Distillations: Bergerac Has Great Drinks, Uninspired Atmosphere

I'd rather bite my tongue than say a bad word about the bartenders at Bergerac. When I asked the bartender to whip me up something special, they went off menu to mix rye whiskey, coconut, Campari, and a baked apple digestif that, if I heard correctly, a bartender makes himself.

And the "Unforgiven"? Mezcal with gin, rojo, spring water, Duke's Orange, and goddamn tobacco tincture?

These were some of the best drinks I've had in a while. But even so ... Bergerac reminds me of a girl I knew in New York, whom I had an unrequited crush on, named Melissa.

Shortly after she turned 26, she asked me, "Why am I not happy?"

"I have everything I'm supposed to," she said. "I have the advanced degree, the job, the husband, the house. Every box is checked off. So why am I so goddamn miserable?"

"Because," I told her, "it's not your checklist. It's a checklist somebody handed you, and you've spent your whole life checking it off without ever asking yourself 'Is this what I want?'"

It turned out her husband was also gay. But we didn't know that at the time.

Bergerac has everything that turns me on in a bar. It's upscale, with great furniture, better bartenders, and a cocktail-focused menu with bar snacks to match. You can go in and sit on a couch that smells of old leather and order duck tacos and gin cut with rose water.

But in checking off all these items, it's failed to offer anything outside the box. Bergerac has a nicely understated Rolling Stones theme that could be interesting (its design imitates the French mansion where the Stones recorded Exile on Main St.) — but instead it comes across as its own cover band. We didn't admire the Stones for their technical competence: We loved them for their wild rock 'n' roll energy, which Bergerac has in no way managed to harness because it's so focused on being the perfect "upscale cocktail bar." The Stones weren't afraid of being raw.

The night before I went to Bergerac, some friends of mine threw a "Miracle Fruit" party. About 150 people walked into a vacant office space on Mission and ate these berries that — no joke — alter your taste buds so that sour tastes sweet, and sweet sour. We ate the berries and then tried out lemons and pineapples and pickles. I took a shot of balsamic vinegar — it was bizarre for my nose to be telling me one thing and my tongue another. The whole world was different. And all it took was $100 worth of berries and some cheap produce.

What made it work was inspiration, the difference between following a map and going on a treasure hunt. A map tells you exactly what to expect; a treasure hunt promises something interesting's going to happen if you put your mind to it.

It's that experience of inspiration, of having access to unexplored possibilities, that makes for a great bar. Having all the customary pieces in place and then polishing them 'til they glisten like a silver dollar isn't inspired, just shiny.

Bergerac is a very good bar, and in smaller markets it's fine to coast on good food and great drinks. But San Francisco likes treasure hunts. Even the very good bars are competing against a population given to inspiration. Not just in bars but in everything: the same way TV shows have to compete against YouTube and Xboxes, bars in S.F. have to compete against Miracle Fruit parties and video installations and outlaw poetry readings in the back of a warehouse where they pass a bottle around.

And most of these things are crap — but enough of them are truly inspired to be dangerous to a bar like Bergerac, no matter how nice the drinks and couches. It seems terrified of the very spontaneous energy that made the Stones famous. Instead Bergerac is going through the motions, the bar equivalent of a TV rerun. Even if it's a very good show, why watch a rerun when there's always a genius having a party in the back of a box truck, or a brilliant sound technician who's rigged up a basement?

Maybe these are growing pains. Bergerac is a new bar, it can take time for things to come together. After our talk, Melissa got a divorce, found a new job, started dating a sports writer, and stopped talking to me. She's much happier. Good things come when you put the checklist down and see what you want to do for your own sake. If it can get around "being good" and reach "inspiration," Bergerac will be a force to be reckoned with. But not before.

Inspiration, like an unrequited crush, is harsh that way.

 
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