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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Harry Denton

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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So I was on my way to Harry Denton's house, and who should I see parked in the window of Uncle Vito's Pizzeria at Bush and Powell but the famous San Francisco Brown Twins, Marian and Vivian, who've been eluding my reverse-invitation advances since the day I first put dinner-grubbing finger to key.

Suddenly there they were, just sitting there, delicately scarfing down two halves of an extra-large Supreme. I was already late for Harry, but -- oh, what the hell .... "Pardon me, ladies, my name is Barry Levine and I write a column blah blah blah blah."

Half an hour later I was running up the block to Harry's with the twins' homemade business card in my hand.

Harry Denton. The Brown Twins. Really, it was all I could do not to check my reflection in the windows I passed to see if Herb Caen's ghost wasn't there trotting alongside me.

I found Harry standing outside his building trying to reach me on a cordless phone. "Sorry I'm late. And the Brown Twins send their best."

"Oh, they're great. We went to London together," he said. "On Richard Branson. That was my best media trip ever. It was a five-day drunk. Sixty people. Twenty celebrities. Everyone up in first class, loaded. Except the Twins, of course."

How does one describe Harry Denton's apartment? Well by describing it, I guess. It's your basic large one-bedroom Edwardian off Union Square, filled with incredible mahogany furniture, ornate antiques, huge palm trees, and tons of lit candles at every turn.

"This is the dining room," Harry said indicating a space dominated by a sumptuous canopy bed. "So I obviously think the bedroom is the most important place in the house." And, by sleeping in his dining room, Harry has been able to convert the bedroom into an enormous walk-in closet. The room is lined with custom-made cabinets and drawers designed to organize his 13 tuxedos, 89 suits, 110 pairs of shoes, and endless racks of ties. In turn, in what would have been the closet Harry has set up a single bed and dresser, making it a mini-guest room. "So this is for when my nephews visit," he laughed.

Actually, Harry Denton doesn't really laugh. He roars. He's a robust man with a childlike face, big round spectacles, and a constant smirk. And his squeaky, scratchy,

jubilant voice, I imagine, instantly becomes endearing to anyone who meets him.

As he dashed around snuffing out candles, I perused the wallful of simply framed photos of Harry and friends. Harry and Hillary. Harry and Joan Collins. "This one's my favorite," he said, pointing to a picture of him and Gorbachev. He continued extinguishing the sea of candles. I spied one more notable photo.

"John-John," I said.

"Oh, yeah. That killed me," said Harry, walking back to look at the picture. "I was at a wedding with him. He was something else. Always a gentleman. He came by my bar about 10 months before. I mean, real regular, real nice. Remembered names and all that stuff."

I peeked out the window at his sweeping view of downtown. Smack in the center of the vista was a multicolored neon sign: Harry Denton's Starlight Room.

"I walk to work. I hate cars," said Harry as we hoofed it back up Bush Street.

"Just to warn you," I offered, "the Twins are sitting right in this window."

"Oh, I see them all the time. Hello. Hello," he yelled, knocking and waving as the Twins, decked out in ever-matching lime outfits and hats, returned equally enthusiastic greetings rendered comically silent by Vito's giant window.

"They're green!" Harry bellowed as we marched away.

Ducking into a side entrance by Harry's office, we hit the elevator button labeled "Starlight" and zoomed straight up to the 21st floor. The doors opened and we stepped out into a wall of floating balloons; Harry had donated the space to the Stop AIDS Project for the evening, and the club was packed as Jaime Gomez of Nash Bridges MC'd the fourth annual San Francisco HIV Prevention Awards. Harry pushed his way to the bar to get me a Ketel One martini. "They don't need me up here for a while," he said. "Let's go check out the Suite."

Down one floor on the elevator Harry unlocked the door to the Sir Frances Drake's brand-new Harry Denton Suite. The room is painted deep red and all the furnishings and ferns were picked out by Harry himself. The view is spectacular. Five hundred bucks a night.

We sat in the living room area. As fate would have it, the following night Harry's other restaurant, on Steuart, was closing after 10 years. "I'm not here to bullshit anything," said Harry. "It was emotional this week. It hit me a little more than I thought. But I know I'm going to have another nightclub. Maybe sooner than I think."

Harry's reign as San Francisco's "Mr. Entertainment" started with a 15-year run as a local waiter. "Smartest move I ever made," remembered Harry. "I got fired from the Dartmouth Social Club for dropping my draws on a Sunday night." That led him to a job at the then-famous Washington Square Bar and Grill. "It was a very smart move for me. I was on TV. I was written up the first day. And you know, Herb Caen was in there all the time.

