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Distillations: Boxing Room 

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The Boxing Room is underwhelming at first, an open and very wood-filled space with New Orleans kitsch that manages to stay on the right side of "tasteful" but the wrong side of "bland."

I sat at the bar, near two women eating a plate of oysters and gossiping about co-workers, and looked at the menu. It would be irresponsible of me to tell you the salacious details I overheard, given how close the three of us later became.

I ordered a drink off the happy hour specials. The waitress asked if I wanted some food with it, so I looked at the happy hour menu again.

"What are the Boudin Balls made with?"

No sooner had she begun describing them than one of the women to my left turned. "Order them immediately," she said. "Right now." Turns out Boudin Balls are deep-fried crispy pork shoulders. It was excellent advice.

In fact — and I don't say this lightly — I think Boxing Room has one of the best happy hours in San Francisco. Unless you have enough money to not give a damn, or you prefer to have TaskRabbit mixologists leave cocktails covered in gold leaf outside your penthouse door, most places aren't even competitive.

The Boxing Room's $5 highballs, while simple and not especially hard-hitting, are really tasty. There are five, and I am particularly fond of the No. 4 (rye, root beer, and absinthe), No. 1 (mezcal, super celery soda, and lemon) and No. 2 (rum, vintage cola, and iced coffee) — but they're all quite good. The happy hour food specials are also both delicious and cheap.

What more do you want?

The regular drinks list contains N'awlins standards: a Hurricane, a bacon Bloody Mary, a Sazerac, and a Mint Julep, and the raw bar looks terrific.

If the primary ingredients at Boxing Room are good drinks at good prices, the secret sauce is the fact that it gives itself plenty of wiggle room. It's not trying so hard to be upscale or New Orleans-themed, and that lets the customers breathe. And breathing — how is this not obvious? — is an essential ingredient of fun.

The shorter beer and wine lists are odd to me, though. I don't entirely understand what the curator is going for, but there's some good stuff there. (Idiosyncratic is fine if it lets you breathe.)

The two women next to me, Melissa and Lisa, eventually continued their fascinating conversation with the bartender, Gianina. Gianina is leaving San Francisco, where she grew up, to go to college in Germany, where she has relatives and where college is free.

"Why take out loans?" she asked.

Gianina plans to study dance and is very excited about the opportunity to visit Prague, another city of myth and legend that inspires its own kind of bars. Both Gianina and Melissa are half-Chinese and half-Czech — "Chinese Czechers" — so they feel a particular connection to the so-called Mother of Cities. It turns out that Melissa and I had both been there not long after the fall of Communism, and we shared stories (though not, perhaps, the juiciest ones).

Lisa is half-Chinese and half-Swedish — "my family never runs out of cultural misunderstandings" — and travels a lot. Melissa is also a heavy traveler, and will be going to New Orleans in the next few months. Gianina has barely travelled at all.

I used to travel, way back when, and I miss it. I tell Gianina that there is an ancient Greek word — eunoia — which means "beautiful thoughts," and that I find, when I travel, that my thoughts are more beautiful. It's a great reason to leave home.

"Are you going to stay in San Francisco?" Melissa asks me. We've been talking for over an hour — about Prague, and Miyazaki, and whether the ability to love is a skill best learned when we are young. Melissa came here from New York and can't imagine living anywhere else.

"I don't know," I tell her honestly.

I've been to a lot of New Orleans- and Prague-themed bars in San Francisco, but I've never seen a San Francisco-themed bar anywhere else. We are a city of legend, but it's a different kind of legend. New Orleans and Prague are dangerous places; San Francisco is a place where people come to be safe.

I think living in San Francisco has made me safer to be around. How do I feel about that? Do I miss the rough edges?

I'd probably be more concerned if it weren't happy hour at the Boxing Room.

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