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The Beauty Bar thinks it's cool, which is exactly why it isn't

Wednesday, Nov 24 2004
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We were debating whether or not she was Paris Hilton. She was long and thin with a neat ponytail down her back and a brimmed hat pulled rakishly over one eye. She brushed by me in painted jeans. She had to be just 21. She was at the Beauty Bar on Mission and she was dancing to a Prince remix the way a young lady dances when she's shy and hasn't had enough drinks to do the Freak. But she would. Oh yes, she would. And I would be there. Watching ... waiting ....

OK gross, not that last part.

"Let's get the fuck out of here," said my companion, Floyd, whom I had never seen down a drink so fast. "I'm not cool enough for this joint." I assured him that anyone with a paperweight collection is cool in my book.

The place was semipacked, and a series of DJs were lined up for the night, ready to spin the likes of Prince, Cheap Trick, the Cars, and other such groovy indie schmaltz. The long, dark bar was being held up by an interesting retinue of Interpol fans, dudes wearing AC/DC belt buckles, and people who think that Evan Dando never made enough solo albums. In retrospect, I can't see why Floyd wasn't more comfortable. I ordered a well whiskey and Floyd ordered a tall something or other and was quite miffed when he instead got a double. "Take a note that the bartenders don't know what they are doing." Noted. As for my well whiskey, well, it tasted like it had been newly pulled from one.

Floyd is quite possibly the most jaded person in this city. However, methinks he has a point about the Beauty Bar. It is too "cool," and as we all know, if you know you are cool, you ain't cool.

Let's get one thing straight about "cool" and "hip." I can't stress this enough: People, to be cool or hip, one must appear to have fallen into it quite by accident. By this I mean it cannot appear forced. In fact, to really pull it off, one must make no pretense to being cool or hip at all, and for God's sake don't use those words -- "cool," "hip" -- to describe it. (See, that was very unhip of me just now.)

Cool and hip are by their very nature inherently passive. At least they should appear that way. Lots of work probably went into your look, but if it comes off like you really gave it a good effort, you might as well be shopping at Wal-Mart and listening to Jimmy Buffett.

I don't mean to sound pretentious. Believe me, you don't have to be a star, baby, to be in my show. But I think that places that market themselves as being hip, like the Beauty Bar, which just celebrated its sixth birthday in S.F. (the owners also have Beauty Bars in L.A. and New York), are clueless. If you have to say you are hip, you are not hip. Case in point, a nugget from the S.F. Beauty Bar Web site: "A mix of glamour and glitz has made this scene into a local favorite among the young and the beautiful." This is not a clip from a review; someone from the bar wrote that himself. Not cool.

That said, the place is cute. The lighting is perfect, the design is pretty, and I do dig the shtick. The owner has purchased old '50s and early '60s beauty salon equipment and installed it in each of his bars. The San Francisco spot, for example, is culled from a salon in Long Island. Manicures are given out at happy hour and drinks are named after various hair-care products (or Warren Beatty movies) like "Shampoo" and "Prell." I dare say this idea was officially cool for about six months.

But what I realized when I watched the people come and go that night was that this sort of manufactured coolness is nothing short of Chuck E. Cheese for hipsters. Let me explain.

First, Floyd and I figured that a bar like this doesn't have a whole lot of regulars. It's not a "watering hole." The Beauty Bar depends on special occasions. It is where people go for their bachelorette party, divorce settlement, or birthday. While Chuck's has the furry robot jug band, the Beauty Bar has live DJs, but both have that same "goin' to Disneyland" feel. Besides special-occasion revelers, the barflies this night were made up of out-of-towners who wanted to "rock 'n' roll in the big city" or just-turned-21s who'd heard about this wacky place where you can get a manicure and the guys are hot. (OK, so I don't know what this has to do with Chuck's, except for the Cheesy factor.)

Second, no one goes to Chuck E. Cheese for the pizza. And no one comes to the Beauty Bar for the drinks.

Another commonality may be financial. According to Floyd, the Beauty Bar has been up for sale on and off with no takers. Chuck E. Cheese filed for Chapter 11 awhile back. Perhaps them who depend on the cake of birthdays should make a wish and blow out the candles.

But the final thing this place has in common with the pizza chain is that everyone there was having a blast. Strangers came up to us and toasted our glasses, the dance area was full of people, and the bartenders were all smiley. Let's face it, Floyd and I needed to lighten up.

Nah. That place is sooooo lame.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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