"I mean, I'm a hot dog," he added. "But I'm humble. But I'm pretty hot dog-ish. I'm not going to sit here and say I don't work it. Sure I work it. I goddamn work it." He bellowed with laughter. "But I'm pretty sincere. And I like to dance. I mean, you talk about time management -- two nights a week, I'll go home at 2:30, 3 in the morning, sopping wet. I'll start at 1, so I can check the music out, dance with a pretty lady having fun, and exercise all at the same time. I do it with a suit on because you can't go around hugging people and all this stuff sopping wet. But it's helped me maintain my weight because I'm a foodaholic."

We talked about addictions -- in the broadest sense of the word. "I'm not into heavy drugs," explained Harry. "And I haven't had a drink in six years. Not a drop, six years in November, which saved my life. Checked into rehab the day after my 50th birthday, so I am rather dramatic. But you have cross-addictions, you know? I can't walk into a store ... you saw my clothes ... I don't need shit. I mean, it's an addiction. I'm a major shopper."

"Not a bad one to have."

"No, it's better than cocaine. Or any of that shit," agreed Harry. "But the hardest is being a foodaholic, because you have to eat. I was 315 pounds at one point. And I've kept it off, that's another reason I'm happy. I just made a deal with myself not to eat horizontal, and it's working."

A knock on the door brought word from Harry's manager: "They're ready for you upstairs, Harry."

Back in the Starlight Room we listened to speeches from the three Stop AIDS award recipients -- Blackberri, a local singer/songwriter; Ed Decker, director of the New Conservatory Theater; and Ron Stall, a UCSF professor and AIDS researcher. Before the ceremony could end, Harry was called to the microphone to be named honorary chair. "I'm very fortunate, people always want to throw parties for me ...oh, shit," he said. "I mean, people always want to throw parties up here, and all I do is make the space available. But the thanks go to all the people who do the real work."

While Harry took a few minutes to work the crowd, his specialty, I listened to lounge singer Connie Champagne continue the evening's entertainment. "I need a man. A big, strong man," she announced between songs. During the long pause that followed I twisted my head around to see no one in the predominantly male audience making a move. So, with several martinis now working their magic, I surmised that perhaps I was the man for the job. I stepped forward, lifted Connie onto the piano for her final number, posed for a kiss and a snapshot, and disappeared back into the crowd.

As the place began to empty out, Harry and I settled into a large U-shaped booth for a late-night supper. The Starlight normally serves a light menu of caviar, salads, cheese plates, desserts, and a raw bar. But for "special occasions, like this," Harry explained, he calls down to Scala's on the ground floor. Tory, our waitress, arrived with silver covered platters, beneath which we found a beautiful Caesar salad and a plate of buttermilk mashed potatoes topped with a perfectly seared fillet of salmon for me, and a grilled vegetable plate and greens for Harry.

"You've got quite a place here," I said, taking in the views of the city.

"It used to be a penthouse," he answered. "The whole floor. Can you imagine? But I'm very lucky. I've been at it a long time. Twenty-five years. None of this stuff comes overnight, unless you win the lottery. You ever fantasize about what you'd do if you won the lottery? When I can't sleep at night, that's what I dream about."

"That's what the Brown Twins told me," I recalled, "when I saw them at the restaurant. They said, 'We still play the lottery, and we're going to win.'"

After we finished our meals Harry had me follow him through the Starlight's kitchen before ducking out a swinging glass window.

"Yowza," I said.

Harry had had a small, elegant table set on the fire escape, with a glass of champagne for me, and two decadent desserts from Scala's. It was a clear night 21 floors up and the view, hanging out over Union Square, was extraordinary.

"Every two or three months, we get exhibitionists in these hotels," laughed Harry.

"Now that would make for an interesting column," I said.

"Oh, they know you're watchin' 'em." Harry roared some more. "I've got my staff binoculars. I mean, they want you to watch them."

With no moon out this night, Harry dug into the Chocolate IV, while I marveled at the Bostini, an unbelievable creation inspired by the Boston cream pie. "I see I got you with that one," Harry smiled.

"I might not look it," I told him, "but to steal your word, I'm a foodaholic too. If food didn't make you gain weight, that's all I'd ever eat: cheeseburgers, french fries, and Boston cream pie."

"Isn't it a trip?" asked Harry. "But I'm learning to maintain it. Let me tell you, first of all you never do major diets. They never work. And you don't ever cut yourself off of anything totally. I have a pound of bacon twice a year. A pound. Christmas day and on my birthday. I love bacon, but it's so fucking bad for you."

I am forced to applaud in awe. "A pound?"

"I really do. Crispy. And someday, I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I am going to crawl into a hot tub -- with somebody -- into a hot tub of warm chocolate mousse. Once in my life. Once. Some people think that sounds gross."

I respond with increased applause.

"Just once in your life," asked Harry, "to be covered in chocolate? Because money isn't everything -- I mean, you don't want to be 50 years old without any -- but I have a three-letter word for money, F-U-N. Because you know, we may just have this once -- I mean, I'm not counting on another life. I would love it. But I would be wonderfully surprised if it happened."

A tip of the hat to old Herb, and cheers to that.

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

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Barry Levine

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