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It's hard to say why some businesses do well, while others do not. I've watched enough Gordon Ramsay shows to know that the secret to success starts with a manager at the helm whose head is not completely up his or her ass. Kitchen Nightmares and Hotel Hell actually make owning a business look pretty easy, if you keep it clean, have decent food, and don't, under any circumstances, work with members of your family.
One Hallidie Plaza
San Francisco, CA 94102
Region: Union Square/ Financial District
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The Cable Car City Pub, at the top of Hallidie Plaza, is a neon-signed sports bar that looks like part of a strip mall. It used to be the City Pub, and I panned the place a few years ago for being too sterile and uninviting. Yelpers agreed, citing a "putrid smell," "douchebags" on the premises, waiters who disappeared for long stretches, and "pile of crap" food that one review said he wouldn't eat "if I stumbled out of Auschwitz." (Cue Wanda Sykes: "Day-amn!")
Not surprisingly, it closed down briefly, only to be reopened as the Cable Car. So, I had to go back and see if it was any better. It had nowhere to go but up.
Here's what it has going for it: location. It's right next to the BART station, which means you can not only get drunk and then stumble into the subway, but you can gaze out of the window while you drink and watch the debauched opera unfold outside: teenagers on a day pass, drug dealers, tourists, gypsies, tramps, and thieves. Here's what it doesn't have going for it: much else. Yes friends, this place is still incredibly lame, and no locals will ever make it a regular stop. It's a loud, raucous sports bar with mediocre food and generally brain-dead staff. When I walked in, one of the waiters just sort of stared at me, his arms crossed in front of his chest. I pointed to a table and he barely nodded, with all the sobriety of a medieval executioner.
Once I settled in I did manage to get a really nice waitress. But I wanted to take her aside and give her a pep talk about getting out of the place and making her dreams come true. It's possible that she has Stockholm syndrome, though, and is too far gone.
The Niners were playing a football game on the TV, so every few minutes the entire place would erupt into a mega-woot. It was jam-packed and bustling, something that the previous incarnation could never pull off. I watched a table of young girls get up every 15 minutes to smoke. They left their boyfriends during key points in the game, so I don't think they really wanted to be there. They would paddle outside, light up, and look seductive, as I waited for randoms to wander up to them and start a conversation or ask for money. These ladies were not schooled in how to blow people off, and nine times out of 10 they simply put their cigarettes out and scooted back inside to avoid dealing with the pests. Out-of-towners.
The plates of food parading by looked pretty good, so I ordered the potato skins. The Cable Car Pub is a big cafeteria, basically, and I felt dwarfed at my little table by the massive front window. Still, it was nicer than my previous experience. Bodies tend to make a place more inviting.
When the skins came, I could hear Gordon saying, "Oh dear, oh dear." They were tiny and shriveled, and despite being topped with bacon and cheddar, they were bland. How do you screw up potato skins? This place was cursed.
I glanced back outside and there she was: the lady with the tattoos on her face who picks fights with everyone. I had been on the 71 bus with her a few days before, where she accused an 11-year-old child with his mom of stealing her drugs. Then she accused the woman next to her of grabbing her butt as she sat down.
Oh, this would be good.
Sure enough, in about two minutes, the she-brigade headed back outside to smoke, and very soon invaded the space of Inkface. They didn't even have a chance to light up before she started in on them. Hands on her hips, tribal tattoos bulging, she read them the riot act about, well, who knows. The girls just stood there with looks on their faces that were a mixture of frightened and smart-ass. Just then the Niners scored a touchdown, and the whole restaurant exploded, which gave Inkface pause and our heroines a chance to skedaddle back to their booth. The woman shuffled after them, but decided against entering the Cable Car City Pub. Maybe she had read the Yelp reviews? She stood just beyond the window from yours truly, and slowly turned her head so that our eyes locked. Normally I do not make eye contact with the reality-challenged, but something compelled me. She stared at me like I was her long-lost daughter, or perhaps a giant bag of meth. Neither of us blinked. She raised up her hand slowly, and delicately fluttered her fingers. She was waving at me, and she appeared completely lucid. It was like she was letting me in on the joke. Then she walked away.
When I looked back out at the sea of bridge-and-tunnelers, I felt like I had landed on some strange planet where everyone wears football jerseys but just sits there and screams instead of playing. What a quaint little metaphor for life.
"Anything else?" asked my waitress.
"Nope," I replied.
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