Spying on the new Bruno's

A good friend of mine who is a booking agent has a theory about club owners, and it's a simple one: Most of them are batshit crazy. They may have gotten into the field for cool reasons, like a love of music and an interest in business. However, after a few years, contends my source, they go all freaky-deaky. Sometimes it's cocaine, or sometimes it's the insanity that comes from being forever on the brink of bankruptcy, or sometimes it's having to hear Bud E. Love one too many times. It could be any number of things ... but unfortunately, all too often, it's true. Club owners are pretty nutty.

Now, that said, I'm not going to call the people who used to run Bruno's in the Mission batshit crazy. I don't know them. I don't know if they were sane or insane, sober or drunk, Aquarian or Leo. All I know is that Bruno's was one of those places that always seemed to be teetering on the edge of destruction. Musician friends who played there were constantly talking about how it was probably going to close. Little things went untended. For example, the security there sure seemed lax - you could easily sneak in the back door for a show, for instance.

The inside of the place was really cool, though, very '60s-Sinatra-chic and cozy. The décor, when combined with Bruno's perpetually impending demise, lent the joint a quiet desperation that codependents like myself couldn't help but fall in love with.

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Now Bruno's is under new ownership, so I decided to check 'er out and see if the trusty but not-too-seaworthy ship I remembered was still sinking.

When I walked in, a punk rock guy with a Crass sweatshirt was drinking a pintful of vodka at the bar. OK, good sign. A lone cocktail waitress was leaning against a chair. No one else was there except for the bartender and a few cooks shuffling in and out of the kitchen. A big-ass bowl of chips and salsa was on the long center bar table, and smoove trip-hop was playing softly in the background. The two TVs that flanked the bar were playing some '60s Mario Bava-style Our Man Flint knockoff. "OK," I thought to myself, "So they are going for a hipster lounge thing. Gotcha."

I sat down and ordered a salty dog. The new designers of the place had indeed done a good job. Bruno's has the same brown-and-orange color scheme and the same den-like feel that it did before, only it smells better and looks more upscale. I still wasn't sure if I liked it, though. In fact, I started to feel like I was in a hotel lobby for some reason. It was too clean, too airy, too, well, too sane.

The bartender was busily cutting fruit and washing dishes. She was a chatty one, however, and it didn't take me long to squeeze some information out of her. Basically, the new owners sound pretty hard-core. The bartender wasn't allowed to give away free drinks, ever, for any reason. To me, that's what makes a bar good ... not just for the obvious reason, but because it's a way for a bartender to acknowledge your patronage and pay you back. Second, she couldn't drink on the job, nor could she make herself a free drink when her shift was done. "There are security cameras all over," she told me, pointing up into the rafters with her chef's knife. Wow. Security cameras? Watching the bartenders? Something told me I wasn't going to be able to sneak through the back door anymore.

The spy-car on the TV turned into a boat and skedaddled out of a cave. The man next to me, who had wandered in during my interrogation, made an Our Man Flint joke. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a big smile. He was a bartender himself, at a dive in the Sunset. Suffice it to say that his place doesn't have security cameras. "You have to give away drinks!" he chimed in. "It's part of the business! You just have to have a bartender who doesn't overdo it. There's a balance." From there we all discussed the various merits of being a good bartender ... which came down to someone who keeps you coming back.

"Well, hey," said our bartender with a wink, "they won't let me give away drinks, but they can't stop me from being a good pourer." (I had indeed noticed that my vodka cocktail was hitting me rather hard.)

Despite all the strict rules, the bartender liked her job, mostly because her paychecks always cleared.

Still, there is something unsettling about applying a business model to a bar. I don't like to think of bars as purely money-making enterprises. Sure, there is someone behind the place who is making a living, but a good hangout should feel more like a lemonade stand than a Jamba Juice, you know?

I went over to the chips that were piled on a tray and took a handful, upsetting the symmetry, which seemed somehow uncouth. I thought I felt a security camera slowly turn, red light blinking, zooming in on my hands. A busboy peeked out of the kitchen window.

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