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Bouncer Considers the Originality of Original Joe's 

Wednesday, Mar 14 2012

I don't claim to truly understand philosopher Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but that is not going to stop me from interpreting it how I see fit and then writing about it. You have been warned. To me, he is talking about the aura that surrounds a piece of art when it is created, and the artist's intentions around it. Once it is replicated, it is not the same thing. A copy of the Mona Lisa is not the Mona Lisa (duh), but not just because it is made of different materials. The original has an aura. A replicated piece of art is like hearing a cover song, or getting a faux-Fendi bag. Postmodernists might have a different take on this, but I like the idea that there is something magically spiritual about an original piece.

However, as my recent addiction to collecting images on Pinterest will attest, there is still something to be said for replication. As I added my 12th picture of a Florence Broadhurst print to my "Arts and Crafts Movement" board, I realized that in some weird way, I now felt that I possessed some of her work. I am creating my own SimCity Pasadena craftsman bungalow, in my head and on my computer. I'm not the only one; millions of other women have taken to the site like sluts to free birth control pills.

So there I sat at the new Original Joe's, which is a replication of the original Original Joe's in the Tenderloin, which closed due to fire in 2007. Now it is reopened in North Beach, which makes more sense, seeing as it is an Italian joint. But purists — the Benjamins — will probably still pine for those long-lost 'Loin memories. The old place was atmospheric, with a vaguely Cosa Nostra vibe, big red leather booths, and waiters in crisp white shirts, black sportcoats, and bow ties. It had the worn patina of an elderly restaurant, edges made smooth over years of marinara and chablis toasts.

The new place is Original Joe's 2.0. The booths are still big and red, but the edges are sharp and shiny. The floors are Fred Astaire-buffed, not Rat Pack-scuffed. The bar is prominent when you walk in, and takes up a third of the place.

As soon as I sat down, I realized that this is the kind of place where you get a negroni, an old-fashioned, or a sidecar, not a freakin' mojito. I always expect the bartender from The Shining in this sort of situation, but instead got a genial gent with nary an evil glint in his eye. Damn.

Since this is not the original Original, inevitable comparisons must be made. Firstly, no one on the staff looks like they are eligible for Medicare, which sort of sucks; I miss the old ex-Vaudevillian set. Second, it is pristine. It still needs a few years of vodka barf to bring it up to snuff. The third authenticity test — which, to be fair, is technically impossible since this is a replication — would come from the garlic bread.

I have good memories associated with Original Joe's garlic bread. I went there on a first date with an old boyfriend. He was older and worldly, schooled in the ways of garage rock and all things mod. I had just moved here and he had taken me to all the old-school S.F. places. He wanted to get garlic bread, but he could see that I was reticent, this being a date and all. "Eat the frickin' garlic!" he said to me. This of course clinched the deal, and we moved in together a few months later. I remember that I'd never had garlic bread with that much garlic on it, and I also remember eating about two baskets' worth. Then I remember the next day's inevitable gastrointestinal problems. But it was a decadent, bold garlic bread, loaded with gluten and butter.

So I ask you, new Original, would your garlic bread be the same? Is it even possible to replicate it from my original memory, even if you cloned the original? What is art?

Someone from the kitchen whizzed by me and plunked down the basket. It looked exactly the same, baguettes swathed a vaguely greenish butter with a bushel of garlic chopped on top. I took a bite. It was initially unpleasant, without enough salt, but then the sour from the bread kicked in, and the garlic popped, and damn — yes, that was exactly how I had experienced it before. This was the same goddamn loaf of garlic bread. Same recipe.

The bartender could sense my musing. "Everything okay here?" he asked me.

"This is exactly how I remember it in the Tenderloin," I said, feeling a bit like Mama Malone talking about old Sicily or something.

"Niiiice," he said, which was the perfect response to this pseudo-Guido exchange.

This was not the original Original Joe's, though, and the original Original Joe's was not a real restaurant in Italy; and Italian restaurants are not real Roman Empire eateries; and Roman Empire eateries were not real Greek places; and Greek places were not real Pelasgians, etc., etc. Nothing is authentic once it leaves its creator. But that doesn't mean that it is not real.

I will be thinking about that when I recline in my Arts and Crafts easy chair tonight online. I own the Gamble House, an architectural wonder near the Huntington Library, which I also plunder for decorating ideas. I have put William Morris wallpaper in the entryway of my home, and am starting on the kitchen, in which I might house a few Tiffany lamps. I'm still working that out.

"Thanks again!" said the woman on the way out; she was not ready for Medicare but near enough. She had the pride and confidence of someone who had to own the place. "I had an original experience," I said to her.

"Good!" she said, without a moment's pause.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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