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The Familiar Charms of Smuggler’s Cove 

Wednesday, May 11 2011

I suppose the argument could be made that the world needs another tiki bar, especially after the sad demise of the Tonga Room. Cocktail purists will decry the idea as sooo 1990s, but who needs them and their faded Gearhead tattoos, anyway? S.F.'s latest has set up shop (hut?) in Hayes Valley; it's called Smuggler's Cove. I have a soft spot for these kinds of places, except for the fact that they attract amateurs, birthday parties, and moderate Republicans.

In the same vein as bars that choose one spirit and run with it (tequila, whiskey, etc.), rum is the focus of Smuggler's Cove. It ain't a bad idea, because there are some mighty tasty ones out there, and some even tastier concoctions that come from the "exotic" fermentation. Throw in our city's new love of boutique, gourmet booze mixing, and prepare to pay the folks at this concept bar at least $10 per drink. (Even more for punchbowls full to share with your friends.)

When I walked into Smuggler's Cove, it was so dark that it took several seconds for my eyes to adjust. This, combined with the fact that Yma Sumac was warbling loudly over the sound system, combined to almost send me sailing down the staircase that sits to the right of the door and leads to the lower level. I have certainly fallen out of a few bars, but falling into one is a different story. I teetered there for a while, trying to figure out which of the three levels my friends would have picked. The upstairs won out, and sure enough, there they were, sitting on the banquette and perusing the menu.

Do I really need to describe the decor? Colored-glass hurricane lanterns, dried grass gimcrackery, coffee tables made out of faux rum barrels, and an all-together yo-ho-ho shtick. Nothing to complain about.

We decided what we were getting and took turns going downstairs to order. I went first, and squeezed into the last remaining opening at the bar. The bartender looked like Jack Tripper on vacation, which was awesome. I told him to give me something "bamboozley." Without skipping a beat, he began to grab bottles from hither and yon. He poured everything into a long metal cup, then whirred it in a blender. When he was done, he dotted it with an orchid blossom. Dang. I tasted it immediately, to see what I was getting into. It was delicious, with pineapple and ginger. Good drinks will be the saving grace of this place, elevating it from a short-lived den of kitsch to something that just might have staying power.

Some loud guys in a group were giving each other shit and backslapping, talking about the strangest drinks they had ever tried. "Have you had a Bushwhacker?" a completely bald dude asked them. There is a point when you are a female at a bar and you realize that you are the only woman in a room full of inebriated men. This is what Robert Frost would describe as a fork in the road, a place where you can make a decision as to which way you want to go: Stay, and perhaps be lifted up like Marilyn Monroe in the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes dance number, or run back upstairs to the safety and security of your friends. (Or be groped.)

They all kept talking about the Bushwhacker. "Oohhh, shit! That will fuck you up!" said the fellow who could only be called Shorty. I was surprised that any drink would be worthy of an entire conversation spaced over several minutes. They were just discussing the actual drink, mind you, and not what it made you do, or what they had done under its influence.

Baldy looked at me and asked if I had tried one. "There will be no bushwhacking in my presence," I replied, in an attempt to be, I suppose, Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The joke, however, went right over the guy's smooth little head and the heads of those assembled, which was odd, because I expected them to chortle and elbow themselves to death after I uttered it. Either that or — and this is a long shot, I admit — they were being gentlemen. I refuse to believe that it was because it was a lame joke.

I took my drink upstairs and realized why I don't often go to bars like this anymore: In general, they are for people who want to get completely wasted and act like idiots. Though Trad'r Sam's has the lock on morons with tiny umbrellas in their hair, Smuggler's Cove is soon to be runner-up. I myself am a buffoon, and I put my orchid in the buttonhole of my Levi's jacket. My other friends took their turns wandering downstairs to get a drink, each one returning with the same question: "What's with the creepy bald guy?" I tried to explain that I had given him ample opportunity to be really creepy and he had not done so, but my words found no purchase. Such is the fate of the middle-aged, loud bald guys of the world: You cannot draw attention to yourselves in any way, especially when Martin Denny is playing in the background. Your fate as the familiar oddball is sealed.

I suppose you can say the same for tiki bars.

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Katy St. Clair

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