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Distillations: Livin' It Up at the Hotel Utah 

Wednesday, Jan 8 2014

What did you do for New Year's?

Print deadlines march to an indifferent drummer, so the question is still theoretical at the moment I'm writing this.

I'm one of those people who takes more delight in the vast field of possibilities a city like San Francisco provides than I do in actually going to anything. Masked balls? DJs doing aerial acrobatics? A sadistic clown who pops the celebratory balloons with a bullwhip? It's all just a ticket away. I love that it's there. But I probably won't show up. I hate showing up. It's so plebian.

Right now the best invitations I'm weighing are a house party thrown by my friend and colleague Joe Eskenazi; a trip to the East Bay to see a Balkan brass band that young Alaric wants to take; and a sold-out X-rated party at a venue that always lets me in. As of this writing, I haven't decided, but I usually just stay home on New Year's Eve with a mirror and a bottle of scotch, trying to start a fight.

But this year the question feels moot because something amazing happened that stole New Year's thunder, and felt more like a successful San Francisco New Year's party than anything I can dream up.

On the last weekend of 2013 my friend Carry threw a house party in which he reunited with some members of his old '80s San Francisco punk band, The Repeat Offenders, for the first time in 30 years. That party was attended by a former journalism student who, back in the early '80s, had written an article about that band — and she brought a copy. It was the last piece of journalism she ever did, as she then left the field to concentrate on her dancing. As we all wish we could.

At the party, the former journalist spontaneously read her last piece into a microphone as the now reuniting band members she'd written about came together to play a brilliant series of improvisational riffs behind her, old guitar chords synching with new bass riffs and piano punctuations, the musicians setting their instruments on fire as their younger selves were quoted from three decades before in a writer's final words, closing the gap between eras, melting time away. It was an extraordinary performance — maybe a once in a lifetime moment.

That was a hell of a surprise. But I wasn't at all surprised to learn that the bar she saw their band at 30 years ago, the seed of this moment, was The Hotel Utah Saloon.

Reviewing The Hotel Utah is superfluous. All I really need to tell you is that it's a centerpiece in a lot of stories like this.

A piece of the Wild West that's kept a little "wild" at its heart, The Hotel Utah's more than 100 years old and operated through Prohibition. It's served San Francisco's roughest criminal element along with Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Steadfastly analog in a digital generation, it has gorgeous wood furnishings and a classic long bar, along with a separate stage area playing both new and established acts seven nights a week. I'm particularly fond of the upstairs "balcony" area that lets you look down on the performers while getting the best acoustics in the house.

I'm too much of a snob to care for the drink selection, and the food, while solid and reasonably priced, is uninspiring. But among San Francisco bars The Hotel Utah is immune to my slings and arrows, and beyond any blessing I could give it. The home of Barbary Coast scum; a destination for '60s celebrities who wanted a night away from the high life; the place where my now geriatric punk friends went to play in the '80s, and still visit to hear touring musicians ... there's nothing I can do with The Hotel Utah except nod respectfully and hope it's still doing exactly the same thing in another 100 years.

It's one of the places in San Francisco where San Francisco happens — and we don't have enough places like that anymore.

Maybe they can't afford to stay, or maybe they become comfortable — a word I would not use to describe The Hotel Utah, and a concept that is the soft cushiony death knell for many things once worth doing in this world. Or maybe they just disappear like fireflies in the night: remarkable, magical things usually have fairly short lives. That's just the way it is. The Repeat Offenders only lasted four years.

I've been surprised at just how much my bar review columns have been about gentrification — but it makes sense. We are a city of wonder, confronted with too many choices, wondering what our shelf-life is.

Happy 2014.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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