There's an old '90s pop psychology saying, probably from Women Who Love Too Much or, like, The Codependent Peter Pan Who Runs with the Wolves, or whatever. Anyway, it goes like this: Are you in love with the man, or are you in love with his potential? I think about this often, but not as it relates to males (though probably I should). Nope, I think about it when I enter a bar that hasn't yet found itself. A place that has a lot of potential and just needs the right owner, patience, and possibly a grand-mal makeover. And, like the half-broken dude who cannot give me what I need, I usually return repeatedly to these stamping grounds in the hopes that someday they will change, and that my codependent $4 for a flat draft beer and selfless donation of an overgenerous tip will bring them around.
To wit: the Orbit Room, whose Art Deco majesty sits regally at the corner of Market and Laguna, its employees serving up bad coffee and bused-in pastries. A sad pile of cold focaccia sulks on a plate under glass. Yesterday's paper is there for the taking, if you feel like rummaging around for all of its sections on various stools and tables. And while many cute San Francisco joints are struggling with just a beer and wine license — imaginatively dreaming up bold new ways to make sake the next Fernet — the Orbit Room has a complete bar and, sadly, few customers whenever I'm there.
"Are you doing laundry?" the nice bartender asked when I stopped in recently (the Orbit Room's saving grace: friendly service). I would hazard a guess that most people who come here are washing their clothes next door.
"Haircut in fifteen," I replied. That would be the other reason people probably come here: The fabulous Moxie Parlour is a few doors down.
"Aahhh," he said, with a knowing nod.
The Orbit Room has incredibly high ceilings with early-20th-century finery. It is lined with massive windows that look out over a bustling traffic corner. Whoever bought this place tried to intersect the modern world with the 1920s via the '80s. Bulbous stone tables that look like gigantic martini glasses with fat stems grow around the perimeter like Easter Island mushrooms. They are incredibly uncomfortable to sit at. The base juts out just enough that you really cannot cross your legs, and the rock-hard surface is cold and unforgiving. No one sits at those tables.
As for me, I'm a creature of habit, and I sit at the bar. There's a daily drink special, the specifics of which the bartenders have never figured out by the time I get there (generally around five-ish), so I usually opt for a Sierra. Then I root around in vain for a paper, eventually just opening my cellphone and reading stuff from the Internet while I watch the clock tick.
In order for an unhealthy relationship to carry on, one party must, on occasion, surprise you. Something sort of exciting happened on this visit to the Orbit Room: The bartender rolled out a bag of bar snacks. You know, that mix of rice crackers, Cheez-Its, pretzels, and tiny melba toasts that goes well with beer. I did my usual autistic thing of eating one kind of snack at a time, starting first with the Cheez-Its, then the rice crackers, and on down the line.
A couple came in and sat next to me. They were jaunty, the kind of jaunty that can only come from being from out of town and livin' it up in the Big City. They put their bags down around them and teased each other about the day's foibles. "I can't believe you did that!" the woman giggled.
"Heyyy," said the guy in his best mock what-am-I-gonna-do-babe?
I tried to imagine what exactly he had done. Maybe he ate something with tofu in it. Or maybe he talked to a crazy homeless person about space aliens. Or maybe he went into a gay bar.
About this time I used the bathroom, which is reached only by traipsing through the bowels of the place. And I do mean bowels. The Orbit Room is filthy in the back, and the bathroom is way gnarly, too. But coming back from the john, the same ideas always enter my head. They involve my fantasy of buying this place and making it cool, because it has great potential.
I'd start with making kickass coffee. Just get one nice machine and some barista who has worked at Starbucks and knows her way around a steamer. There is no competition anywhere in the neighborhood, so I'd invest in some good beans and a machine not made by Mr. Coffee. I'd serve one food and do it well. How about muffins? They can be sweet or savory! Who doesn't like a muffin? Think about it.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First I would hire a forklift to remove the slabs/tables. I would find some nice wood replacements that say "1920s opium den." Then I would get some chairs that don't cut off your butt circulation after two sips of your drink. I'd also expand the bar, which really only takes up, like, an eighth of the space. I would probably still keep the back messy, because I know myself, but I would at least try to cover that up with a new Sheetrock hallway of sorts that would lead to a cleanish bathroom. I like the lighting in the place, but I would work hard to make it cozier, and not like those "lounges" that have popped up all over the city. No, my place would be uniquely comfy and hip, but not too trendy. It would meet my needs and always remember our anniversary.
Yet I do love the Orbit Room. You just don't know it like I do. Sometimes the staff brings out bar snacks!
"I'll see you in eight weeks," I said to the bartender, leaving a 100 percent tip on my way out. You see, I know I will be back. I always come back.