"It's kind of bland, and then all of a sudden -- boom! -- it has an impact," says Michelle to the rest of our trio, describing her lively Tête-à-Tête syrah/grenache blend. The Hidalgo manzanilla smells wild and smoky, but touches the palate with a dry note. A Kir Royale strikes as precisely as a touchdown pass from God. The Les Cent Vignes Beaune premier cru 1993 is just beginning to mature, exuding a clean, clear earthiness with hints of ripe plum. Quite kindly, a customer named Bonnie shares both a sip of her muscat de beaumes-de-venise and a thought.
"In San Francisco, this is where Frasier Crane would come," she says, munching a plump caper berry and a dab of pâté from her promising-looking charcuterie plate.
She's probably right, but to be fair, weekdays draw a younger, more casual crowd, and everyone seems nice, with one exception. "You could smoke a little further away from the door," snips a delicate fellow out front. He has a point but could have made it face-to-face instead of showing his bald spot and hippopotamuslike ass in passing. But that's OK: Rich people are just bitchy sometimes. If you're looking to avoid the upper crust, Hayes Street's tony boutiques and stark parking lots hide a mishmash of drinkeries, including a rowdy little joint called Place Pigalle.
Here the lighting is dark, and dozens of young bohemians sprawl on couches or shake their heinies to mambo tracks and scratch-heavy hip hop. The combination of 18 beers on tap and one bathroom can lead to some uncomfortable moments, but those long waits give people time to admire Deborah Gibbon's tastefully disturbing collection of erotic paintings.
"The artwork is fantastic, and I'm in the mood where I can really appreciate it," says Amanda, who's on her way to a party in the neighborhood.
"I dig it," says David, who's heading to a Burning Man party across the street. He says the great thing about Pigalle is that he can wear his flip-flops.
"What's this place called?" asks James, a bit confused. He's just come from a party across the street. Was it the Burning Man party? "I have no idea," he says. "It looked kind of like that crowd."
As the clock strikes midnight, the bar scene is strangely slow back down the street at Absinthe. Either the recent departure of über-bartender Maximillian really hurt, or the normally abundant restaurant types are at the Burning Man party (or in line for the bathroom at Place Pigalle). But the house is definitely rocking up at Marlena's, where Marlena herself (the 25th Empress of San Francisco) is dressed to the nines, her eyelashes as long as baby fingers. Marlena's is always a gay bar, and has been so for 37 years. Sometimes it's also a pool hall or a drag cabaret, but tonight it's a sing-along piano bar. A dozen boys and girls belt out show tunes under a chandelier that burns like electrified ice. The harmony is immense as folks turn their faces skyward, gesture toward one another, and exchange hugs, the vibe as warm and comforting as a hand-knit blanket.
"Everyone looks so happy," remarks Angela, who's sitting off to the side. Soon she's moved to add her voice to the chorus.