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The Inadequacy of Noire Lounge 

Wednesday, Jul 29 2015
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As a live pianist played vaguely familiar tunes at the Noire Lounge, I tell E. that if I ever go back to grad school, I think I'd like to write a dissertation on the semiotics of hipster bar decorations.

Take the manual typewriter. There are probably more manual typewriters used as decorations in San Francisco bars than there are in use as typewriters in the entire Western Hemisphere. No self-respecting bar during the period when manual typewriters were practical would have ever had one on display. Yet they've become the prop of choice for derivative San Francisco bars trying to make sure we recognize them as ... what, exactly?

When a bar makes sure a manual typewriter is prominently visible (or, in the case of Local Edition, physically stacks them on top of other manual typewriters), what is it trying to tell us?

Then there are books. What does it mean when a bar prominently displays books that it never expects (or will likely even allow) someone to read?

The Noire Lounge is full of such symbols: It has the typewriter, the inaccessible bookshelf, the antique light fixtures, and the fancy wallpaper. In addition to two big screens showing film noir and period-ish pieces like Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. Noire fancies itself an upscale "speakeasy," a term that has also gone from being a practical designation (a kind of bar) to a symbolic reference (a quirky style bars can adopt).

E. had asked for a bar that was "a little dangerous, and delightful." Instead, we found the bar equivalent of a teenage nihilist demanding that everyone acknowledge how little he cares what they think.

We should have known. Honestly, isn't the very act of calling yourself the "Noire Lounge" the equivalent of putting on a black turtleneck and going to a coffee shop to be seen reading Sartre?

A long time ago, E. thought she might be a writer. She still might, but recently she has decided to give up artistic pretensions. She's stopped trying to impress people with her creativity and started trying to apply it to making the kind of parties she always wished she and her friends would get invited to.

"Everything got a lot simpler once I just admitted to myself that this is who I am and this is what I want," she said. It's true. Once she stopped trying to impress the kind of cool people she wanted to know, they flocked to her. In her life, "seeming" has been the opposite of "being."

E's eyes were wide when we came in. She was thinking, "Oh, what I could do with this space." Noire Lounge has a lounge area, two bars, several communal tables, and a back room — it's enviably large. The Noire Lounge boasts an excellent wine cellar and a strong — if much smaller — collection of beers.

Much like the decorations, though, the cocktail list is essentially old standards on a historical theme. Corpse Revivers and Blood & Sands, in this context, are the drink equivalent of dressing all in black. Once you've said, "I get it. This is a dark, period, speakeasy," there's nothing left to surprise you, except by disappointing.

I ordered a Maltese Falcon (Eagle Rare, lemon, honey syrup, Jerry Thomas Bitters). E. ordered a Trader Vick's 1944 Mai Tai (Appleton Rum, Clement Rum Agricole, orange curaçao, orgeat, lime).

Both were ... all right. Nothing to complain about. The food was much stronger. The peach flatbread was tasty, the mac and cheese superb, and the rosemary tater tots delectable.

Still, we decided not to order a second round, and cashed out instead.

It's not just that we were in the middle of Hayes Valley, where it's not hard to get a good mixed drink. It was a sense of lost potential. Noire easily could be a little dangerous and delightful. Instead it's constantly asking you "check out how dark I am! Look, a manual typewriter!"

E. thinks it's because Noire's trying too hard. I think it's because Noire's not trying at all. It looks to me like somebody put together a checklist of "quirky bar must-haves" for San Francisco, and threw them all together. If people are really passionate about putting together (yet another) speakeasy style lounge, there's a lot more they could do then just the usual "one from column A, one from column B."

But passion, it's true, can be as uninspired as cynicism — the world is full of people who wanted to be good with foolish intensity and ended up only being intensely foolish.

Either way, we could be having more fun at E.'s place.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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