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Distillations: La Vie Boheme 

Wednesday, Aug 19 2015
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If a café serves beer, does that make it a bar? If a bar has a dance floor, does that make it a club?

These might seem like trivial distinctions — a rose by any other name would be upcharged by your floral delivery app — but they pose one of the most important questions in a night out: What kind of experience are you looking for?

I find myself asking this question as I savor a Duvel at Café La Boheme, just outside the 24th Street BART. It's functionally identical to Rosamunde just down the block, as each is about the same size and focuses on food and beer, but neither has a traditional "bar." Yet Rosamunde is definitely a bar, while La Boheme is definitely a café.

Is it because Rosamunde also serves wine? Puh-lease. Cafés are famous for serving wine, and Boheme serves sangria and mimosas, too. Is it because La Boheme has art on the walls? Not in this town. S.F. bars are in an artistic arms race, with every square inch covered.

No, the key distinction is the experience they're trying to create. Even given the same layout, drink menu, and décor, a bar, a café, and a club can be worlds apart based on their aspirations.

I've been going to La Boheme for years, first with a group of writers who would meet every Friday to toss writing prompts into a hat. We weren't a heavy drinking group, but the smoothies were very popular, as was the Middle Eastern plate of vegetarian appetizers. Later, Boheme started offering paninis with delicious pesto, and I became a devotee of the turkey and mozzarella option. Eventually, its Oregon chai would become my go-to drink when I wasn't in the mood for a Blue Moon or the seasonal Sam Adams.

I was there the other week to meet an artist friend named Paul and go over ideas for a project we're starting. And herein lies the essence of the café experience: cafés foster the possibility for uninterrupted concentration. You go to a café to study, to work, to learn, and to be inspired by both the subject you're studying and the people around you. If we still had the café culture of 1920s Vienna, Elon Musk and Michael Chabon would be playing chess in La Boheme right now, while Aaron Peskin and Peaches Christ provided running commentary.

God, I wish we had that. (Instead, we get TED Talks. We truly live in a fallen world.)

It's possible to work in a bar — hell, I've graded papers in a bar — but you don't go to bars for the same kind of inspiration. That game of chess isn't the dream.

It's a common mistake to say that we go to bars to drink, but that's all wrong. If it's really about the booze, we can drink at home. We don't go to bars to meet friends, either, because we can drink at home with our friends if that's what we want.

We go to bars because we want a story we can tell people tomorrow. We're putting ourselves out there in the hope that this act will be answered in kind by strangers, that something will spark, that magic will happen. That an amazing story will occur and we'll be a part of it.

Whiskey helps.

And clubs — clubs are much the same, except whereas every bar story aspires to be unique, every club story aspires to a kind of ecstatic sameness: we danced, the people were beautiful, and we just stopped thinking.

Whiskey helps.

We go to Rosamunde to hang out with strangers who are having a good time and hope that social alchemy occurs. We go to Café La Boheme to work, in the hope that inspiration strikes. We go dancing to forget everything in the rhythm of the moment.

Paul and I did good work that day. I was thrilled by the attention he paid to the words I tentatively set in front of him. We talked about what it means to be an artist in San Francisco now, and if I squinted just right, I could see Tristan Tzara and Kurt Godel leaning in from behind him to get a word in edgewise.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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