girls production designer to know that this place was a Number Two. How long, I wonder, will some hotels remain trapped in the '80s, where mauve reigns and all metal finishes are polished gold brass?
Here, "boutique" means "small," which is a plus in my book, but the entryway to the Chancellor is one lil square room, each corner of which is devoted to selling something. There's the front desk, a snacks and tchotchkes area, the entrance to the restaurant, and my destination, the Luques Bar. The same lighting fills each area, which means that only a partition separates the tiny bar area from the front desk.
Hotel bars are usually nothing if not cavelike watering holes, so this brightness was strange. The drinking area itself was small, offering a couple stools and some seating along one wall. The decor was convention hall-ish, with a picture of an old airplane carved into glass over the bar and standard wooden chairs upholstered in abstract plums, roses, and mahoganies. Nothing in this place said, "Pull up a chair and sit a spell." Still, I did just that.
I was happy to see that the place had excellent choices for beer on tap. If you plan to offer only two brands, why not make them Pyramid Hefeweizen and Sierra Nevada? Good call. The bar was indeed trying harder. I was also delighted with the bartender. She was chitchatting with some British tourists who had returned from a day of sightseeing. She asked about their day as soon as they arrived, so I knew she recognized them. This is what a good hotel bar needs: someone who remembers each guest.
The sightseers mentioned visiting the Mrs. Doubtfire house. This gave me pause. I asked the woman next to me if people actually make the trek to the location where that movie was filmed. Apparently they do.
Now, I can see the Georgetown staircase from The Exorcist as a destination. The church in Bodega Bay from The Birds is a destination. Heck, even the red and white house in Arcadia where the opening for Fantasy Island was filmed is a freakin' destination, but not Mrs. Doubtfire's abode. Christ on a cracker!
The bartender, the woman on my left, and I got to talking about all the famous people who live in San Francisco — like Danielle Steel, who lives in a somewhat shabby mansion in Pacific Heights; and Jerry Rice, Tony Curtis, and Danny Glover. "Most people like to be under the radar in this town," the bartender said. I have to agree. The entire time I've lived here I have yet to see one famous person in San Francisco.
There was one good thing (besides the service) about the strange little bar in the Chancellor Hotel, and that was the fact that you can sit directly across from the elevators and watch everyone coming and going. The guests all seemed to be middle-class Americans, with a few aging hippies and a couple of foreigners thrown in. If you Google the Chancellor, you'll get myriad coupon offers for cut-rate packages, so I suppose the hotel is a good deal for frugal travelers.
But back to our conversation. It occurred to me that a few famous people have probably stayed at the hotel, so I grilled the bartender. She laughed and said, "No one really famous that I know of." Shucks.
"Well, there was one guy, don't know if he counts or not ..." My ears pricked up.
"Dang, now who was he? He was from one of those stupid '80s movies..." Oh, shit. My ears now began to grow Spocklike points. "Let's see, what was his name? ... I think the movie was Sixteen Candles ..." My eyeballs began to bulge out of my head. Anthony Michael Hall? Or maybe Michael Schoeffling, the hot guy who played Jake Ryan? But no, last I heard he had moved to the wilderness and was living off the land or something.
Then the bartender snapped the refrigerator door shut and pointed her finger up. "Ah!" she said. "Long Duk Dong. The guy who played Long Duk Dong."
"Gedde Watanabe?!" I gasped. She might as well have said Benicio Del Toro or David Bowie. Holy crap. But you see? You wouldn't get an anecdote like that at the St. Francis. Long live the Number Twos.
I wanted to stick around a bit longer, but the place was closing at 10:30 p.m. (I guess they aren't trying hard enough after all), so I paid my bill and headed back down Powell toward BART. On my way I needled through large groups of sluggish travelers pointing at various signs. A tiny elderly woman in chintz pants was simultaneously panhandling and ranting in front of a sidewalk cafe. An entire band was set up on one corner, and a sizable crowd had gathered. And through it all, the sounds of the woman's shrieks and the noodly bass from the musicians, I heard the dingdingding of the trolley, carrying its next load up the hill.