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Distillations: Bohemianland at The Social Study 

Wednesday, Jan 1 2014

There are few things in this world more interesting than watching someone hit on a bartender.

At least the liquor distributor in a suit sitting next to me at the Social Study knew her. There was a poignant quality to his longing, trying to be her friend and work his way in. I felt like putting my hand on his shoulder and saying, "It will be okay," but he obviously didn't want to talk to me.

"You want a shot?" he asked her.

"Alcohol?" she asked.

He hadn't thought he was being ambiguous. "Yes."

"Okay," she said, and it was still non-committal.

He pulled out an almost full whiskey bottle. (Why don't I carry those around?) "This is called Tin Cup," he said. "It's made by legendary distillers, and owned by Kevin Costner."

Her eyes lit up. "Oh, wow! That's awesome."

His face fell. "No, no, that's a joke. Because ... have you ever heard of the movie Tin Cup?"

"No. But I want Kevin Costner to own a brand of whiskey!"

"Well, but—." He was struggling here. "I said that because a bunch of people have asked me if Kevin Costner owns it, because he's in a movie called Tin Cup ... so it's a joke."

"I wish Ralph Macchio owned a line of vodka," she said. "I'd be so excited."

"Ralph Macchio!?!" The words were out of my mouth before I realized I had jumped onto this train wreck.

"Yeah!" She looked me right in the eye. "Karate Kid ..." — she did a little karate move — "is the best movie ever, and I have so much respect for Ralph Macchio."

I tried to exchange glances with the liquor distributor, but he wasn't acknowledging my existence. "Do you ... have any idea what he's done lately?" I asked.

She frowned like the idea had never occurred to her. "No, I just really liked him in that movie."

She walked away. I sat there, shaking my head. The liquor distributor stewed, silently blaming me for jinxing his game. "I'm going to the gym," he said eventually.

The Social Study had an instant appeal to me when I first saw it during the day. It had a wood-paneled, books-on-the-wall, Greenwich Village coffee shop vibe that was nearly irresistible — a "take it easy, no one's trying too hard" spirit that spoke to what San Francisco would be like if no one dreamed of becoming a "social media brand."

But once inside, I couldn't avoid the feeling that it was trying too hard. The drink list has no liquor except sake and soju, but includes "winetails" and "beertails" along with brand-name chai. I should have run. Instead I came back at night, when it was absurdly dark inside and they were silently streaming Ferris Bueller's Day Off against the brick wall, and the bartender was thrilled to think that another celebrity had started a line of vodka.

The whole Fillmore neighborhood, where the Social Study sits comfortably, is a testament to what happens when we try too hard to do what once came naturally. Home to much of the city's black population in the 1940s, the Fillmore boasted clubs that attracted Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. After World War II it was slated for "redevelopment," got gentrified, and chased all the original residents off. The legends of jazz stopped coming, and it became bland and innocuous.

Then, in the '90s, the Brown administration decided that what San Francisco needed was a Jazz District, so it encouraged the building of upscale, jazz-themed venues and restaurants on the very spots where those things had once existed on their own. A theme park version of the culture we chased away.

The Social Study takes its inspiration from that theme park sensibility — it represents the way the new round of gentrifiers want to see themselves, fitting in perfectly with the people they've kicked out.

I ordered a winetail, and the bartender told me the one I'd asked for was controversial. "People either love it or hate it. If you like to take a chance, this is the drink to try."

"Oh, I take chances," I said, but of course it isn't true. I had ordered a questionable drink, but I was actually playing it absurdly safe. The Social Study tries to make you feel sophisticated and hip for sitting in a place where every hint of actual culture has been replaced with a "culture"-themed decoration. Whatever there was to lose has already been lost.

I didn't love or hate the drink — it was just gussied-up mediocrity.

The books on the wall are ornaments. The trumpet of Louis Armstrong can no longer be heard. We're in Ralph Macchio territory.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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